Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

The Big Money Isn't Enough. Slate Shuts Down Business Site After Two Years.

Fortune magazine launched during the Great Depression, and it’s still with us today.* But The Big Money, a business site launched by Slate during the dark days of September 2008, is going away.

The Slate Group, the Washington Post Co.’s (WPO) online unit, is shutting down the site, the company announced today. The Big Money was a smart but modest site with a smart but modest staff of five people, so this isn’t earth-shaking news.

And two of the site’s employees–publisher Brendan Monaghan and editor Jim Ledbetter–will stay with Slate in new roles. So it’s hard to argue that this is reflective of larger issues at Slate or its parent company.

The memo announcing the move, signed by Slate Group Chairman Jacob Weisberg and General Manager John Alderman, is straightforward: The Big Money is getting shuttered because it didn’t make enough money:

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the site is not pointed toward profitability on a fast enough timetable….Part of being a quasi start-up means being unsentimental about sites we like that aren’t working as businesses and quickly evolving our model in response to a fast-moving marketplace. We are experimenters. This was a great experiment, but not every experiment results in a breakthrough.

Fair enough. The Big Money did some good work, and it did have an audience–comScore (SCOR) says it was getting between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors a month, which isn’t terrible. But it’s hard to sell advertisers on any individual site with less than a million uniques these days, so you can see why Slate would pull the plug after less than two years.

I do have one question, though. See the chart above (click to enlarge), and you’ll note that Slate’s main site is humming along quite well, with a mix of New Republic-style highbrow commentary and some clicky-clicky click here! now! slideshows. Why didn’t that success boost The Big Money?

My outsider’s perception is that the main site gave its business spin off very little editorial real estate. And that it seldom pointed a traffic firehose toward its little brother. And folks who know about this stuff tell me that people inside the company had the same perception.

I wouldn’t expect Slate to prop up The Big Money with money and links indefinitely. Ultimately, if the thing didn’t work on its own, it didn’t work on its own. But I’m a pretty regular Slate reader, and I frequently found that I learned about something The Big Money was running from someplace other than Slate.

I ran that theory by Weisberg, who says I’m wrong. TBM got as much promotion and help from Slate as its other sub-brands, Foreign Policy and The Root, he says. And he’s says he’s surprised to hear that anyone feels otherwise: “All of the small sites always want all the placement they can get on Slate, and there’s always competition for the finite resource of home page promotion. But I think that in general people think it’s been fair.”

And Weisberg spends a lot more time looking at these sites than I do, so I’ll defer to him here. One other quick question–since Fortune famously thrived after starting in a miserable economy, why couldn’t TBM do the same?

Because we’re not living in 1933, Weisberg says. “Our model is that you can enter into these things more easily. It’s not as big an upfront investment. But it also means you don’t have as long a time frame to prove these things out,” he says. Ultimately, TBM’s business wasn’t growing fast enough because its traffic wasn’t growing fast enough. Time to try something else.

*Hey! Another new iPad app from Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc. . No subscriptions, via Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes, though.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”