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The Messenger’s launch is a throwback to the internet’s earlier days.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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May 29, 2023
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Media

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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where newsletter signups are the new traffic.

I’m in the waning phases of what used to be called a book tour, and is now a podcast marathon, for my new book, which is called “Traffic.”

It’s been strange to return to the utopian days of early internet media at another moment of dramatic change. And I was more than ready to turn my attention back to the splintering, wildly different present.

But this week’s column is about the great survivor of that earlier era, Neetzan Zimmerman. He hovers around the edge of my book and is now in the center of a new media venture called The Messenger, which has gotten a wave of puzzled and mostly negative attention for its obsession with quantity over quality.

Neetzan is the internet media cult figure behind that, the key to understanding both what they’re doing and what traffic even means now.

ALSO this week, Linda Yaccarino considers a trip to Cannes; the climate newsletter one5c finds a new home; and a great British journalist explains that country’s enduring American obsession.

Box Score
ANP via Getty Images)

Bristol: The pressure is on media companies to make streaming profitable. ESPN’s stream is going to be expensive. — WSJ

San Francisco: Can’t argue with Kara: The DeSantis spaces debacle was followed by old-style talk radio and cable appearances that worked better and made more sense. The media business is hard, and “these goofballs are so poor at media that all they have to offer is money.” — @karaswisher

Brooklyn: Some Vice shareholders blame investor TPG for its disastrous state, saying the private equity firm’s terms were unreasonable and that it then stood by while the company collapsed. — FT

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Ben Smith

Neetzan Zimmerman’s last hurrah

THE NEWS

Months before the launch of The Messenger’s news website earlier in May, its newly minted Chief Growth Officer, Neetzan Zimmerman, sought to recruit BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos and The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz, among others.

Zimmerman, himself a star of the meme-happy early days of online media 15 years earlier, told them he was trying to build a team of stars to recapture the best of the old blogosphere.

He also mentioned to one potential recruit that he was in a hurry. He wanted to get the hires in place before the publication’s founder, Jimmy Finkelstein, hired an editor-in-chief who could overrule him.

The Messenger launched two weeks ago promising huge traffic and centrist politics. The site’s traffic-mongering style drew puzzlement from its peers, and three editors quit abruptly, complaining that Zimmerman had them mindlessly, unreasonably churning out stories.

KNOW MORE

The high-profile launch turned the 41-year-old, who lives in San Diego with his wife, daughter, and corgi, into a figure of some fascination in American journalism, well beyond the lost online world where he was an early star.

But to understand what’s happening requires returning to 2008, when the hot media property was a venture-backed meme site called “I Can Has Cheezburger?”

Cheezburger founder Ben Huh, hungry for more traffic, thought he could find some on Zimmerman’s blog, The Daily What, which was feeding memes to the masses.

“The dude had a tolerance from pain that was higher than anyone I’d ever seen,” recalled Huh in an interview from Brazil, where he was at an offsite for his Web3 project. He was impressed by the long hours Zimmerman pulled at his desk, in a state of total focus. “He was the birth of human-API journalism.”

Cheezburger acquired The Daily What for a reported five-figure sum (those were the days), along with stories that were sometimes irresistible, and sometimes both salacious and incredibly stupid.

(Headlines that repelled Semafor’s editorial assistant when I asked her to trawl his archives last week included: “Two Raccoons Get Busy in Family’s Backyard” and “Australian Woman Flashes Google Street View Car.”)

“It might be that right now, people don’t care about stories about cats that much, and instead, sloths are more popular,” he explained to a fascinated Farhad Manjoo. “So I’ll have a rule — cats are out, sloths are in, focus on sloths because that’s going to be your meal ticket.”

Meanwhile, the competition for traffic was heating up across the internet. In January of 2012, Gawker’s editor, A.J. Daulerio, announced an experiment in which each editor would be assigned a day of “traffic-whoring duty,” posting clicky nonsense so the others could work on more serious stuff.

Gawker hired Zimmerman, who was soon responsible for more than 90% of its traffic, staffers recalled. He wrote the top post of 2013: “Here’s The First Clip From Farrah Abraham’s ‘Sex Tape’ [NSFW].”

When he left in 2014, Gawker editors panicked. But he was happy to share his formula for finding hot stories and jumping on them — he’d written openly about it. It turned out to be fairly easy to copy, and traffic mostly held up.

The owner of The Hill, Jimmy Finkelstein, hired Zimmerman in 2015 to bring the fusty Beltway newspaper into the traffic game. There, he perfected that formula: One side gets the traffic while the other generates the prestige.

