Fusion and its high-profile staff are looking to set off a reaction
By Jason Abbruzzese
Fusion’s digital transformation is about to take shape. And not a minute too soon.
Fusion is a hybrid television and digital media outlet backed by Disney’s ABC and Univision that launched in October 2013 with a focus on Latinos and millennials. While its television audience has been slow to materialize, Fusion has been heavily investing in digital talent in preparation for a new online push while also pivoting away from the overt Latino focus.
The semi-formal launch of the company’s new digital-first effort began on Tuesday with a new website featuring the work of the many high-profile journalists it has hired in the past nine months. Fusion had been relatively under the radar since its launch, with its recruiting efforts from competitors like Vice and Gawker Media being among its most notable moves.
Those journalists have been preparing a variety of special projects that will begin to launch along with the site launch. Among them is Alexis Madrigal, formerly of The Atlantic, who is now Fusion’s Silicon Valley bureau chief. He will be launching a piece on the influence of technology in U.S. prisons.
Madrigal is one of a group of hot-shot journalists on which Fusion is pinning its hopes. Months in the making, Fusion’s digital team faces a far more competitive and well-financed online media market than when it started. The perpetual staffing but lack of production has led to a question that dogs the company: What is Fusion?
Madrigal put it bluntly.
“I basically think that there’s only one way to make a media company successful now. That’s just putting out successful shit day after day after day after day. That’s it. And if in a year we looked back and we were putting out good stuff, I’ll be happy.”
Fusion’s bench is undoubtedly deep. The first major hire was Felix Salmon last April. Salmon had served as a columnist for Reuters and grown into one of the most widely read and influential journalists online.
The move caused no shortage of confusion among media watchers, helped by Salmon’s now-infamous declaration that the core of his role would be “post-text.”
Since then, it has been a hiring spree. In May, Jezebel founder Anna Holmes joined as editor of digital voice and storytelling. In July, Jane Spencer, a founding editor at The Daily Beast, was hired as editor-in-chief of digital content. In September, Fusion hired Vice’s Tim Pool to service as director of media innovation. In October, Dodai Stewart of Jezebel and Madrigal joined. In December, Fusion recruited NBCNews.com editorial director Hillary Frey to be director of global news. Most recently, Vice columnist Natasha Lennard joined Fusion. All told, there are around 100 employees dedicated to digital.
Amassing that kind of talent is expensive. Fusion has been well funded ever since its start, having been housed in a new 150,000 square-foot TV studio in Doral, Florida, that it shares with Univision. Fusion’s television reach continues to expand, recently adding DirecTV to its carriage list, although it still is not available on Time Warner Cable and Comcast.
Since Fusion’s launch, there has been an influx of investment in digital media that has led to something of an arms race of content online, and no shortage of things to read and watch. Fusion is focused on millennials, but that approach may have seemed a bit more novel 15 months ago. Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, Mic and Business Insider have all received major funding and expanded operations. Legacy operations like like Time, CNN and Bloomberg are also catching up rapidly and learning how to appeal to a younger online audience.
Daniel Eilemberg, chief digital officer of Fusion, said the company is very aware of the competition it faces and was deliberate in how it has gone about building its digital operation.
“I think the growth of competition and the surge of not just competitors but the money flowing into this market is very interesting. It’s not lost on us. It’s partly why we launched in October as a cable network and since invested heavily in growing our digital footprint,” he said.
Fusion can compete when it comes to money and talent, but what it needs is an audience. TV ratings are difficult to parse, as Nielsen does not currently track Fusion. Fusion is not currently measured by comScore’s online traffic tracking.
Fusion declined to provide TV ratings or online traffic data to Mashable.
Fusion is relying on two things to differentiate itself from the rest: diversity of voices and diversity of thought.
“We really do want to build a new kind of newsroom to greet the changing demographics of this country. Millennials represent the most diverse generation in American history, and they represent a lot of audiences that are often ignored by traditional media organizations,” said Spencer.
A visit to Fusion’s homepage on Monday finds a similar mix as other digital media sites with viral stories, takes on recent events and newsier pieces, albeit with a bit more emphasis on social awareness. A story about the Super Bowl halftime show sits above a piece featuring Dapwell of Das Racist on “Williamsburg Racism.”
Fusion does not appear to be trying to completely reinvent the digital playbook, but rather fill what Spencer sees as gaps that have emerged.
“I think part of it is that there is a lot of homogeneity in how news organizations are reaching audiences and in some ways a metrics-driven environment drives that. We all get the same metrics. That’s part of digital journalism,” Spencer said. “I think that the crowdedness creates a lot of space for innovation.
If Fusion’s digital strategy is to be relatively similar to those of other successful outlets — plenty of viral, shareable stories topped by deeper, more thoughtful journalism — the company is banking on its impressive lineup of diverse journalists to make the difference.
They are the key to what was a found principle of Fusion — that there is a large chunk of America that is not being served by the current media.
“We are going after the absolute best people in the industry,” Eilemberg said. “But we’re also very aware that you can’t speak about a diverse America without bringing and including a diversity of voices in that conversation.”
The idea sounds good enough, but it will take time to build the audience and the brand, Madrigal admitted.
This is where that “successful shit” comes in.
“The biggest problem of Fusion right now is brand definition. What is Fusion? And I think people somehow expect us to answer that question in once sentence,” Madrigal said. “When you see it day after day, you’ll see what fusion is.”