Closing of Pacific Standard and Topic Shows Perils of Depending on a Rich Patron

Pacific Standard and Topic, a pair of award-winning publications that stood out from the pack of click-hungry websites, were founded by rich patrons. The generosity of their benefactors allowed them to publish robust journalism at a time when old-line magazine publishers like Time Inc. were being sold for parts — but it wasn’t enough to keep them from folding. Both died this summer, when their backers decided they were no longer worth the expense.

Pacific Standard, a magazine that started in 2008 as a close cousin to academic journals and became a general interest publication with an emphasis on essays and investigative journalism, had its last day of business on Aug. 16, after its main backer, the academic publishing company Sage Publications, withdrew its funding.

Sage, a leading publisher of textbooks and academic works, was co-founded by Sara Miller McCune in New York in 1965. With the fortune she made as a publisher, Ms. Miller McCune became a philanthropist, giving money to cultural institutions, schools and a hospital in her adopted home state of California. She founded Pacific Standard in the middle of the recession but stepped away from it after it had burned through millions of dollars.

Nicholas Jackson, the editor in chief since 2015, said in an interview that the end came as a surprise. “We’ve been operating with the understanding that we’re delivering on everything they’ve asked of us and, in fact, overperforming,” Mr. Jackson said, referring to the site’s readership of a few million a month.

Pacific Standard, which had an annual budget of $3.2 million, had recently brought aboard several employees and fellows, including its first director of marketing and fund-raising. Some new hires moved in recent months to Santa Barbara, Calif., where the magazine had its headquarters. The expansion followed a decision last year to phase out the print edition.

Blaise R. Simqu, the chief executive of Sage, said the company stopped funding the magazine to focus on academic publishing, which has recently been challenged by digital technology. “My role as C.E.O. is to make decisions now so that Sage is here in five to 10 years,” Mr. Simqu said. According to Mr. Simqu, Ms. Miller McCune, 78, no longer has an operational role in the company.

In its more than 10 years, Pacific Standard won two National Magazine Awards, including one in the public interest category. Its occasionally viral stories included an early report on young converts to the far right and an unlikely history of toast.

Clive Parry, a Sage executive, said in an emailed statement that the magazine might have survived if it had been “self-sustaining.” But Mr. Jackson and his predecessor as editor in chief, Maria Streshinsky, said the magazine’s business model did not include a plan to raise millions in annual revenue. “There was talk about fund-raising, but that wasn’t the way Sara seemed to want to go,” Ms. Streshinsky said, referring to Ms. Miller McCune.

The loss of the publication leaves digital media a little less brainy. “Even when they were writing about the debate of the day or the moment, they were doing it in an intelligent way,” said Casey Cep, a former columnist for the magazine who now writes regularly for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications.

Topic, in its two years of existence, was the rare digital publication that combined a high-minded sensibility and lush multimedia presentations heavy on video documentaries and photo essays. Like Pacific Standard, it was largely dependent on a single deep-pocketed patron.

The publication was part of First Look Media, a company started by the billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Drew Wilson, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer of First Look Media, said that closing Topic was “more a business decision than a creative decision.”

The magazine was built on the idea that it would subsidize the company’s nonprofit division, First Look Media Works, the home of the investigative news site The Intercept, which was founded in 2014 by the journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill.

“Pierre’s grand plan was to take a for-profit that could grow into funding the nonprofit,” Mr. Wilson said.

In 2017, First Look Media Works had an operating deficit of more than $12 million, according to tax documents. That same year, Topic made its debut with an issue centered on the theme “State of the Union.”

In that issue, the editor in chief, Anna E. Holmes, said Topic was meant to be a respite from the noisy internet. “Developing an integrated, nuanced point of view is a luxury that requires time and space,” wrote Ms. Holmes, who, before joining Topic, was the founding editor of the feminist blog Jezebel. (Ms. Holmes declined to comment for this story.)

“We were not trying to contribute to the content or hot-takes glut,” said Madeline Leung Coleman, the publication’s managing editor, “and we never felt any pressure to do so. As anyone who has worked in online media can attest, that’s exceedingly rare.”

After its first year, Topic won both National Magazine Awards pertaining to video.

The investigative journalist Cat Ferguson, who wrote for Topic, bemoaned its loss, saying, “The checklist of places you can do weird stuff that people are actually interested in is shrinking.”

In addition to closing Topic, First Look Media has stopped funding another of its publications, The Nib, a digital comics magazine. The company has also entered into negotiations to buy Passionflix, a streaming service focused on the romance genre, according to two people with knowledge of discussions.

Mr. Wilson would not confirm or deny the company’s interest in Passionflix. A spokeswoman for Passionflix, a company co-founded by Tosca Musk, the sister of the Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, declined to comment on the possible deal.

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, a journalism professor at Columbia College of Chicago, said that the demise of Topic and Pacific Standard “illustrates the perils of just one funder.”

Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones, a nonprofit publication that does not rely on a single patron, seconded that point. “It’s great when wealthy individuals step up, but their interests can change,” Ms. Jeffery said. “Journalism is something readers need to support.”

Source Link

Get more stuff like this

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.