The myth of quality and free content

It’s official, EnzymePdx, the online news magazine closed last Friday , after exactly 60 days of publication. I worked as a part-time staff writer there since the launch and now have the distinction of having seen two online publications shut down on me in so many months (the Sentinel officially closed in August). Start-ups can live fast and die young, doubly so for news start-ups I guess.

The fact that Enzyme closed was no surprise – everyone knew it was a high risk venture to hire a fully staffed newsroom driven web magazine in the shallows of a recession. What was shocking was how quickly it folded.

In my view there are a common errors that can often happen when a journalist tries to launch an Internet publication. These mistakes are so common that I shared them with Lew Serviss, former New York Times editor or 10 years, and publisher of Enzyme, a few days before start-up. But the biggest trap of them all is what I call the myth of quality content.

Lew Serviss, publisher and editor was one of the best people I’ve ever worked for. He is considerate, thoughtful, and a gentle taskmaster.  As an editor he was great- The New York Times hires no fools obviously. As an assigning editor, Lew made things look easy- he’d suggest a story that would sound lame at first, but in the end would turn out to be a scorcher.  He had an amazingly refined BS detector. He intuitively knew where the stories were and where the story WEREN’T (even though he was new to town.)  As a story editor he was like a master barber. He could give your story a trim (or even a major overhaul) and when he was done it seemed like nothing had changed.

But, as a publisher Lews he was a believer in that adage that seems to underpin so many ad driven free content news start-ups: if you write quality stories and do good journalism the audience will find you.  I’ve heard this all the time in my years as Sentinel publisher and through conversations about new journalism at www.portlandmedialab.com. Most of the time I held my tongue and never said, “Well if that was true the New York Times would be made in the shade.”

While the Internet allows almost anyone to gather an audience, it does not, at this time, allow you to sustainable revenue – if content is the only method for drawing a crowd.

While Enzyme did lots great profiles and lifestyle reports, Lew really wanted the staff reporters, Matt Singer and I, to do investigative and analytical work.

Before the publication launched I decided to stop in at the offices of a half a dozen local politicians and ask them a few questions about what they felt was lacking in today’s news coverage.  My assumption was that the press is an institutional instrument of democracy. The Press sometimes works in contest and sometimes works in concert with the government. To me this is not unlike the natural balance/conflict of powers that the founding fathers set up between the separate branches of government.  I felt that, before Enzyme started, it was important to ‘cross the aisle’ so to speak, and get the government’s POV.

Folks in government said two things: first “you guys just sensationalize everything” (shocker), the second was that today’s news coverage lacked depth, analysis and context. Interesting.

As a further digression, I was also surprised by how many of the government PR people were happy to see me back at the job, because they felt their departments were now underreported.  I don’t know if they were lonely, or what. More than one PR person said in whispered tones, “You guys have to keep us honest.”

Anyway…

Given that many folks I’ve talked with, in and out of government and media seem to want “depth and analysis” in coverage, Lew had a good vision for the magazine when it launched.  An Atlantic Magazine for Portland we sometimes said…

To that end, I think we did some good work. I believes my stories questioning the regions priorities about Jobs Vs Livability , Metro’s 12K acre Urban Growth Boundary gaff in Damascus and the City’s possible tax grab of neighborhood dollars for a Rose Quarter redevelopment were good examples of stories that were moderate, fair, analytical and contextual.

But who cares if the stories are good if no one sees them?

Enzyme was pulling in about 400-500 hundred unique visits a day.  While we had some great readers, including some very smart folks (and lots of Asians) we just didn’t have enough. The publications traffic forecast when we closed was that it would take over 5 years to build up enough traffic to become sustainable.

While still, it’s really hard to come to any conclusions after 60 days… Lew may have seen the light of day and the long hard road ahead him. With a second dip into recession, lower than expected site performance, and after our reporting, a whiff of the historically under performing Portland business climate, I think Lew might have gotten spooked and decided to cut his losses.

