Red Couch with The Daily Beast’s John Avlon
Gabriella Schwarz / June 7, 2017
Four years ago, John Avlon channeled his expertise as a political operative, commentator and writer into a new challenge: editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. The site’s grown every year of his tenure, with the goal of being the “smartest tabloid on the web.” That mission, according to Avlon, means bringing a sexy and smart outlook to each piece, whether it’s about an art heist or President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
Quality is a “universal language,” Avlon said. “Quality content delivers a quality audience.” It is that outlook that led the Beast’s “loyal opposition” coverage of the Trump administration and our discussion about their ideals.
Even with all the news happening right now, are you still sticking with Trump-free Sunday mornings?
Yes, barring major breaking news. Donald Trump’s presidency is the biggest story in the world, but it’s not the only story in the world. Folks could use a break and a reality check, lest our feed become slowly focused on one person. We just had a great piece by Erin Gloria Ryan, one of our great reporters and columnists, who climbed the base camp of Everest. She described the experience as her “Trumpspringa,” a little reality check break. I think that’s healthy for us all right now. Our jobs have never been more important, and we need to take our work seriously but not ourselves seriously. We need to impose a sense of perspective, which is the thing we have least of in our politics.
You’ve said it’s the Beast’s commitment to be “nonpartisan but not neutral.” What does that mean to you?
This is really core to who we are. The Daily Beast is the alternative to everything you hate about the state of digital news. I think that can be boiled down to content farms, predictable partisan cheerleader sites and the commodity news crowd. For me personally, partisan news is part of so many of the problems we’re dealing with as a society right now. The decrease in trust in media over decades, not just related to Donald Trump and his attempt to re-label anything he disagrees with as fake news, directly parallels the rise of partisan news, which has unfortunately allowed people to kind of self-segregate themselves into separate political realities.
What people really crave from a news site today is a place that’s independent, irreverent and intelligent. Those three words are really mantras for us at The Daily Beast. “Nonpartisan but not neutral” means that we’re going to hit both sides as appropriate. We’re not going to toe any party line; we’re not going to push any particular ideology. We’re going to follow the facts and the story where it leads. But one of our core values is to confront bullies, bigots and hypocrites. And neither political party, neither side of any divide, is all angels or all devils. No one’s got a monopoly on virtue or vice.
At the same time, I think it’s critically important not to fall into the mythic moral equivalence. I think that’s been a big part of the problem in news today. In an attempt to be genuinely fair and balanced, as opposed to only sloganeering, I think folks sometimes have balanced fact with opinion and that’s dangerous. One of the key quotes for me of our times goes back to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who said, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” I think that needs to be a mantra for all journalists and citizens today. That’s a fundamental difference. We as journalists need to insist on fact-based debate. We need to be unapologetic about that, and that’s what we aim to do at The Daily Beast every day.
Has your approach to political coverage shifted over the past year?
The challenge has intensified, our mission is clearer than ever…Our problem with Donald Trump from the day he announced wasn’t that he was a Republican at all, it was that he was campaigning in a consciously divisive, demagogic way. Once he reached the presidency, on Election Night I wrote an editorial called “How We’ll Stand Up to President Trump,” which described our role as being the loyal opposition. When we find things we can agree upon, we’ll call that out, where there are people in his administration trying to do the right thing. But we need to be unapologetic in confronting lies, in confronting divisiveness, in confronting demagoguery.
I’ve been writing for a long time about my belief that news needs to do two things more than ever in our times. One is call bullshit, and two is make important stories interesting. Our DNA has continued, in face of challenges of the Trump era, fairly unabated in many ways. We’re very well suited to confronting this particular challenge. When this civics stress test is over, I think we’ll look back on it as the best time to be a journalist, not because it was easy but because it was hard. We face very serious threats from the White House. The whole Orwellian exercise of trying to label any news you disagree with as “fake news” is a threat to everything from the English language to the core concept of truth. It’s aimed straight at journalists and citizens, and we need to take that threat very seriously and confront it head-on, unapologetically.
How have you seen the wants of Beast readers change over the last year? Is it more investigative reporting, more breaking news?
One of the things about the Beast is that one of our core differentiators is that we do focus on original reporting. We love scoop scandals and stories about secret worlds. We break news every day, and unfortunately that’s not necessarily a common denominator in all digital news. Many folks are focused on hot takes or opinions, and I say that as a former columnist who always tried to do a reporting column. I love column, I love opinion, but it’s not sufficient for the times in which we live. We need to be adding value to the conversation, we need to be piercing the veil, cutting through the spin and breaking real news.
Regarding how our readers respond to us, if anything there’s just a deeper intensity. One of the things that we’ve seen and heard in emails and letters—I’ve got a letter on my desk from someone who wrote a letter after Election Day. It says in effect: “I used to read The Daily Beast. Now I need The Daily Beast.” I think people are really thirsty for the kind of coverage we deliver every day, which is real reporting with a ton of voice. It doesn’t sacrifice accuracy for attitude but delivers both.
I was struck by your comments about the struggle between “the urgent and the important.” How do you hope the Beast helps people walk that line?
