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April 23, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:12am

Interview: Insider editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson says news outfits that can survive Covid-19 crisis will later thrive

By William Turvill

Nicholas Carlson knows what it’s like to lose your job during a recession. In 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, he was laid off by Valleywag, a US tech industry gossip website owned by Gawker Media.

With the economy tanking, advertising revenues falling, and media companies across the world making cuts to save money, it would seem like the worst possible time for a journalist to become unemployed. But for Carlson, it turned out to be the start of an exciting new chapter in his career.

In October 2008, the out-of-luck reporter joined a little-known blog called Silicon Alley Insider – named after an area of New York City known for its tech businesses – which had launched a year earlier.

In the 12 years since then, Silicon Alley Insider has rebranded as Business Insider and now simply Insider, and Carlson has gone from working in a team of five journalists to leading an international newsroom of 350.

Carlson, Insider’s global editor-in-chief, recognises that the media landscape looks “horrible” currently, with many thousands of workers across the world having been put out of work in recent weeks.

But he is confident the crisis will lead to new opportunities for good journalists at companies operating in “new ways that are sustainable in the new economy”.

“Silicon Alley Insider came out of the last recession,” he says. “A company that can figure out how to live in the lean times will thrive in the fat times. So hopefully the fat times come again soon and we’ve got lots of great new journalism enterprises.”

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Carlson was speaking to Press Gazette on a Zoom call (video below) from his home in Brooklyn, New York City.  At the time of writing, there have been more than 140,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the city, making it one of the global epicentres of the pandemic.

“There was a stretch of weeks there – and it really, thank God, has tapered off – where you couldn’t go outside without hearing a siren,” says Carlson, a father who has had to balance his time working from home between parenting and editing.

“Sometimes it would be siren after siren after siren after siren of ambulances rushing people to the hospital. And that was disturbing.”

As well as leading to thousands of deaths across the world, the coronavirus crisis has battered the global economy. News businesses, many of which were already struggling, have been hit hard by a collapse in the advertising market.

Carlson likens the situation facing the global news industry to a “famine”. While it may kill off certain companies, he believes that news businesses that survive the crisis can thrive in the future.

“If a business is a village that can feed itself in a famine, [then] as the sun comes out and the crops start growing again, those businesses will be able to thrive in a new way,” he says.

“And they’ll have young versions of me staffed up because they’re available when they shouldn’t be available. Gawker shouldn’t have made me available… but they did.

“There are many great journalists who are available right now in a way that they should not be. And I am hopeful for them that they latch on to the next Business Insider, or Business Insider [itself].”

In the early years of Silicon Alley Insider and Business Insider, Carlson oversaw much of the groups expansion as deputy editor and chief correspondent.

After making his name with a series of exposés on large tech firms including Facebook and Yahoo – which culminated in his book, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!– Carlson co-founded Insider, a sister publication to Business Insider that covered lifestyle news, as editor-in-chief.

In 2017, around two years after the company was bought by German publisher Axel Springer, the websites were brought together under the Insider name, and Carlson was made global editor-in-chief.

The years since have seen Insider, which has had a major bureau in London since 2014, continue to expand. Before the Covid-19 crisis, Carlson says the company had planned to take on 90 news journalists this year.

That figure, he says, will now be smaller. Notably, though, Insider still plans to carry on expanding at a time when many other news operations across the US, UK and beyond are having to make cutbacks.

In general, the big US news organisations that have so far been able to hold back from making cuts are those that have built up large numbers of subscribers in recent years, making them less sensitive to the advertising market slump.

Last week, Mark Thompson explained how this was the case at the New York Times, which he leads as chief executive.

“If you are able to publish stories that people really want to know, and it’s not available elsewhere, you can have a subscription business,” says Carlson. “And subscription businesses – like the New York Times’, like the Wall Street Journal’s, like ours – can continue to thrive in even harrowing environments.”

Insider launched its subscription model, Business Insider Prime, in 2017, offering exclusive content to paying readers. Insider websites also offer a large amount of free content and claim an overall audience of 375m readers.

In addition, the company owns Business Insider Intelligence and eMarketer, which are specialised research services.

In January, Poynter reported that Insider had around 200,000 paid subscribers, with an aim of increasing this number to 1m in five years.

“Subscriptions are great because it really aligns enterprise reporting – which is what reporters love to do and it’s good for the world – with the reader and the business,” says Carlson.

“It’s all nice and together and it’s really exciting, actually. We have seen that investigative feature reporting, great beat reporting on businesses, on things that people want to know and need to know, will drive a subscription business.

“And so that’s why we’re investing in it. And as someone who really believes in the power of journalism, I’m very excited by it.”

Picture: Insider

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