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Vox Media veteran Josh Topolsky explains what digital media companies get wrong, and what his new publication plans to get right

The Outline will launch sometime this fall.

The 18th Annual Webby Awards - Inside
Josh Topolsky speaking at the Webby Awards in 2014
Bryan Bedder / Getty

If you were regularly reading about gadgets and technology in the mid-to-late 2000s, you were likely reading Engadget. And if you still read about technology and culture, you probably read Recode sister site and Vox Media property The Verge.

Josh Topolsky is the editor who helped get both of those places going. A little over a year ago, he left a senior job at Bloomberg amid some drama with Mike Bloomberg himself. And this week, Topolsky is announcing his new thing: A news publication called The Outline.

Recode previously reported that this project was in the works, but now we have details, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Topolsky got $5 million in funding from a group of investors that includes RRE Ventures, Advancit Capital, Boat Rocker Ventures and Nextview Ventures. The primary coverage areas will be news, culture and “the future.”

He’s hired a bunch of people who used to work at places like Vox Media, Vice and BuzzFeed, and he says that the publication will formally launch sometime this fall.

Topolsky thinks that most digital media companies are doing most things wrong, and that they are (his words) “fucking crazy” for putting so many of their content eggs in social media baskets. He even wrote a whole Medium essay about it back in April.

It’s worth pointing out that Vox Media (Recode’s parent company, where Topolsky was an early executive), is very focused on audience growth, with a strong emphasis on social media. And furthermore, Mike Bloomberg once openly questioned the wisdom of even having a website in Topolsky’s presence, which became part of a larger disagreement between the two.

But The Outline is where Topolsky is going to test his theory of new media: That you can run an audience-capped media business without sacrificing editorial taste. And that you can even make enough money that you can return a chunk of it to your investors.

Here’s a condensed and lightly edited version of his interview with Recode at RRE’s New York office.:

Noah Kulwin: So first, congratulations. You have a new thing.

Josh Topolsky: Thank you! I have a new thing.

How would you describe The Outline for somebody who doesn’t know your background, or doesn’t necessarily know shit about media?

That’s an interesting question. For a layperson?

Yes, for a layperson. For the listeners at home.

I’ve actually struggled … I struggled with The Verge as well. I remember this was a big point of contention: What’s the easy way to describe the thing? I think that often the best and most interesting things are actually really hard to describe.

We had a lot of, at The Verge, a lot of consternation from our audience because they wanted us to be a tech site. And we wanted to be something much more complex: This idea in 2011, which was very novel, of technology-culture — this world that was impacted by, but not necessarily directly a part of, technology. That’s a long-winded way of saying that this is a problem I’ve had my whole life.

We’re … I’m loathe to use the word publication because I don’t think it’s right. Are you gonna use this verbatim?

I was hoping to transcribe it and condense it a bit.

Okay. What I’d say is that we’re a publication focused on telling a story of the way the world is now, and the way the world will be for a modern reader.

And I think that in the way that for generations like in the ‘90s, Wired was one of those publications, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s I think Rolling Stone was one of those publications. What we’re doing is trying to talk about the way the world works in a way that you don’t see normally every day.

You told the Journal that you were thinking between 10 million to 15 million uniques a month as a good sweet spot. That such a number would allow you to build a serious ads business, but that simultaneously you wouldn’t be chasing scale.

Last month, got 14.7 million uniques. They are absolutely a publisher that’s catering to scale. What makes your version of 10 million to 15 million not scale?

A couple things. First off, 10 million to 15 million would be “wow, what a great thing to hit in a couple years.” In my experience, to use The Verge as an example, where I felt The Verge was most powerful and most interesting was when we had an audience of about 10 million to 15 million people. It was a big enough audience that we were reaching a lot of people and very influential, but it wasn’t so big that it felt like we didn’t know who the people were.

In translating that into a business, what are some of the ways you’d augment that? We’ve talked about how you want to bake a non-advertising-dependent business strategy into the company from the beginning, and not approaching it like “we’re gonna get big, and then we’ll figure out monetization.”

It’s interesting, because I think five million is actually pretty big. If we arrive at five million at the end of 18 months, I think that’s massive. That’s a lot of people. I don’t think we’ll have five million people who’ve accidentally found us on Facebook; I think we’ll have five million people who want to see what we’re doing.

Beyond digital advertising revenue, which is obviously a big part of what we’re doing and something I’ll talk about a lot because I think there’s a huge opportunity there, I’m interested in exploring what you can do with that audience.

At some places (like Recode), this means events.

I think events are one way to do it … it’s one part of it. There are some interesting opportunities around physical goods. When you have a brand, and the brand is strong enough, and people really care about it and are passionate about it, there are things you can do for the audience that you otherwise couldn’t.

I think that’s kind of similar to what the Wirecutter is doing, or some of the earlier tech blogs that ...

This is not a tech blog.

I meant it in a tastemaking sense. Like not that this is a tech blog, but that I see a pattern in previous things you’ve worked on and something that I see now with this.

You can tell people about wonderful things that exist beyond the realm of what you do, and then you can also sort of make stuff beyond the realm of what you traditionally do.

Monocle has this incredible quality — they’re moving at a much slower pace than I would ever be interested in, but they release books about travel, the home, books about industry. I’m not saying we’d do the exact same thing, but what I think is interesting is that ostensibly they are just a monthly magazine, but they’ve created this universe of products.

It sounds like you’re opening up the possibility of reaching and monetizing audiences, and doing everything but platforms [Facebook, Snapchat, etc.].

I think one thing the Wall Street Journal article got wrong is that social is not a big part of [The Outline], that platforms are not a big part of it. To me, everything is a tool to be wielded. If you’re building something that’s meaningful, I’m interested in the stories about our world right now that are part of a news cycle.

I don’t want to tell stories that are a 1,000 page novel. This is a specific kind of thing … it’s not about saying “I don’t want to do social because I want to focus on a website,” or I’m just gonna do “plays” and we’re not gonna do other kinds of events. It’s about asking what is right for the audience, and what is right for the brand. Where can you reach somebody, and where is it meaningful for them and meaningful for you?

But to be like, “we’re not doing social” or “we’re only doing social” — that’s fucking crazy to me.

Correction: In discussing audience size, the original version of this post incorrectly referred to “10 million to 15 million page views.” The numbers actually refer to unique visitors. The text has been corrected.

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