The recent trajectory of tech site Mashable has put it at the forefront of some of the worst trends reshaping digital media.
In April 2016, it slashed its news team and became one of the first venture-backed publishers to make the infamous “pivot to video.” Its ad-centric business model was nevertheless suffocated by tech giants, and over 18 months its valuation plummeted from about $250 million to $50 million. Digital media company Ziff Davis eventually bought Mashable in a firesale earlier this month, promptly laying off dozens of employees.
Mashable is a particularly large and outward-facing brand for Ziff Davis. (It attempted to buy Gawker Media out of bankruptcy last year, but Univision outbid it and formed Gizmodo Media Group, of which Splinter is a part.) What exactly it intends to do with the site remains an open question.
But an audio recording of Ziff Davis executives’ first meeting with Mashable staff, held on Dec. 8 and obtained by Splinter, shed light on plans for folding Mashable into its existing e-commerce business at sites like IGN and PCMag. Some back-end operations will also be consolidated, and many of Ziff Davis’ New York-based employees will move into Mashable’s Flatiron office.
The word “journalism” was not mentioned once. Instead, the 92-minute gathering was chock-full of the inane corporate speak that many beleaguered media employees have come to expect.
In the meeting, which came just days after about 50 Mashable employees were laid off, Ziff Davis executives claimed there are no immediate plans for additional editorial changes. But awkward tension between mid-career suits and 20-something media types still computing the loss of about 30 percent of their coworkers was palpable.
“We want to be the most trusted purchase companion,” Ziff Davis General Manager Mike Finnerty said in the all-hands, listing his four-pronged plan of attack for e-commerce: “inspire, discover, choose, use.”
“Mashable fills huge gaps in that strategy,” he added. “You guys are the inspiration. You guys are the discovery tool.”
He also gave a very personal reason for his loyalty to the site.
“I’ve loved Mashable since the very first article that I read with Mashable. It was written about a product that I actually launched at Weather.com. It was written by Mashable. So I’ve been a superfan since 2012 when that article was written,” he said.
Finnerty’s three kids, he added, “were super excited—especially my 11 year old—to start to play with Mashable content.”
The meeting’s highlight, however, was supplied by Ziff Davis Chief Operating Officer Steve Horowitz, who introduced his company with its internal mantras for success. (To listen to the talk, go to 17:30 in the audio.)
Think of them as Sun Tzu-type proverbs—The Art of Digital Media:
Perfect is a waste of time—just to be clear, as you can tell from my outfit. Perfect is completely, just, just get it out. Don’t get too crazy about it. We’re not dealing with cement. We’re in a digital environment. We can be wrong. We can fuck it up. We can do it again. Just don’t stress about it being perfect. Too many things just stay in the background and never make it to the screen because you just wasted too much time at being perfect. Go out there and fail fast, whatever it is. But don’t worry about being perfect.
This is a big one...You can be super busy and not get shit done. You have to sense that yourself. You have to realize when you’re doing that. It’s a very simple statement, but it’s a really true statement. You can work 12 hours in a day and actually not accomplish a whole lot. And sometimes you say, well, because of the organization did this....we all maintain how we’re going to spend our time. Always focus on the accomplishment.
This is something we say a lot but frankly we haven’t done very well. And I think Mashable is probably the company that can deliver on that. You probably have six or seven emails...that you open up every morning. Those are your go-to emails. That’s part of your daily diet. And for me, Mashable is part of my daily diet. It has been forever. I’ve been using Mashable forever—quite a long time, I’ve known Pete [Cashmore] for quite a long time. I think we can do more to be part of that daily diet. The amount of content and subjects that we cover—frankly, I want Mashable to not just give me the content; I want you to tell me what’s important. I get this morning email from CNN, and they have 1 through 5—these are the stories, in order, that we believe are important for you. I trust CNN to tell me that. I trust Mashable to tell me that, too. I trust Mashable to curate the internet for me.
Pretty simple statement, but it’s another way of saying let’s be smart, let’s use data. Yes, I’m a fan of sometimes just saying, Screw it, let’s go try it and throw it up against it. But a lot of times there’s no reasons to take leaps of faith. We have a lot of information. And you guys use data exceptionally well, with the social signals and everything else that comes out of [internal data analysis tool] Velocity. Let’s just make sure we’re fishing where the fish are, right—that we use the sonar.
That’s a big one, for me. I think that stands for itself.
Probably the most annoying thing is when you get into a room, and there’s an issue, and you just realize you spent the last 45 minutes still complaining or bullshitting about the issue. That’s admiring the problem. Someone needs to say something: but this, but that....you just waste so much time. And frankly, it’s frustrating. It sucks to be in that room. Don’t be in that room.
You guys have done this. You’ve done this well. At some of our other business, like IGN—dot com and on the app—growth has not exactly been where I want it to be. A lot of times the reply is, Well, because of Snapchat, because of Facebook, because of...And my eloquent response is, Bullshit. We should grow everywhere. If we’re not growing in one of our channels, then we’re just not thinking about it hard enough. We’re not running enough plays.
Just try and spend your time on the bigger things vs. some of the smaller things. We all have the minutia of our jobs and all have a lot of BS that we have to deal with. But in the end, when you’re looking at what you’re doing: Do you want to be in the No. 1 or No 2. position? When we look at categories, and we looked at Everyday Health, there were a lot of other health things. But they were Pepsi to WebMD’s Coke. We could have bought WebMD. That was way too expensive. We liked the value of Pepsi more than Coke. You guys are a Coke brand. Never forget that. Let’s make sure that we’re doing everything we can to stay at that level and not get down into Tab village.
Very, very important thing. We believe in profitability. We believe in margins—and a portfolio approach. Not everything can always be that way. But in a portfolio approach—and as you guys are looking through things, whether it’s video, whether it’s events, whether it’s what type of content strategies do we want to do—what we need to keep in mind how is that going to flow through revenue down to margin, so we can turn around and invest that capital back on up. So, I’m going to leave you on that.