Tech News Site Re/code Creates Buzz In Silicon Valley

Re/code is a new tech site that doesn't charge its readers or expect to make much from ads. Instead, it has a successful conference business. Other media also see potential profits in conferences.

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News organizations have scrambled to find new revenues as traditional sources of funding have evaporated over time, and our media correspondent David Folkenflik has been tracking this. Today had David has the story of Recode. That's a news site that does not charge its readers a cent nor expect to make much from ads. David also tells us what its birth may reveal about older media organizations.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Kara Swisher snacks on sections of an orange as she fields calls from CEOs and reporters in her kitchen, laptop at the ready.

KARA SWISHER: Peter, call you back in a minute? I'm talk - I'll call you back.

FOLKENFLIK: She's now a CEO herself and co-founder of Re/Code, a new tech news site creating buzz in Silicon Valley. But for years, Swisher battled to convince editors of the increasing importance of digital media, as she felt she did two decades ago, has a reporter for The Washington Post.

SWISHER: I covered the beginnings of AOL, when it was a small startup in Vienna, Virginia and I covered the commercialization of the Internet, which started in Washington because it was a Defense Department program.

FOLKENFLIK: Swisher chronicled the birth, the struggles and then the explosion of digital media, often to the seeming indifference of editors, even as she left The Post for The Wall Street Journal.

SWISHER: And even at The Journal there was a lot of doubt over this Internet thing. They thought - they treated it like it was a fad - I was covering a fad. Someone called it CB radio to me. They said oh, you're covering CB radio. And I was like, no, I'm covering massive change in worldwide communications. But you'll see.

FOLKENFLIK: Along with The Journal's influential tech columnist Walt Mossberg, Swisher wanted to create a standalone blog with an identity apart from the paper. But they got nowhere. So instead, in 2003, the high-octane reporter and the high-profile columnist created a conference; called it D - All Things Digital, recruited heavyweights to take questions and charged each attendee thousands of dollars.

SWISHER: We do live journalism at the conferences. We break news. We create historic interview moments like Gates and Jobs, of course, everybody remembers that.

FOLKENFLIK: As in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - digital titans at loggerheads for years - together here in 2007.

BILL GATES: So the industry has benefited immensely from his work. We've both been lucky to be part of it but, you know, I'd say he contributed as much as anyone.

STEVE JOBS: We've also both been incredibly lucky to have had great partners that we started the companies with.

FOLKENFLIK: The Journal backed the creation of the blog that same year but Swisher became a contractor instead of an employee. And now, she and Mossberg have left and launched Re/Code with a staff that includes two dozen journalists.

Emotional ties are still strong; the label by Swisher's doorbell at home still reads ATD - for All Things Digital. Yet, after watching Silicon Valley for so long, Swisher says it's refreshing to work at a startup where staffers can quickly execute their impulses.

SWISHER: So many people might say, yes but. You know, they always tell you why it won't work. And we are the yes/and people. You know, like, yes, this is a good idea, and this will make it better. We don't allow the but in there.

FOLKENFLIK: I found her use of that phrase striking. Yes/and is the cardinal mantra of improvisional comedy - a way for people help refine and improve their colleagues' ideas, not knock them down. Swisher says a lot of ideas got knocked down at The Journal.

Among the complications, Swisher and Mossberg wanted more of a cut of the conference's revenues and Swisher was romantically involved with a senior Google official who's now her wife, a fact she prominently disclosed back then and does now as well. But The Journal's top news executives wrestled with that one for awhile.

Jonathan Krim is the now The Wall Street Journal's technology editor.

JONATHAN KRIM: Nimbleness is always a challenge in a big organization and we are no different.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2007, The Journal and its parent company Dow Jones were bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp - a much bigger company. Even so, Krim says his bosses' encourage editors to think as though they're running startups too. The Journal has unveiled a new site and conference unit about digital news called WSJ-D.

KRIM: We are trying to do our best. I will tell you that the launch of WSJ-D went more quickly and more smoothly than I have been involved in at Dow Jones in four years, so I think we're making progress there.

FOLKENFLIK: Re/Code is not entirely a David among Goliaths. Its minority investors include NBCUniversal's News Group and its reporters show up on CNBC regularly. At the first Re/Code conference in May - already sold out - attendees will pay $6,500 to hear the CEOs of GM, Microsoft and Wal-Mart and the co-founders of Google, Dropbox and Uber.

Reuters media and politics columnist Jack Shafer argues that Murdoch and News Corp rationally decided against investing more money with Swisher and Mossberg and may win back much of the business they generated. But Shafer says Re/Code's founders have also made a promising bet.

JACK SHAFER: Mossberg and Swisher were very bright to recognize that they were the brand, they're the ones with the recognized connection to the Silicon Valley moguls and it very much behooved them to find an investor who would bankroll them to take this hybrid that they have of a news organization and a conference business and go off and start on their own.

FOLKENFLIK: That said, Shafer argues conferences arranged by news organizations typically yield little of worth journalistically, he says people pay to connect with peers in person.

Yet, other media outlets see potential profits there. For example, conferences generate nearly 20 percent of The Atlantic magazine's overall revenues. And Swisher sloughs off distinctions between Re/Code's events and its reporting.

SWISHER: We think of them as the same thing. That's my favorite part is when journalists say, well, the conferences makes money. I'm like, the whole think makes money, we're thinking entrepreneurially about the entire business.

FOLKENFLIK: The day I met with Swisher, we were interrupted by a call from the CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong, trying to contain a publicity firestorm. Twenty years, thousands of miles and two news outlets later, the story has changed completely and remains entirely the same.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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