We have an answer to the tech publishing world’s version of And Then There Were None: the core team formerly known as Engadget has surfaced as the expansion franchise for SB Nation. Jim Bankoff, CEO of the DC-based startup, has had expansion to new verticals in mind from the start. He also was the lead in the deal for Weblogs Inc. that brought Engadget to AOL (NYSE: AOL). When the tech team started peeling off one by one after AOL’s $315 million acquisition of Huffington Post, Bankoff saw his chance.
He approached each individually and started to assemble enough editing, writing and tech talent to form the nucleus of a new tech vertical. Joshua Topolsky, who resigned as editor of Engadget last month, will be editor-in-chief of the new site; seven other alums are joining, too. “When I heard they were leaving I reached out,” Bankoff said in an interview via (irony alert) AIM. “I knew many of them. We got to talking. There was trust there.”
This isn’t just about sports, or tech, or lone silos. What we will build together at SB Nation is a new media company – buoyed by the absolutely incredible work SB Nation has already done in publishing – and part of that new media company will be the as-yet-unnamed gadget and technology site that I’ll be working over the next few months to create.
The timing couldn’t be better for SB Nation, which literally has the money in the bank for expansion after raising $23.5 million and a scalable content management system already built (and tested). That CMS and SB Nation’s commitment to developing innovative publishing tools played a large role in Topolsky’s decision.
They’re building for the web as it is now. From the perspective of a journalist who also happens to be a huge nerd, that’s a match made in heaven. SBN isn’t just another media company pushing news out – it’s a testbed and lab for some of the newest and most interesting publishing tools I’ve ever seen.
Different models But the models for SB Nation and whatever they wind up calling the new gadget/tech site differ greatly. SB Nation started as AthleticsNation.com, a federation of fan sites co-founded by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Tyler Bleszinski (currently editorial director). As CEO, Bankoff has expanded the network to 300 blogs, including acquisitions, and enhancing fan writing with 400-plus paid writers. He also built a strong core national site at sbnation.com, hiring nationally known writers who in turn drive traffic back out to the city and team blogs.
“We’ve developed a bunch of great product technology to enable it and have hired some outstanding writers both from within our network and outside it (like Rob Neyer). Seeing that model and that technology work so well made us realize we had leverage in the platform,” Bankoff said.
Bankoff knows the value of technology as a topic — and as the nerve system of online publishing. Engadget was the crown jewel of Weblogs Inc. when AOL acquired it in 2005 from Jason Calacanis and Brian Alvey during Jon Miller’s tenure as CEO. The CMS it all ran on wasn’t part of the deal though; Blogsmith was a separate company. Post-Miller, Bankoff had to make the case to new CEO Randy Falco for the estimated $5 million it took to buy Blogsmith. (I wish I’d been able to eavesdrop on that conversation.)
The new site, which Bankoff hopes to launch in the fall, may wind up as a small network with various offshoots but it will be based on a strong core. What makes it different from Weblogs or Gizmodo parent Gawker? “I have great admiration for both of those companies but just like SB Nation as a sports property is different, broader, bigger than a sports blog, we anticipate that the tech site will be different too.” Could the new tech site create its own federation of niche tech sites? “Maybe down the line, yes, but first things first.” He didn’t want to discuss the size of the initial investment, but said the New York-based venture will be lean. My estimate, based on other sites, is about $750,000 to $1 million for the first year.
Bankoff wouldn’t confirm that: “I will say that we are only doing this because we can dramatically grow our sports investment and still do this without missing any growth or opportunity in sports on the revenue side.”
While others fixate on the difference between sports and tech, Bankoff looks at what they have in common. SB Nation stopped relying on other networks for sales last year and started to build up its own sales force. “Nearly all of our advertisers are looking for young, tech savvy affluent males so there is great overlap and expansion opportunity there.”
The AOL factor: The Engadget alums left for different reasons in a short span of time, some stressing frustration with AOL, others, including Topolsky, insisting that AOL had never interfered with it editorially. The AOL Way, the powerpoint presentation that spelled out how to write and edit for traffic and laid out various procedures, was Exhibit A for the former. Current CEO Tim Armstrong has said it was never aimed at Engadget, that it was about giving others at AOL a better understanding of what Engadget and the other Weblogs Inc. sites already knew how to do.
But that was just one of a series of reminders about how little control an individual site or its leaders can have at a big company, even one of the busiest tech sites. AOL acquired TechCrunch in the fall; its founder Michael Arrington and Topolsky wound up arguing publicly. AOL reorganized its content setup multiple times and the executive team turned over. The leaked AOL Way, whether or not it applied to Engadget directly, seemed to equate journalism and SEO (despite the insistence of Armstrong and then AOL Media President David Eun to the contrary). Then Armstrong bought HuffingtonPost.com with the condition that Arianna Huffington lead the content side of the company and Engadget became part of the Huffington Post Media Group.
David Carr suggests AOL’s problem here is that it knows how to acquire but not to keep the assets. It’s not that simple for me. AOL managed to keep a lot of people longer than I would have expected through a series of transitions, including much of the Engadget team, and Armstrong is firm believer in keeping the talent and founders when AOL buys a company. But AOL has other issues heightened by the HuffPo acquisition. For all the talk of hiring quality journalists — and I do believe Armstrong and Huffington are sincere — they also fired a lot of people who had stuck with AOL, many of them quality journalists. That can have a sharp effect on loyalty and trust for those who remain. Topolsky addressed another issue in his post:
But beyond the technology (and possibly more important than the technology), there’s another factor here that’s driving my decision. It’s that SB Nation believes in real, independent journalism and the potential for new media to serve as an answer and antidote to big publishing houses and SEO spam – a point we couldn’t be more aligned on.