The Outline has been dogged by controversy, but founder Josh Topolsky wants to move beyond it with his new tech publication, Input

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The Outline has been dogged by controversy, but founder Josh Topolsky wants to move beyond it with his new tech publication, Input

input josh topolsky 2x1

Fred Hayes/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Business Insider

The Outline founder Josh Topolsky is going back to his tech roots with his new publication, Input.

  • Josh Topolsky, founder of The Outline, is creating a new technology-focused publication called Input.
  • The announcement comes after The Outline was criticized for laying off its writing staff and relying on freelancers. 
  • Topolsky said he planned to use full-timers to staff Input as well as The Outline, though.

One morning in late 2018, Josh Topolsky, founder of the digital culture publication The Outline, was reading coverage of Apple's most recent event in September, along with other tech stories in the news and found it wanting.

He says he asked himself, "why do I feel empty?"

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"There's a lot of stories that are recycled PR," Topolsky told Business Insider. "There's supposed to be a follow-up, but you never hear the follow-up. They are informational pieces without opinion."

The dissatisfaction led Topolsky to create a new tech-focused publication, called Input. The launch takes Topolsky back to his tech journalism roots: He was editor in chief of Engadget and co-founder of The Verge before leaving for a top editing spot at Bloomberg Media. After a reported dispute with Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, Topolsky set out on his own, founding The Outline and its parent company Independent Media in 2016. 

But Input's launch is clouded by a crowded tech media market and The Outline's own controversies. The Outline, which was described as a "New Yorker for Millennials" before its launch, laid off its entire writing staff in September, leading some to suggest the company is adopting a gig-based approach.

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Read more: One of the top former editors at Bloomberg has launched his new media venture 'The Outline'

Topolsky said the layoffs resulted from overprojecting revenue and characterized them as a normal part of running a startup. "I think we can agree that we've had our challenges. This isn't a business where anyone's getting rich," he said.

Input enters a crowded market 

Josh Topolsky

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards

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With recently launched verticals such as The Verge and Motherboard and established outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN Business expanding their tech coverage, Input faces a lot of competition.

Topolsky maintains Input, which doesn't have an official launch date, will be different from other tech publications, saying, "I want something different that feels and sounds and looks different."

In the publication's launch letter, he skewered the state of tech journalism, writing, "tech news as we know it has become obvious and predictable," claiming that "no one seems to be asking the right questions."

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Tech journalists at other publications responded as one might expect. Recode's Kara Swisher simply wrote, "Oh lord. But Josh. So."

Topolsky said that Input will operate at a faster pace than The Outline, which publishes three to five pieces per day. Topolsky plans to contribute the site frequently. Input will provide opinion and analysis around platforms, services, products, platforms, and their implications, he said. 

"I want to get back into talking about technology at the consumer level: How does this impact human beings? What's your day-to-day impact of it? When Tim Cook gets up to talk about the new Apple products, what is he really saying?"

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Of the current media environment, he said, "it's really noisy, it would be nice to have shape to that noise."

Coming out of controversy

The Outline

The Outline

The Outline marked itself as "different" but using out-of-the-box graphic design.

Input comes after a bumpy year at The Outline, the publication's sister-site.

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In 2018, The Outline let go of its video team and then the editorial staff of its Power section. Topolsky faced intense criticism after publicly stating the Power section employees were fired for underperformance, something he later apologized for, but a point that he stood by in his interview with Business Insider.  Sources close to the matter say this is still a point of dispute between the employees and The Outline, and note that Topolsky never re-hired for the roles..

In September, The Outline then laid off six staffers, including its remaining staff writers. Critics were wary that The Outline was adopting a gig-based model.

Topolsky attributed the most recent layoffs to an over-projection of revenue, which he connected to changes in revenue personnel and how the company was selling advertising in The Outline. Ultimately, he downplayed the cuts, saying "businesses contract and expand on a regular basis." The Outline has been relying on freelancers since then.

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In response, members of a writers' group called Study Hall pledged not to write for the publication, arguing that Topolsky and the cuts devalued writers. Study Hall leader PE Moskowitz explained to Business Insider, "The Outline was promising to be different, to hold power to account, and then to play into all these dynamics is just very disappointing."

Topolsky denied that the company was replacing staff with freelancers, saying 70 to 80 percent of The Outline's content has always come from freelancers. He said he plans to hire a dedicated editor in 2019 and eventually hire staff writers again. 

"We're not trying to make up with it by just having freelancers. We're publishing fewer stories and we're focusing on the stories that are the essays, feature stories, the longer lead time stories," Topolsky said. 

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Making Input a reality

input lead josh topolsky independent media

Independent Media

Input will be The Outline's sister site, with a focus on technology.

The announcement of Input comes at a punishing time for ad-supported media, with Mic recently selling at a fire sale and BuzzFeed cutting 15% of its staff, among other cutbacks.

Independent Media has raised $10.2 million in two funding rounds, but according to Columbia Journalism Review, much of the second $5.2 million round was raised and exhausted before being announced in May 2018. 

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Topolsky says that the new publication will be funded by the remaining venture money and ad revenue, noting that December was its best ad revenue month ever, and said he was in conversation with potential launch partners. He said the decision to eliminate staff writers at The Outline pre-dated the one to create Input and hire writers to staff it.

As job postings show, Input is seeking a mix of contract and full-time roles. They include a full-time social media editor, full-time news writers, a contracted slideshow editor, and contracted editorial fellows.

Topolsky says he's eager to start the new venture and move on from The Outline's controversy.

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"We're not exactly where we want to be, but we're not dead yet and we're fighting," he said. "We have a new thing that we're excited about that we're figuring out slowly but surely.'"

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