Why I’m joining Fusion

I’m leaving Reuters and joining Fusion. Which I’m sure was not at the top of anybody’s list of the most likely places for me to go. But, in the digital space, there’s really nowhere more exciting right now. (In meatspace, I’ll be based in New York, not Miami.)

Fusion, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a joint venture between ABC and Univision. It’s a TV channel aimed mainly at millennials, whose only real guiding rule is that it’s going to stay away from anything conventional. It’s early days yet, and there will be lots of stumbles along the way. But one thing is already certain: Fusion’s digital presence is going to be at least as important as its TV programming. If not more important.

Most excitingly for me, the raison d’être of Fusion’s digital operation is not to get lots of unique visitors to Fusion’s website, who can then be sold to digital advertisers. That’s a tough business to be in, and is not particularly remunerative, in a world of falling CPMs.

The good news, of course, is that we’re living in a world where there have never been more sustainable business models. Justin Fox neatly sums up a lot of them, working off Marc Andreessen’s list:

At one point Andreessen offered up the “most obvious 8 business models for news now & in the future.” After listing today’s staples, (1) advertising and (2) subscriptions, he continued with (3) premium content (that is, “a paid tier on top of a free, ad-supported one”); (4) conferences and events; (5) cross-media (meaning that your news operation also generates books, movies, and the like); (6) crowd-funding; (7) micropayments, using Bitcoin; and (8) philanthropy. Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker’s Web site and a co-founder of the digital sort-of-magazine The Atavist, chimed in with two more: (9) “while building product you’re passionate about, create software you then license widely!”—The Atavist’s approach—and (10) “fund investigative business stories + then short stocks before publishing,” a reference to the billionaire Mark Cuban’s controversial relationship with Sharesleuth.

The Fusion model, as I understand it, is none of the above, although it’s probably closest to number 5. Basically, the economics of TV dwarf the economics of digital, and when you’re a television station, the direct revenues from digital are never going to move the needle. Normally, that would be a huge red flag for me. In any company, your ability to get things done is generally a function of how much of the company’s profits you account for. If digital is a revenue afterthought, and a net loss center, then it generally will not get much love or attention.

At Fusion, however, things are a bit different. For one thing, millennials spend a lot more time on their phones than they do watching TV, so if you want to reach them, you need to be digital at heart. More importantly, the cable TV companies are themselves petrified that a generation of cord-cutters is going to grow up on nothing but their phones and other devices, and that all their revenues will dwindle to nothing. How are the cable companies going to make the case to a new generation that they’re still relevant? By serving up the channels that those people care about and talk about.

So here’s the idea: let’s say we can serve up high-quality Fusion-branded content to a new generation of digital natives, and that they love that content. If and when that happens, it’s going to be a lot easier for the cable companies to persuade that audience to pay for cable TV if their cable lineup also includes Fusion. The content won’t be the same, of course — but the brand will be. And the cable companies are going to want the Fusion brand on their lineup because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to seem relevant to anybody under the age of 32. The result: Fusion has negotiating leverage with the cable channels, and becomes very valuable.

Here’s where things start getting really cool. What this means is that it doesn’t matter where people consume our digital content: it only matters that they consume it. So while everybody else fights with each other to get millions of unique visitors to their websites, we will be happy to go reach the audience wherever they are. Of course, we will have an excellent website of our own — the amazing Hong Qu is hard at work building it as we speak. But in no way will we feel constrained by that website. If our audience is on Instagram, we’ll make 15-second videos for them on Instagram. If they’re on Upworthy or BuzzFeed or Vox or even Snapchat, we’ll try to find a way to reach them there, too. It’s what I call promiscuous media: put everything where it works best.

Fusion has an incredible team, based in Miami: video people, of course, but also animators, data-viz experts, you name it. And on top of that we can call on the resources of ABC and Univision if we need to. The result is that we should be able to put together some awesome smart digital content — the kind of material any website would kill for. And we’ll give it away for free, on any platform, for publishing and sharing.

I’ll still write, naturally — but right now I’m not sure how much I’ll write on Fusion’s website, or even whether I’ll write on Fusion’s website. There might well be other platforms where it’s easier and more effective for me to reach my audience of wonks, finance people, media people, and the like.

But the core of what I do at Fusion will be post-text. Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce. When it comes to digital storytelling, however, the possibilities — at least if you have the kind of resources that Fusion has — are much, much greater. I want to do immersive digital stuff, I want to make animations, I want to use video, I want to experiment with new ways of communicating in a new medium. I can do all of that at Fusion.

This is going to be fun.

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Felix Salmon was a senior editor at Fusion

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