- After founding The Outline, Josh Topolsky is going back to his tech roots with his new publication, Input.
- Fred Hayes/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
- Josh Topolsky, the founder of The Outline, is creating a new technology-focused publication called Input.
- The announcement comes after The Outline was criticized for laying off its writing staff and relying on freelancers.
- Topolsky said he planned to use full-timers to staff Input as well as The Outline, though.
One morning in late 2018, Josh Topolsky, the founder of the digital culture publication The Outline, was reading coverage of Apple’s most recent event in September, along with other tech stories in the news, and found it wanting.
He says he asked himself, “Why do I feel empty?”
“There’s a lot of stories that are recycled PR,” Topolsky told Business Insider. “There’s supposed to be a follow-up, but you never hear the follow-up. They are informational pieces without opinion.”
The dissatisfaction led Topolsky to create a new tech-focused publication, called Input. The launch takes Topolsky back to his roots in tech journalism: He was editor-in-chief of Engadget and cofounded The Verge before leaving for a top editing spot at Bloomberg Media. After a reported dispute with Bloomberg LP’s founder, Michael Bloomberg, Topolsky set out on his own, founding The Outline and its parent company, Independent Media, in 2016.
But Input’s launch is clouded by a crowded tech media market and The Outline’s own controversies. The Outline, which was described as a “New Yorker for Millennials” before its launch, laid off its entire writing staff in September, leading some to suggest the company was adopting a gig-based approach.
Topolsky said the layoffs resulted from overprojecting revenue and characterized them as a normal part of running a startup. “I think we can agree that we’ve had our challenges,” he said. “This isn’t a business where anyone’s getting rich.”
Input enters a crowded market
- Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards
With recently launched verticals such as The Verge and Motherboard and established outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN Business expanding their tech coverage, Input faces a lot of competition.
Topolsky maintains that Input, which doesn’t have an official launch date, will be different from other tech publications, saying, “I want something different that feels and sounds and looks different.”
In the publication’s launch letter, he skewered the state of tech journalism, writing that “tech news as we know it has become obvious and predictable” and claiming that “no one seems to be asking the right questions.”
“We’re making a new thing. Something that asks different questions, finds different answers, and is honest with its audience,” he wrote.
When speaking with INSIDER, Topolsky held firm to the notion that he had a novel perspective to bring to the table with his publication, saying, “To be perfectly clear, this is a space this has been a space that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life thinking and talking about and working in, so I feel like I’ve got some perspective on it that has some value.”
Topolsky said Input would operate at a faster pace than The Outline, which publishes three to five pieces a day. Topolsky plans to contribute to the site frequently. Input will provide opinion and analysis around platforms, services, products, platforms, and their implications, he said.
“I want to get back into talking about technology at the consumer level: How does this impact human beings?” he said. “What’s your day-to-day impact of it? When Tim Cook gets up to talk about the new Apple products, what is he really saying?”
He called the current media environment “really noisy,” saying “it would be nice to have shape to that noise.”
Coming out of controversy
- The Outline marked itself as “different” in part by using out-of-the-box graphic design.
- The Outline
Input comes after a bumpy year at The Outline, the publication’s sister site.
In 2018, The Outline let go of its video team and then the editorial staff of its Power section. Topolsky faced intense criticism after publicly saying the Power-section employees were fired for underperformance, something for which he later apologized. In his interview with Business Insider, Topolsky said apologized again for “sending a really dumb inappropriate email in haste to a reporter without thinking about two employees who we had let go,” but maintained that the cuts weren’t layoffs. “There have been writers who have come and gone, editors who have come and gone, lots of different people who have done lots of different jobs. At a startup, there’s high turnover and we’re not different,” he said.
Sources close to the matter say this is still a point of dispute between the employees and The Outline, noting that Topolsky never rehired for the roles.
The Outline laid off six staff members in September, including its remaining staff writers. Critics suspected The Outline of adopting a gig-based model.
Topolsky attributed the most recent layoffs to an overprojection of revenue, which he connected to changes in revenue personnel and how the company was selling advertising in The Outline. “We had a change in our revenue leadership in the early months of the year and we had projections for revenue that ended up being more choppy than we thought they’d be,” Topolsky explained. Ultimately, he downplayed the cuts, saying “businesses contract and expand on a regular basis.” The Outline has been relying on freelancers since then.
In response, members of a writers’ group called Study Hall pledged not to write for the publication, arguing that Topolsky and the cuts devalued writers. “The Outline was promising to be different, to hold power to account,” the Study Hall leader PE Moskowitz told Business Insider. “And then to play into all these dynamics is just very disappointing.”
Topolsky denied that the company was replacing staff members with freelancers, saying 70 to 80% of The Outline’s content had always come from freelancers. He said he planned to hire a dedicated editor in 2019 and eventually hire staff writers again.
“We’re not trying to make up with it by just having freelancers,” Topolsky said. “We’re publishing fewer stories and we’re focusing on the stories that are the essays, feature stories, the longer lead-time stories.”
Making Input a reality
- Input will be The Outline’s sister site, with a focus on technology.
- Independent Media
The announcement of Input comes at a punishing time for ad-supported media, with Mic recently selling at a fire sale and BuzzFeed cutting 15% of its staff, among other cutbacks.
Independent Media has raised $10.2 million in two funding rounds, the last of which officially closed in May 2018. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, most of the money in the round was actually delivered months earlier. The round was reportedly kept open for a potential acquisition of the Observer that would provide capital for the company. Critics have speculated about how the cuts at The Outline reflect on the state of Independent Media’s finances.
Current and former employees have been described as “stunned” and surprised at the news of a new publication following so closely after layoffs.
Topolsky says the new publication will be funded by the remaining venture money and ad revenue, noting that December was the company’s best ad-revenue month ever, and he told Business Insider he was in conversation with potential launch partners. He said the decision to eliminate staff writers at The Outline predated the one to create Input and hire writers to staff it.
As job postings show, Input is seeking a mix of contract and full-time roles. They include a full-time social-media editor, full-time news writers, a contracted slideshow editor, and contracted editorial fellows.
Topolsky says he’s eager to start the new venture and move on from The Outline’s controversy.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we’re not dead yet and we’re fighting,” he said. “We have a new thing that we’re excited about that we’re figuring out slowly but surely.’”
“We’re just trying to figure out how to make good cool things, hire people, pay them well, and run a sustainable media business that doesn’t have to publish 60 stories a day about Bella Hadid.”
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