The $23 Million Boa

Despite her huge payday, Mediabistro mastermind Laurel Touby still stands outside the press-gang elite

"That's when I knew: 'Wow, this is real money,' " she says. "I went to bed a writer. The next day I envisioned myself as a company owner."

Ironically, all the personal contacts she'd made at her parties had started paying off—she'd written stories for New York magazine, with other major glossy pieces in the works. She was finally cracking her coveted media elite.

She called her editors and canceled those assignments.

She bought business books, asked CEOs for advice, and set about getting funding. She approached Dan Kunitz, a writer, because he seemed like a guy who knew the right people: "I ran into him at an event, and I said, 'Hey, do you know any rich people?' " She splurged and took him to lunch at Balthazar. "It was the best $50 I ever invested."

Kunitz introduced her to New Republic founder Martin Peretz, who along with the hedge-fund company Gotham Partners, became Mediabistro's principle investors. In March of 2000, the stock market crashed, and Touby fell short of her initial three-year projection of $25 million in gross sales. She was working in shifts out of her bedroom with two low-paid jacks-of-all-trades before eventually getting a real office on 17th Street. After 9/11, the publishing industry took a hit, and the job listings dwindled. Allen Salkin, a Times reporter, gave her the idea to start classes. It saved the company. By 2004, Mediabistro was profitable.

While she often works off other people's suggestions, Touby is the one who takes action. Former editor Elizabeth Spiers had suggested the "Lunch at Michael's" column, which had been suggested to her in turn by Spy magazine founder Kurt Andersen, who said he'd read the site if it simply listed the people who appeared at the media haunt daily. Months passed, until Touby herself finally went to the restaurant, pad in hand, boldly asking people who they were. Eventually, the participants began to call in their names themselves.

Touby recalls her first meeting with Baker: "I'll never forget it. He looks at me and says, 'You're not one of those people who says they're gonna do something and doesn't follow through with it, are you?' And I was like, 'No. If I said I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it.' "


Mediabistro sells hope—some might even call it false hope. In a collapsing industry—Jane magazine closing, the Los Angeles Times cutting nearly 150 jobs—Touby's workshops have a consoling effect. An unknown writer in a backwater town can learn how to pitch The Fader, Glamour, or Blender. Take "Breaking into Freelancing," "Breaking into Narrative Journalism," or "Ace Your Edit Test," and you too can succeed in the publishing world. The company placed its first-ever ad in Time Out this month, headlined "Be a Media Star."

But more than a few people actually got a foot in the door, got agents, got book deals. Huffington Post blogger Rachel Sklar, who started as an ex-lawyer from Toronto looking for a journalism break, found her first jobs on the site; she took the classes, went to the parties, and even briefly blogged for FishbowlNY, the site's media blog.

"I was totally sold," says Sklar. "Everything happened through Mediabistro—that was the source of all my journalism knowledge, awareness, and contacts. It was a full package deal."

A lot of people—600,000 unique subscribers, to be specific— are buying into Mediabistro's dream. An additional 12,000 Avant Guild members pay $49 a year for access to the useful "How to Pitch" series, Lexis Nexis search-engine access, and health care, while 15,000 students choose from 410 classes at $499 each, with more options available online. The job listings alone cost $279 a pop, with around 1,800 running at a time, about 85 percent of those new additions month to month. It's understandable why someone would pay $23 million dollars for all this.

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Breaking up cliques, hoping to start up new ones
photo: Isabelle Mills-Tannenbaum
Touby shopped Mediabistro for a few years; Jupitermedia, a relatively new company, finally bought it. CEO Alan Meckler marvels that the deal only took three months from the original meeting to the final sale—impressively, even in that short a time, he'd watched the site's numbers grow exponentially. He also liked all the original content driving recurring traffic—something not so prevalent on similar sites like Monster.com. He plans to expand Mediabistro's listings and classes (especially within photography and graphic design, Jupitermedia's specialties), while adding live webcasts and "webinars."

Peers reacted to Touby's big payday with derision and disbelief. Even the most positive piece of press, Simon Dumenco's New York article about the sale, was littered with backhanded compliments: Touby is a "secret genius." She started out a "desperate freelancer." Her early events were "anti-loneliness cocktail parties." Such descriptions burn her. "I don't like it when people always put 'desperate' in front of 'freelance,' " she says. "The word 'lonely'— I didn't have an office. That I didn't have people to hang out with didn't mean I was a desperate, lonely freelancer."


The irony of Mediabistro's success is that its guiding light notoriously lacks certain skills you'd expect a professional party hostess to possess: the ability to remember faces and names, for one thing. "That's what pisses people off," notes Kyle Crafton, who served as her chief financial officer from 2002 to 2007. Numerous employees at the small company say Touby didn't know who they were when they met at events. She frequently doesn't recognize boldface-name media personalities, and she even blanks on celebrities. "Occasionally, she'll be looking at Britney Spears on 80 magazine covers," says her husband Jon Fine, a Business Week reporter. "And she'll be like, 'Who is that?' "

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