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The Intercept Found Serial's Elusive Jay, but Can It Find a Profitable Future? [UPDATED]

Investigative site looks for ways to generate revenue long-term

Last month, The Intercept scored an exclusive interview with Jay, a suspect in the murky murder case detailed in the hit podcast Serial. That was happy news for the beleaguered startup, which has not only scoops but now consistent revenue in its sights.

For at least the next six months, The Intercept—a digital investigative journalism venture co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill and that got $250 million at launch from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media—will continue to focus on content, said Greenwald.

But with owner FLM looking to move from nonprofit to for-profit status, according to president John Temple, the focus could soon shift to producing revenue.

(UPDATE: Greenwald denied on Twitter today that a potential switch to for-profit status is in the works for The Intercept, and FLM has since retracted its original comments to Adweek. The company now says The Intercept will not be converted to for-profit. For details, see expanded note at the bottom of this story.) 

"We don't want to be a charity," said Greenwald. "We need to figure out how to be self-sustaining down the road. Whether that's ads or something else, we're going to have serious discussions."

Under new editor in chief Betsy Reed, the site may be better positioned to reach its potential. The Intercept made headlines last March, one month after its launch, upon publishing leaked NSA documents from whistle-blower Edward Snowden, then again in July when it exposed the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist criteria.

But soon after, stories began to emerge about troubles at FLM, including a scathing piece by then-EIC John Cook on the internal conflicts that led journalist Matt Taibbi to depart. (Cook himself left to return to Gawker Media.)

"One of the mistakes we made is, we were so excited about what we could achieve, we didn't stop and think about the pitfalls of creating a new media organization," Greenwald said. "We didn't discuss what expectations Pierre Omidyar had for us, what his organization [wanted] and what we wanted."

But the biggest challenge may lie ahead. Finding advertisers is not an easy task for journalism with a social cause, said Dick Tofel, president of the nonprofit ProPublica. "If The Intercept is going to be for-profit, I wish them good luck," he said. "I don't see how this is going to be profitable."

While social media has helped ProPublica and its brand of journalism find a wider audience, marketers tend to steer clear of such sites and their relatively small readership. ProPublica averages 1.6 million pageviews per month.

Editor Reed, former executive editor of The Nation, seems to understand that The Intercept must get still more eyeballs. She wants to employ deep-dive tactics to explore topics beyond national security—much like how Serial shed light on the criminal system, for example. She also aims to make complex issues more digestible.

What is the editor's view on advertising? "I'm comfortable with having a social mission," Reed said. "I also think that I'm interested, as a journalist and media person, about ways we can grow and sustain ourselves."

Reed has the blessing of the site's founders, including Greenwald, who said he is confident she can execute their "aggressive, fearless and adversarial-to-authority" vision. "There were a lot of people who were dancing on our grave," he said, "and I can't wait to prove them wrong."

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has posted several tweets today saying that there is no discussion of The Intercept becoming for-profit:

However, as noted in the original version of our article, it was not Greenwald who told Adweek that First Look Media could be shifting to for-profit status. That comment was emailed to Adweek from an FLM spokesperson and attributed to president John Temple. Asked specifically about The Intercept's nonprofit status, Adweek was told in a Jan. 7 email, "First Look Media is nonprofit and The Intercept is part of FLM. The intent is to change it down the road."

This afternoon, the following statement was received from FLM:

"The Intercept is non-profit and there are no plans to make it a commercial or for-profit publication. The team may start exploring a variety of ways to sustain itself, per Glenn Greenwald's quote. But it is misleading to say FLM wants to move The Intercept from a non-profit to for-profit and that the focus will shift to revenue by the end of the year. Many non-profit organizations have earned income or revenue streams but remain non-profit entities."

We have clarified this article's subhead to reflect FLM's updated statement.

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