ReCode To Vox

They couldn’t make it on their own.

Walt Mossberg, one of America’s two most famous tech columnists, shot himself in the foot. He left the “Wall Street Journal.” They’re finding out in news what we already know in music, you can go it alone, the internet allows you to do this, but in a chaotic world he with the established presence wins, the major record labels figured out the internet and the big news sites still rule.

What about BuzzFeed, and the “Huffington Post”?

The HuffPo is in decline. You can read about it in the “New York Review Of Books,” which no one opens except for intellectuals, but at least enough to keep the publication going. If you were gonna try and start a new printed book review today…FUHGETTABOUTIT!

But once upon a time the HuffPo was new and different. It focused on left wing news and link-bait, before link-bait littered every webpage you went to.

And BuzzFeed invented the listicle.

What did ReCode invent?

Absolutely nothing.

We don’t need me-too, we need new and different. And unless you’re gonna do new and different, stay where you are.

Ezra Klein left the “Washington Post.” He said his Vox site was gonna be different, and it is, a bit, but not significantly enough to gain traction.

Nate Silver left the “New York Times” for obscurity. The election prognosticator, our national data interpreter, put a stake in his heart and keeled right over. He started a whole website, 538, for data-driven articles, but the “Times” just doubled down with data and created the Upshot. Even worse, Silver didn’t realize if you’re starting from scratch you’ve got to have stars. And he’s the only star on his site. He’s earned my attention. But the rest of the writers on his site parsing the numbers…WHO ARE THEY?

And then you’ve got David Pogue, Mossberg’s nemesis, who left the “Times” for Yahoo and was promptly buried in the tsunami of bogus information on that site. He went from being one of the two experts to a nobody.

So what have we learned…

Just because you’re a star don’t think you’re bigger than the enterprise.

That’s what the film business has learned. They don’t pay stars as handsomely as they used to. As for these same stars funding their own movies… They have the twin hurdles of raising capital and distribution. Never mind having no ongoing catalog to keep them flush. That’s the movie studios’ greatest asset, as it is the record labels’, their historical product. It gives them guaranteed cash flow and bargaining power. That’s why the labels got favorable deals with Spotify…their copyrighted material!

As for records… George Michael sat on the sidelines and sued Sony and he never had another hit record. Trent Reznor did it his way and he got artistic freedom but fewer people cared, and he had to do so much himself other than create art that he ended up going back into the system.

When the world is wild and woolly, new and exciting, pioneers fight it out for eventual dominance. But once the landscape starts to coalesce…pick another venue! This is Tidal’s big mistake, not the press conference, but wading into a pool already filled with sharks.

The major labels control the modern music world. You can get started alone, you can even get some traction, but to break through big you’ve got to play with the established entities, they own radio and to a great degree publicity. Sure, you can do it your way, it’s just gonna be expensive and long. Are you up to that?

And it gets even tougher if you’ve got investors. They want their money back. They’ll pull the carpet out from under you when you least expect it, put heretofore unknown pressure upon you.

Bottom line… ReCode had the best tech news in the business. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher built a team of experts. But nobody cared, nobody went to the site, they thought their minions would follow them but it turned out they were aligned more with the “Wall Street Journal,” their former home, than the writers themselves. It’s kind of like when the lead singer leaves the band…good luck! Sure, there are exceptions, but… But now you can’t even find the new sites, you can’t get the word out. Furthermore, the “Journal” hired Joanna Stern, a cheeky tech writer who is not as good as Mossberg but oozes personality, and Christopher Mims, who’s technically sound, albeit dry. Turns out we don’t need THE expert as much as AN expert. (And the “Times” got Farhad Manjoo, who in his own way is just as good as Pogue.)

So if you’re starting something new…by all means go for it, it’s the essence of Silicon Valley.

But if you’re an individual star, chafing under the reins of your boss, believing you can go it alone…

You probably cannot. Especially if the world you live in is solidified.

