Digital publishing sometimes looks like an ecosystem where only the biggest can survive. But not everybody is doggedly chasing scale, so in a new series, we’re taking a look at a few digital publishers that have managed to thrive by embracing the middle. Last week, we examined Breaking Media. Next up: Abrams Media, a network of sites started in 2009 by Dan Abrams that includes Mediaite, the Mary Sue, Runway Riot and, most recently, LawNewz. 

When Dan Abrams launched his first website in 2009, Jon Stewart was on television four nights a week, Jimmy Fallon was a “Saturday Night Live” cast member who laughed at his own jokes and social media was not yet the hub for news consumption and distribution it became.

In other words, it was the perfect time for Mediaite, a website powered by clips of cable news gaffes, as well as posts that pounced on politicians’ missteps or passed along the salient points in the latest Andrew Sullivan diatribe. Mediaite quickly built a substantial audience with that formula — three years in, Abrams Media was attracting north of 15 million visitors per month. That audience was spread across Mediaite and six more sites aimed at interests that ranged from sports media (SportsGrid), to celebrity chefs (The Braiser), to female geek culture (The Mary Sue), or female executives (The Jane Dough). He also launched a sister company, Abrams Research, that offered social media strategy. (Full disclosure: I worked at Abrams Research for about two years.)

Many of those sites are gone now, either folded into Mediaite, rebranded or sold, and Abrams Media has retrenched around what works. Mediaite still traffics in quick hits on politics, pushing out 75 stories per day. But it now also covers sports and food, part of a consolidation.

“Having a little site that does 250,000 unique visitors every month is not much value,” said Abrams, an attorney who had risen to become cable news anchor and executive at MSNBC. “We can make much more out of it by making it a vertical on Mediaite.”

And after years of riding those hastily ripped clips, Abrams is looking to become an original video player in its own right: Abrams announced last month that he’s hired full-time video producers, as well as a social media team.

Today, the Abrams Network claims 11 million readers per month. (Dan Abrams attributes the decline to the removal of SportsGrid and Gossip Cop from the total; Abrams sold the former and retains a 50 percent stake in the latter.) Those visitors are monetized through a mix of direct-sold and programmatic ads, split about 50-50, and Abrams said the company was profitable last year.

That stability has allowed Abrams to conduct experiments on the margins of his business. Last year, he rebranded the company’s fashion site, Styleite, as Runway Riot, a fashion site dedicated to “women of all sizes,” which also features its own store.

Earlier this summer, he launched LawNewz, a site dedicated to examining the world’s water-cooler stories through the legal prism. In addition to a highly trained staff — according to Abrams, all of the site’s authors have law degrees — the site is pursuing an unusual video strategy: live coverage of trials. Because of a partnership with Livestream, the site can host live video streams of ongoing criminal and civil cases. Down the line, Abrams said the site’s coverage of cases could turn into a kind of web video show, complete with sponsorships and mid-roll advertising. “We expect video to be a big part of what we do,” Abrams said.

Separately, Abrams also rolled out a voluntary subscription option on The Mary Sue, the female geek culture site that has earned a very devoted following but, by the site’s own admission, has had trouble achieving profitability. For $4.99 per month,  readers can get an ad-free experience, and a monthly Google Hangout with the site’s editors. “We’ve been trying to figure out a way to allow The Mary Sue to remain true to itself,” Abrams said.

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