Life is a struggle between the urgent and the important; it’s just particularly heightened in newsrooms and newsroom decisions, particularly in a time like today where you could be spending all day chasing squirrels and Donald Trump’s latest tweetstorm. You’ve got to figure out what’s real news and what’s just a distraction and intended to be a distraction. You can’t let being reactive to the day’s events—particularly in a time of high-intensity, news breaking almost by the hour—you can’t let that distract you from pursuing your important stories, your deeper investigative targets. Part of that is also knowing who you are and knowing what’s in your strike zone as a news site and what your readers really respond to. We know that at The Beast. We know who we are. We aim to be the smartest tabloid on the web. What I mean by that is we’re not going to talk down to our audience, we’re not going to talk up to our audience, we’re going to meet them eye-to-eye. We’re always going to be skeptical but never cynical, and as a result I think you see that in the loyalty of our readers.
Over 40 percent of our readers come to us directly. That’s a remarkable statistic in the state of digital news today. We also lead in our cohort in all engagement categories. Our average visit is 4.5 minutes. And we’ve got a very young audience, too: 75 percent millennial and Gen X. I think that shows people are really thirsty for real news that doesn’t taste like medicine, that’s going to have integrity and independence, while also understanding you need to entertain while you educate…You want to aim for the head and the heart at the same time, and that’s what we do at The Daily Beast.
Clearly making a story interesting extends beyond politics, to culture, food and more. I’m always struck by how they’re all next to each other on the homepage. Is that a conscious effort to combat people’s bubbles?
Absolutely. That’s fundamentally it. You just described the core insight. It’s not simply high and low. Our sweet spot is at the intersection of politics and pop culture. But the key point is that people have multifaceted interests, and if you try to only silo interests, you’re ignoring the real multiplicity of what makes us interesting human beings. We try to reflect that at The Daily Beast. We’re not going to be a mile wide and an inch deep, but we are going to pick areas that reflect different sides of real people’s personalities and interests. I think it really reflects the way we think and the way we live.
One of the reporters on our entertainment team, Kevin Fallon, likes to say that we make sexy stories smart and smart stories sexy. You don’t need to dumb down an entertainment story, but you really do need to make sure that the important stories are accessible and compelling. That politics/pop culture frame does that a lot for us. But if you look at our Drink & Food section, for example, which is helmed by Noah Rothbaum, David Wondrich and a bunch of other core contributors, that speaks to our approach as well. We went straight for influence. We went for the best writers and the most influential writers in that space…and readers really respond to that because quality is a universal language. From an advertiser’s standpoint, quality content delivers quality audience, and that’s ultimately who you want to connect with.
We just announced a new member of the entertainment team, Ira Madison from MTV News who’s a great writer and a figure. We hired Pulitzer Prize-winner Spencer Ackerman to our national security team. It’s really an approach that’s about quality rather than quantity.
You mentioned influencers and there’s such talk of that now, especially making ordinary people “influencers.” Does that dilute the power of great journalists and people who’ve proven themselves when you have such a rise of power among non-traditional journalists?
The democratization of journalism, lowering the barriers of entry, is ostensibly a great thing for civic conversation as long as you’re not feeding into the social media mob mentality and the danger of these confirmation bias sites, and the threat even posed by fake news, which is simply confirmation bias clickbait. Those are all really powerful forces and what you need to combat them is quality and authority and influence. That’s why there’s no substitute for great writers and great journalists.
We want to put a field on the team of people who people recognize from cable news, who they follow on social media, and really say this is a team of great writers—you trust them, you can relate to them. That is the key to the kind of influence that amplifies your message. You want to be accessible; you want to have a direct connection with your readers that’s rooted in loyalty and a degree of empathy. But what I think too often happens is people mistake that for either a dumbing down of content, a dumbing down of quality, which is the worst thing you can do if you’re trying to connect, particularly with young readers. There’s implicit condescension that happens to a lot of publications when they start writing for their conception of who their readers are in a way that says, “I wouldn’t read this but our readers really love it.” The basic relationship, what we all look for in our friends, is people who are smart, funny and have integrity. And we should extend that same courtesy to our readers.
I know you say the Beast “never sleeps.” So do you?
I’ve always sort of loved that line from Arcade Fire: “Sleeping in is giving in.” I think the reality is that sleep is simultaneously a necessity and a luxury. If you’re going to get great things done, you’re going to cut a little bit into sleep. When I wrote my book, Washington’s Farewell, which I did over four years, I didn’t realize I was going to become editor-in-chief and have two children in the process. The only way to get that done is to work nights and weekends on it. But you need to make those choices.
Everyone here at The Daily Beast is a player-coach. We’re a pirate ship. I still try to write at least two pieces a month. Either I come back to the office late, or I work late into the night because otherwise my daily responsibilities wouldn’t permit that. You have to make some tough choices. You don’t want it to ultimately eat into your health, just like it doesn’t actually make sense to give up going to the gym so you can “be more efficient.” But it’s got to come out of somewhere, and sometimes it comes out of sleep.
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