After watching Vice Media descend into bankruptcy this spring, a group of journalists from its popular tech brand, Motherboard, decided that the best way to do their work in a financially sustainable way was to strike out on their own.
And so 404 Media was born. The tech publication — founded by Motherboard’s former editor in chief, Jason Koebler; two of its top editors, Emanuel Maiberg and Samantha Cole; and one of its writers, Joseph Cox — started publishing on Tuesday.
Mr. Maiberg said 404 Media would start with just the four of them and focus on topics they had extensive experience reporting on, including hacking, sex work, niche online communities and the “right to repair” movement.
“It’s very much a website by humans for humans about technology,” he said. “It’s not about the business of technology — it’s about how it impacts real people in the real world.”
The new outfit is the latest in a recent boom of publications owned and operated by the journalists themselves. As the digital media industry has grown increasingly unsteady, with tech companies eating the bulk of advertising revenue and outlets that had bet on growth through social media shutting down, a number of journalists have turned to subscription-based websites with low overhead costs.
The founders of 404 Media said they were inspired by publications like Defector, from a group of former Deadspin staff members, and Hell Gate, run by journalists fed up with New York City media organizations. Similar sites include Discourse Blog, which journalists from the G/O Media-owned politics website Splinter started in 2020 after it was shut down, and Racket, a Twin Cities outlet from former editors of City Pages, an alternative newspaper that stopped publishing during the pandemic after more than 40 years.
The small worker-owned websites stand in stark relief to the digital media companies that popped up with venture capital backing about a decade ago, many of which stumbled.
Vice, once a highflying media brand valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, became increasingly beleaguered in recent years. After Vice filed for bankruptcy in May, a consortium led by Fortress Investment Group bought it for $350 million.
“When something like this succeeds, it’s a sign that it can work in a way that doesn’t grind people down,” Ms. Cole said, referring to 404 Media. “I think that’s why there’s this enthusiasm for the kind of thing we’re doing.”
Mr. Cox said Vice’s recent woes had pushed him to leave the company, especially the disclosure in court documents that top executives were paid six-figure bonuses in the months before the bankruptcy filing. At the same time, Vice delayed paying severance to laid-off workers, stalled on reimbursing freelancers and owed millions of dollars for services.
“I wanted to work somewhere where I had more control over how a media company allocates resources,” Mr. Maiberg said.
So far, the investment is minimal, as it has been at many of the other new journalist-owned publications: just $1,000 each, to cover initial costs. Little more is needed than a web hosting company, a content management system and a way to accept payments. The founders will all work from home, eliminating the cost of renting and maintaining an office.
A subscription to the site will cost $10 a month, or $100 a year. The group plans to see how many subscribers sign up in the initial months before deciding on salaries, Mr. Koebler said. He said 404 Media would eventually start a newsletter and a podcast.
The name was chosen as a play on the 404 error code for a webpage that is no longer available. “Since we’re revealing worlds people may not even know exist, we felt it fit,” Mr. Cox said.
On Tuesday, the site published an investigation by Mr. Cox into people who pose as private investigators to get access to data from credit bureaus.
“It was important for us not to take on V.C. investment to start,” Mr. Koebler said. He added: “We really want to prove from the beginning that we’re going to do important, sustainable, impactful journalism from Day 1 that is worth paying for and worth supporting.”