Surprising – and unpleasant – news to wake to this morning:
Gigaom has come a long way in the decade or so I've been reading it. It started as Om Malik's personal blog, and evolved into a media startup in 2006. And in the years since it carved out a distinct niche for itself, not in competing to break commodity news in the tech sphere, but in being the first to publish a really good analysis of what that news meant.
In particular, Mathew Ingram's analysis of the tech/journalism intersection was essential reading for me. I didn't always agree with Mathew, but I always found his work challenging and useful. I hope he lands somewhere else quickly, because a world without his analysis will be a poorer one.
Fall of the house of Om
However, once the shock passed, something niggled in my head, and I think that John Gruber nailed it best:
This surprised me. Then I thought about it, searched my entries in Movable Type, and realized I’ve only linked to Gigaom once in the last six months, and four times in the last 12 months. I used to link to reporting at Gigaom a couple of times every month.
And I realised that there was some truth in that. Bar Mathew's stuff, my attention had drifted elsewhere in recent months. And if you looked hard enough, signs of trouble were there. Kara Swisher:
The site, which was one of the first prominent tech blogs to launch in 2006, has recently hired new management, including an interim CEO. It has, in recent years, focused on its more lucrative research business, more than its Web news operations.
It would be interested to know if that shift away from the free news content was a sign of problems - or a cause of them. Certainly good, free-to-air content can be a compelling sales tool for expensive business products. Shifting away from it to "focus" on the research content might have starved the research operation of oxygen, reducing sign-ups. Customer acquisition is always a challenge for paywalled media.
Of course, it could be both: the decision was a response to problems, but accelerated a decline.
A loss to all media
Whatever the cause of the sudden failure of Gigaom, anyone who is interested in serious, thoughtful journalism should be sad. In a tech press increasingly obsessed with huge volumes, and chasing them with clickbait and "me too" tech stories (how many Apple Watch stories have you seen today already?), Gigaom dared to be different - to take a slower and more analytical approach to the news, and position itself as a more serious place.
If businesses like that cannot survive this transition, journalism might be in worse shape than we thought.
Sad though this particular loss is for many of us, failures in experimental media, however skilled their staff, and however well-funded they are, seem inevitable.
As the old saying goes, pioneers tend to end up face down in the dirt, with arrows in their back. In a sense Gigaom has already has its casualties. Om himself suffered health issues:
I think one of the biggest problems I had as a first-time entrepreneur was an inability to let go; I was always second-guessing every decision not made by myself and was obsessed with minutiae. Three months on, having seen the Giga Gang at work, I realized what a mistake that was. You empower people, and in turn they power you to do good things
In the end, he retired from journalism to embark on a career in venture capitalism over a year ago. With the benefit of hindsight, you can't help but wonder if that was another sign of trouble at the company.
Some of the concepts at the heart of what Gigaom did live on in other sites. Vox's "explainer journalism" certainly has many things in common with the Gigaom approach - but applied to a broader canvas than tech.
Om Malik himself has suggested that this isn't the time for a post-mortem:
There will be time for postmortems, but not today.
It's important that we have one, though, because the lessons learned from what worked - and what didn't - at Gigaom will be important for all serious digital media strategy in the future. Om's project had always carved out a different course in the new media landscape, and its loss is a profound one for all of those who believe that the internet can be home for serious journalism.