One month ago today, former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman began to publicly unveil his new staff at MTV. Joining him would be former Grantlanders Holly Anderson, Brian Phillips, Molly Lambert, and Mark Lisanti. There would be more announcements about writers from places like The New Republic, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, and LA Weekly. This week, Bloomberg noted that in all MTV has hired over two dozen journalists in recent months, and also added Grantland alum Alex Pappademas to develop a podcast network.
On Media Twitter, these decisions have been received with near-universal acclaim, and have been covered extensively, with stories on outlets including Politico, Deadline, Bloomberg, Huffington Post, Variety, Adweek, AdAge, and Mediaite. In a world where Vice, Vox, and Buzzfeed have been successful, the mission is, as Fierman asks: “How do you restore the urgency that I felt about MTV when I was 12?” He says they will be “leading the conversation.”
The ambitions are not light. “What we are about to do here is about the most revolutionary and forward-thinking thing that we can try to do for music journalism,” Jessica Hopper, who joined the team from Pitchfork, told Huffington Post.
Editorially, it is a strong bet that this MTV venture gains critical recognition pretty quickly, and will assemble a loyal and engaged readership, as Grantland did. However–and while it certainly was not designed exclusively to be–Grantland was not a commercial success. Two dozen staffers, of comparative prestige, represents pretty high overhead. How much engagement do you need on Brian Phillips stories to justify paying for him and his travel expenses to publish “four features a year, plus occasional columns”?
MTV’s ratings have been sagging for years, and though mobile traffic on their website had reportedly increased dramatically by early last year, they wouldn’t be making this type of risk with a splashy new staff if they were satisfied with their online status quo.
Grantland had Bill Simmons, whose Twitter feed reaches just about everyone of consequence in media. That got everybody’s work out in front of the relevant parties, and the conversation could emanate from there. There is no single force at MTV News to direct that flow. MTV will presumably give more featured main page placement to this stable than Grantland got in ESPN.com, where it was on the front page but generally confined to the sticky Simmons box. On the other hand, it is a smaller web page to draw from.
Nevertheless, thinking about web traffic may be outdated in the mobile platform era, and Fierman has said he wants MTV content everywhere:
“I don’t really care where you want to consume what we’re doing — whether it’s reporting or criticism or it’s just beautiful thinking,” Fierman said. “I want to be in your earbuds. I want to be while you’re watching something online. I want to be in your Snapchat feed. I want to be in your Instagram. If you want to read, I want you to read. The point is, really, that however you’re using your phone — let’s be honest, that’s where everybody is right now — I want to be there.”
Reaching a volume of users on those feeds and capitalizing on them are two different things. If they are going to be pouring resources into what Hopper referred to as “big-J journalism ideals,” that will need to be subsidized by LOTS of content along the lines of Snooki’s beef with Khloe Kardashian and Leo DiCaprio quizzes. How much of the latter you need to support the former is a reconciliation that every profit-seeking publisher must figure out.
The honeymoon period will be from about now until the election. After that, this new crew at MTV News will have to demonstrate financial results. Will they go about that in a pragmatic way?
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Marcus Ellsworth wrote for Grantland.