“Vox Media Adds ReCode to Its Stable of Websites” (read this for the traffic numbers):

“Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?” (The HuffPo has traffic, but is in the throes of an identity crisis that presages decline):



It had a lousy name, a dot net address and a terrible website.

Sure, Mossberg and Swisher were starting all over, but they could have given themselves a fighting chance!

“AllThingsD” was a brand, never underestimate the difficulty in building one and the power in an established one. Scott Weiland was in Velvet Revolver, what acts did he populate thereafter? Velvet Revolver got some recognition, because it had multiple stars and united their individual fanbases, but after that… You’d need a chart to know who Weiland played with. As for Bill Simmons, how dumb to name the site “Grantland”! It had to be SIMMONSLAND! And he needed to own it. Instead, he built brand equity for ESPN and walked without it!

Let’s start with the number one deal-killer, ReCode’s site.

It’s like they never surfed the net before.

It wasn’t only me, everybody hated it. It was unfathomable. Didn’t Steve Jobs say design was paramount? That usability was key? Didn’t Walt and Kara interview him? Did none of his message penetrate? ReCode’s site is so busy, you can’t get the grasp without scrolling, and the headline, which was never big, was rarely important. That’s what the HuffPo has right, design. The big headline is right up front and clear. The site may not have been updated in years, but it works.

As for the name… What does it mean? Either your moniker has to indicate what you’re about, like Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, or it must relate to nothing, like Shazam or Corolla. ReCode, what is that? A place where you rewrite C++? And what’s with the forward slash in the middle…yes, technically it’s Re/Code. Most people don’t even know where that key is to type, so you’re inherently limiting discussion. Hell, even the press doesn’t get it right, every story about the sale to Vox calls it “ReCode”!

And dot net? Is it Type recode into Safari and you’ll get Google results, you won’t automatically go to the site, as you will with Amazon and the rest of the .coms.

And if you’re on mobile, and you’d prefer not to use your browser, you’ve got to remember it’s dot net. Do you know any other significant site that’s a dot net?

And speaking of mobile… ReCode’s site works a bit better there. And mobile rules. But the truth is the people into this kind of info are sitting in front of their desktops all day and want to go to the regular site. And regular surfers go back multiple times a day, to see if there’s breaking news. But nothing is emphasized, there’s nothing you can see at a glance on ReCode’s homepage.

Which brings us to another question… Are you a breaking news site or an analysis site? If it’s the former, you’ve got to have more stickiness, a reason to return. If it’s the latter… You’ve got to deliver the goods, feature something that is forwarded. But since the site’s creation I don’t ever remember forwarding a link.


The truth is ReCode was hampered by its need to start from scratch, albeit with two stars.

But that’s not the whole story. A lot of little things go into making a successful site. Why did AOL triumph? IT WAS EASY!

You’ve got to make it easy. You’ve got to make it forwardable. You’ve got to make it accessible. You’ve got to either break news or explain it or both.

But the truth is Walt and Kara were so busy establishing relationships with the insiders they want to appear at their conferences that they lost touch with the rank and file who had to visit their site to make it work. Once again, in the internet age there’s rarely a middleman. The customer is the hoi polloi, the regular users. Play to them, not to the big swinging dicks you’re trading favors with who never break news at your conferences anyway.

Our planet is addicted to tech. Everybody’s wired. We want tech news. Tech drives the culture today, like music did in the sixties.

But ReCode couldn’t see that the game had changed. They were playing to the same people they always did, instead of broadening their game to appeal to EVERYBODY!

In other words, it was never gonna scale.

And scale is everything.

And scale is not only built on a good idea, executed properly, but delivery is also key. Isn’t that what those truly in the know always say, that distribution is king?

Well, being with the WSJ solved that problem.