The Hill was the fastest-growing site that year, and Finkelstein sold it for $130 million in 2021, in part on the strength of its traffic.

BEN’S VIEW

Zimmerman and The Messenger got a skeptical reaction from many of their peers because they’re throwbacks — most immediately, to an era in which news sites grew large by harvesting traffic from Facebook and Google.

Now Facebook focuses on serving videos, and AI chatbots are posing an existential threat to the search business.

Zimmerman told me he survived the shifting internet, in part, because he never viewed the search for traffic as some kind of technical trick to game Facebook or Google.

“If you understand that platforms come and go, and that your primary responsibility is to provide your reader with interesting, engaging, and accessible information regardless of where they happen to be, then you will always be one step ahead of those forces that are beyond your control,” he said in an email.

But his endurance is, I think, also because he never developed a distinct voice or a brand or point of view. His biography — he was raised on a left-leaning kibbutz and did his compulsory service for the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza before moving to the U.S. to study at Boston University — seems incidental. The most memorable things he has written are about his own philosophies of traffic.

One friend of Zimmerman’s recently told me he is “the most cynical person I know in the business.”

And that was, in the end, an Achilles heel of the traffic era of media. If the thing you’re best at is reflecting the audience back to itself — what’s your identity?

And the Messenger’s launch is quixotic because it seems built simply to hold a mirror up to that mass audience, presenting clicks as centrism.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t see the appeal, and even the charm. Discovering things online, and sharing them with others, is a generational habit. The Messenger tends toward lurid crime, not harmless fun. When I glanced Sunday night at the home page, Zimmerman’s hand was visible.

Fans Remember Harambe 7 Years After Death in Gorilla Enclosure,” the second headline in the right column announced.

Reader, I clicked.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

The conventional wisdom about the death of scaled digital media is premature, said Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners for whom Zimmerman briefly worked.

“AI isn’t going to stop people using social; folks always overestimate the speed of change because habits change slower than technology does,” he said in an email.

NOTABLE

  • Zimmerman’s 2012 “This Is How You Make Something Go Viral: An Impractical Guide is a glimpse at that era’s internet, and at the inside of the author’s mind: “In the end, the Internet will always tell you what you need to know because it is a digital extension of the world writ large, and out there, as in here, the greatest story will always be retold.”
  • Finkelstein talked to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo last week. The Messenger is “not a tabloid…It is a very serious publication that will also have lots of fun articles in it.”
  • In 2013, Gawker’s founder Nick Denton raised questions about the veracity of one of Zimmerman’s viral stories. “People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole,” Zimmerman responded.

— with additional reporting by Emily Nadal

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One Good Text

A couple of new podcasts have raced to the center of British politics over the last year, with no obvious American equivalent. Now the top-rated The News Agents is launching a weekly show focused on American politics.

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Intel
Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Cannes Lions

Cannes watch: Linda Yaccarino’s biggest job will be to revive the company’s ruined ad business, which hit $5 billion in 2021. But ad executives and Twitter salespeople aren’t sure if she’ll get to the company in time to make the ad industry extravaganza at Cannes in late June. It’s also unclear whether it would be the right first stop for Yaccarino, as she tries to make clear to her industry and to her boss that she’s CEO, not just the head of sales.

(If you’re going to Cannes Lions, or following the ad industry gathering there in late June, sign up for Semafor’s special daily newsletter.)

Fox leaks: It’s been universally assumed (including by Tucker Carlson) that recent embarrassing video leaks were part of a campaign against Carlson by Fox’s management. Maybe not. The FBI is investigating an alleged hack, and searched the Tampa home of a well-known progressive video guy, Tim Burke, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Climate (media) optimism: Fragment, the low-key Austin-based publisher of the Daily Dot and the science magazine Nautilus, has acquired Joe Brown’s climate newsletter one5c. Brown left a top job at Hearst to launch it in 2021 on the premise “that small but meaningful tweaks to our everyday lives can add up to world-saving change.” An ebullient Brown told me the deal means the brand will be growing faster beyond a newsletter, and Fragment founder Nicholas White said in a statement that the deal “puts our literal money where our mouth is.”

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Reader’s View
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about how we “shy egomaniacs” are drawn to Donald Trump because he’s obsessed with us.

A reader writes:

“One of Trump’s dark arts is his accessibility. I used to work for an online golf publication and we knew Trump would ALWAYS return our calls. Anytime we needed his take on something, our editor would tell us to call Trump. Trump, as much as we loathed him, always would talk to us. He made us feel important.”

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— Ben

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