Like Linus with his blanket or Homer Simpson with a Duff, Laurel Touby has made the feather boa a symbolic accoutrement all her own. In fact, the grand dame of MediaBistro.com—now the ubiquitous site for the media cognoscenti, which pulls in just under $5 million in revenue annually and employs 21 full-time staffers—is rarely seen in public without one.
“Men just love the feather boa,” Touby says while en route to the airport for a holiday trip. “When I was attracting a mate back in the 90s, before I got married, the feather boa was quite significant at parties because it brought men to my side. I don’t know what it symbolizes though, now. I guess fun and fluffy, warm parties.”
Whether Touby’s being snarky or sincere when it comes to said boa’s significance isn’t important, because it’s as aligned with her professional aura as “fluffy, warm parties” are with the word MediaBistro. Before it became the internationally-established web property it is now, garnering 4,500,000 page views/banner impressions per month and reaching out to more than 82,000 daily news subscribers, MediaBistro was simply a way for its founder to meet more people in her chosen profession. Its origins can be traced back to Laurel Touby’s early and alienating experiences in the journalistic milieu of New York City.
Having left her native Miami in 1981 to chase big city dreams, Touby initially took on freelance writing gigs for various business publications, as well as media planning gig at Young & Rubicam here in New York to support herself. Soon enough, she found even greater success, landing a gig as a contributing editor at Glamour.
But despite the strides she was making in her professional field, Touby couldn’t shake the sense of isolation she felt from the world of New York City journos.
“I was lonely,” Touby admits. “I didn’t go to Harvard, Yale or Brown where all the Harper’s interns went. I came to New York all by myself and I broke into the media through the backdoor. I worked at home. I didn’t have a place to go to meet other people like me. There was no community center for journalists, no active press club or no one bar where they all hung out that you [could] go and meet your fellow [writers]. So I felt very disconnected and out of touch.”
Fortunately, a chance meeting with another scribe would change all that. “I ran into this other journalist named Russ Baker and he was working as a freelancer for the Village Voice,” Touby recalls. “And he suggested that we throw a party. This would be a way for us to both expand our world of media people that we knew. He knew five media people and I knew five media people, and together, we’d have ten friends in the media. That was the original concept: to make more friends in the media where we’re sharing the same experiences.”
Thus, MediaBistro was (un)officially born, and while the initial get-together only welcomed 10 or so guests, word spread—fast. “It quickly grew from 10 to 50 to 100, and soon we [had] 600 people on the list,” Touby says. “People loved the idea that I wore a boa and I introduced people around to one another. That made the parties different and special. You can go to any party and stand in the corner by yourself with a drink. But you can’t just go to any party and get introduced to people. This was also pre e-mail, pre-web; it was kind of the original viral.”
But just as the parties continued to flourish, so did the Internet, as sites like Yahoo and AOL emerged with newfangled strategies that would fuse content with advertising. However, Touby’s initial concept for Mediabistro.com in 1997 didn’t involve monetization. Just like Craigslist today, the blueprints for the site were drafted from a community-oriented mindset where fellow media-philes could post job listings and interact.
“When the website went up,” she says, “it went up with the idea of being the community center for the media, where people can meet 24/7 and do all the things they were doing at the parties. It was just a fun little project [at the time]. The idea was to give value to the media people themselves and let them discover it and user-generate content, so to speak.”