But going alone Walt and Kara were completely unaware of the challenge, I’d say they punted, but they didn’t even understand the game. It’d be like leaving the major label, sacrificing radio, putting out an album with no hit singles and expecting to be successful.

But that ain’t the way it happens.

Give yourself a fighting chance.

Maybe Walt and Kara can pivot. Maybe they will realize you don’t reinvent the wheel. Just like you rent server power from Amazon instead of owning it yourself (even Netflix!) Walt and Kara spent too much time trying to replicate what others do better.

Like design a usable site.


Visit the archive:


If you would like to subscribe to the LefsetzLetter

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Robert M commented on May 31

    Part 1 is an ode to the long tail and an acknowledgement to how lazy people are.

  2. cjb commented on May 31

    Nice piece. My ADD won’t let me go to HuffPo anymore. Everything takes too long to load, and like television, it has become an advertising medium with a little bit of content thrown in to support it, rather than a content site with advertising thrown it to support it. It used to be on top of the news, now it lags behind. Also, like many similar sites, it relies on tedious videos to get the story out, which take too long to get to the point. Finally, many articles have mis-leading headlines, which make the reader feel lied to. I like Vox. It gets to the point, and sometimes, like in the Hastert story, you learn something the rest of the media has not covered (the fact that Hastert has been under investigation for mis-appropriation of funds connected to his congressional retirement office.) I don’t remember ever hitting on Re/Code.
    The Big Picture is my first read every morning, Reformed Broker second. Both, as well a Vox, do a good job of cutting through the noise.

  3. VennData commented on May 31

    Ego is not a business model

  4. Jojo commented on May 31

    Nice. But “And regular surfers go back multiple times a day, to see if there’s breaking news.” ignores the fact that true net geeks use RSS. Geeks don’t keep returning to and F5’ing a site to see what’s new!

    Speaking of the new design sites, Forbes is pretty annoying with that opening “Thought of the day” page and a countdown in the upper right that you have to click to go to the article. What’s up with that?

    Then like the DailyBeast, they bleed one story into another as you scroll downward. Very annoying.

    Then there are the stoopid sites that date their articles at the end of the article. I copy a lot of articles for saving and I want to see the source name (Bloomberg, NYT, WSJ, etc.), the article title and the date at the top.

    And most annoying are the sites that don’t date articles at all (makes it difficult to do a Google search by date) or date their articles as “x days ago”. When I copy an article like that, what good does it do em to look at the copy 6 months from now and see the publish date as “x days ago”???

  5. Slash commented on Jun 1

    Well, I liked Mossberg in the WSJ (I can read it for free at work), but ironically, your article might make me go check out his newer stuff online, though I wasn’t really aware of it until I read about it here, so good news/bad news there for him and the others (ReCode? news to me; honestly, I thought it was a WSJ site, so I declined to follow when they mentioned it because I assumed they would charge for it the way they do their regular stuff online).

    As for design: I work in advertising, and design (esp. online) is one of those things that lots of people think is just a frill, but it isn’t. If you make things hard to read, PEOPLE WON’T READ IT. They’re not gonna struggle through shitty web design to get to your precious content. They just won’t, and why should they?

    Our agency employs quite a few people who do nothing but build and maintain websites and because people pay us to build websites that will attract users, they want people to actually read (and watch videos). And very often, the people who think they know all about design end up designing something that doesn’t work very well because they think good design is for them and all the other art directors when it’s really for the end user, who is not a designer, but can tell you right away whether or not he/she will bother using a website based on what the home page looks like. Tiny white type against a black background, or worse, tiny light type against a light background? Nobody’s reading that. Stuff that blinks? No. Nobody likes that. 50 different things on the page that beg you to click on them? Hard pass. Pop-ups? Whoever invented the pop-up should be launched into the sun.

    All this is stuff anybody who’s been building a website more than 6 months should know, so for anyone who’s been doing it longer to not know it is unforgivable and utter failure of the website to draw visitors is well-deserved.

Posted Under