Great cities are home to great international media organizations with influence that extends well beyond their home base's borders. So when Univision and ABC News (under the guidance of its owner, Disney) joined in October 2013 to launch Fusion, Miamians couldn't help but be proud and hopeful. After all, the network was headquartered right in Doral.
The mission of Fusion seemed exciting. It was supposed to be the news organization of tomorrow that targeted the millennial generation. It was supposed to be more than just a TV station; it aimed to be a "multiplatform network" that connected with its audience through not only TV and its website but also social media sites. It wouldn't just be a hip CNN (indeed there's little emphasis on breaking news across any platforms). It made splashy hires and bold promises, but more than 19 months after launching, Fusion — by all available measures — is still searching for traction. That was underscored yesterday when Gawker got ahold of internal traffic measures of Fusion's website and published them in the post "More People Work at Fusion Than Are Reading Its Most Popular Post."
Those numbers came from Chartbeat, a service used by many news websites to gauge the number of viewers at a single time. Apparently snapped yesterday afternoon just an hour or two before Gawker posted it, the Chartbeat screenshot revealed only 681 people were on Fusion.net at the time. Gawker soon posted a screenshot of its own Chartbeat numbers: 26,316 people were viewing its website. New Times also uses Chartbeat. To put Fusion's numbers in further perspective, let's just say that they made me, the dedicated online news writer for a paper whose ideal audience is limited to English-reading adult residents of a single Florida county, feel really, really good about New Times' web traffic.
But you don't have to have access to insider screenshots to figure out that Fusion isn't quite capturing a large audience across any platform.
- TV ratings are so low that the Nielsen ratings company can't even monitor it.
- Fusion TV reaches only 40 million homes. Comcast, despite the network's Disney backing, refuses to carry it. Atlantic Broadband carries it only on its expanded "plus" lineup. At least Dish network started carrying it earlier this year, but this explains the fact that most homes in Miami-Dade, Fusion's headquarters, don't even get the channel.
- The network's Instagram has only 21,200 followers. To put that in perspective, Tempest DuJour is a 47-year-old Arizona drag queen who was kicked off the first episode of the most recent season of RuPaul's Drag Race. She has 19,300 followers. A middle-aged drag queen who appeared for one episode on a show broadcast on Logo, another niche TV channel that reaches only 50 million homes, has almost as many Instagram followers as the entire network.
- Fusion has 170,000 Twitter followers. The Miami Herald, a newspaper that theoretically only people in Miami read, has 185,000.
- Fusion has 245,165 people liking it on Facebook. Al Jazeera America, a news network launched just a few months before Fusion and financially backed by the ruling family of Qatar (and not the beloved and all-powerful house of Mickey Mouse), has 1,162,845 likes.
This is all rather concerning for a number of reasons.
First of all, Fusion is a network aimed at millennials, the most social-media-savvy generation in existence. Millennials apparently have responded in their native language of online memes thusly:
Fusion has also gone on a splashy hiring spree over the past year to bolster its online staff. It picked big names from proven media outlets throughout the web and paid them well. Gawker reports some staff writers get paid six figures, a princely sum in the lowly world of journalism (and perhaps this explains why other media outlets are eager to pick on Fusion). Regardless, these are people who should theoretically be able to create content that engages readers anywhere. (
Most Many of its online editorial staff appears to be based in New York and San Francisco, with few actually working out of the network's Doral headquarters, by the way.)
Its staff online and on TV has bright spots, and it has produced some instances of truly great work, but that's apparently not enough to maintain consistent interest.
Oh, right there's also the matter that someone apparently inside the network is leaking its traffic numbers to Gawker. The New York Times also got ahold of other embarrassing web traffic statistics in a story published last week.
That same Times story also makes a vague mention of apparent problems with the office culture at Fusion:
Several current and former Fusion employees mentioned a masculine and raucous office culture inside the organization.
Last year, when the company instituted what it described as a routine training program on appropriate sexual behavior, some employees took it as a reaction to widespread rumors of office liaisons. David Ford, a spokesman for Fusion, said that, just like other corporations, it conducted “respect in the workplace training as part of our overall compliance program.”
The Awl reports that someone it suspects is a disgruntled former employee blasted out a damning email to "every media reporter in New York" criticizing Fusion's creator and CEO, Isaac Lee, and the boys'-club culture he's allegedly instituted at the network. Incidentally, that email links to a 2003 New Times story that details Lee's efforts to keep afloat Loft, a highbrow Miami-based men's lifestyle mag targeted toward an Hispanic audience. Loft failed, but Lee's career continued to flourish. He eventually landed at Univision in 2010 as director of news and then set about persuading Univision and Disney to launch Fusion. He's brought many of his former Loft colleagues with him, but at least one anonymous emailer with a big Rolodex thinks they don't have the talent to be there.
Of course, office culture doesn't alone explain Fusion's problems. That issue wouldn't matter if the company were producing consistently good content that millennials wanted to consume.
My quick impression of the site is that it's aiming for content that millennials want baby boomers to think they read, rather than what they actually want to consume (at least regularly). I mean, the website has a "Sex & Life" section that is in no way particularly sexy.
It's like content that exists for when your mom comes into your room at night and you quickly scurry to switch the tabs on your iPad.
"Are you reading that silly BuzzFeed or that vulgar Vice again? That stuff will rot your brain, you know, " she says.
"No, mama, I'm reading Fusion, the thoughtful multimedia content producer for responsible young millennials like me," you lie.
She leaves, and then you quickly swipe back to continue watching a BuzzFeed video titled "A Straight Girl's Adventures With Eating Ass."
Quick aside: I Googled the phrase "ass eating" on Fusion, and this is what came up.
Candice Bergen! Way to keep it millennial-relevant. Go ahead and Google "eating ass" for any other youth-focused news site and see the filth that comes up. Not that rim job articles alone will keep Fusion afloat, but I digress.
Fusion continues on undeterred in the wake of the bad press.
“I have nothing to worry about,” Lee told the New York Times. “I know exactly what I am doing. I know that we don’t know everything, but we are running the best possible process to figure it out. This is a marathon.”
“It’s going to be a big success,” added Ben Sherwood, president of the ABC/Disney Television Group. “You have to take the long view when you’re building a multiplatform service.”
Alexis Madrigal, the website's editor in chief, took a similar long-view stance when tweeting about the Gawker leak.
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Re: the Gawker story. We're young and building. We launched our new site in February. This is last month. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/g8sIlYfjjQ— Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) June 2, 2015
The network has all sorts of new ideas across all different platforms. It recently added a TV simulcast of The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz (yes, they're filming the local AM radio show) and cult hit The Chris Gethard Show (which used to air on Manhattan public access) to its lineup. Just yesterday, they announced the launch of a comedy-focused YouTube channel (the first video: "What if the Smurfs Were Hipsters?"). It will begin streaming videos on Spotify soon. It's producing a mini-documentary about Sofia Vergara, which will be released on SnapChat. Plus, Disney recently decided to shuttle $30 million more to Fusion.
Of course, any new venture should master a few things it does well and then consistently do them before expanding. Similar young media enterprises have done that. Gawker Media honed its signature anti-insider snark on media gossip and gadgets before expanding it across verticals. Vice was for years a cult magazine that most people picked up just for the "Dos and Don'ts" column before becoming the massive news organization it is now. BuzzFeed gained an audience through its listicles before it segued into longform, video, and news reporting.
Fusion does a lot of good stuff, but right now, it's not doing any one thing well enough and often enough to attract much of an audience. After 19 months, that should be something of a concern.