To the heart of the matter is that: quality + free content = risky business

After five years as a small-scale publisher of a free content rag and website,  I have long since disabused myself of the belief that simply producing quality content will attract a supportive enough audience .

It takes more than just quality to make a business work.

One of the oldest rules in business, in my view, quality is a function of price.

The tricks of the trade that make publication work are far less glamorous and not nearly as ideologically inspiring as ‘quality journalism’.  Marketing, target audience demographics and keeping your costs down are sadly, the fundamentals that often get swept aside in news startups.

The Internet, Search, Social Media and the Viral Effect will not raise general interest publications like Enzyme to the top of the market place, anymore than they will repeal the laws of gravity.  Of course…in quantum anything is possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely.

The publisher’s game hasn’t really changed in that respect. You can’t lose sight of the business.

Working with Lew taught me a lot about writing and reporting. It was a tremendous privilege to work with him, even for a short time.  To that end, my time at Enzyme was a worthy experiment.  I’ve done some of my best work there.  Lew had the guts to put his money and his business where his dreams were. But it also taught me that many of my closely held beliefs as a publisher were right on.

To Lew- I tip the hat.

As for me, it’s onto the next experiment.

The old story is that Thomas Edison went through over 1,000 different filaments before discovering the right one for the light bulb.  At one point his assistant said, “We’ve tried a 1,000 times. It’s time we give up. We haven’t learned anything!”

“Of course we have,” replied Edison. “We’ve learned a thousand ways in which it doesn’t work.”

sigh…yes… ok, that’s all for now.

I shall return.

(that last bit is MacArthur, not Edison)

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4 comments
  1. Israel Bayer said:

    Really enjoyed this post.

    I think for a small publication or start up they need to take more risks. More muckraking on one end, and not being afraid to piss people off, and more stories of real Portlanders — not the ones that could bring in potential advertising dollars. On-line, there’s got to be something, something that draws people that’s outside of the scope of anything being done right now.

    For example, you can look at any number of niche publications finding a place to settle — food, bikes, poverty, health care, culture, etc.

    What I see, and what SR experiences, is when a topic gets hot, all of the smaller publication spend their time following the Merc/WW/O coverage and trying to come up with a different, unique angle. Problem is, there is no different or unique angle because of the amount of information flowing on-line and in newsprint.

    The vast majority of people when reading about local politics or happenings like say, “URAs, or the police, or foreclosures, etc.” may read the first article they get to, but the chances of them reading it again from a different angle in six other publications is unlikely.

    Just like it drives us crazy to pick up the O and read an article the next day that you’ve read somewhere else the night before, I think the same goes for small publications. It drives me crazy when I pick up a small publication and they’re covering something the O covered two days before — so maybe it’s a little different w/one more source added, or a different development for the time being, but it’s still the same subject matter. It turns people off. They’re dying for original material.

    SR by no means has figured out a winning formula. We struggle just like any small publication. Saying that, we pay attention to other publications, and the spinsters constantly. What are they covering, why are they pushing that angle, etc. Then we usually go the other way. When people start covering the criminalization of the homeless, police, mental health, etc., we start covering immigrants, or something different. When the press dies down and goes on to the next fan fair, we circle back. If we know we can get to something before anyone else, we go for it, but that’s rare. We simply don’t care about the scoop in most cases.

    The other element that I think is missing locally is more road-map journalism. I believe the Atlantic Monthly, & New Yorker do it all the time, more of a Seymour style of journalism. So often journalist are led by the PR hounds, and insiders and waiting for the political hacks to give them the next developing story. I think we should be doing our homework as journalists and creating more scenario journalism based upon what’s happened elsewhere, the past, and then taking some chances and predicting the future locally — of course w/those insiders being sources, but not the drivers of a story. Even if a publication gets it wrong, it’s still makes for fascinating journalism and pulls readers in.

    Concerning revenue streams for journalism. I don’t know the answer to that. Being that SR is more than a newspaper we have the ability to raise funds from a very diverse pool. I think if a non-profit is going to be successful it needs to change its terminology away from advertising and go with sponsorships — they are tax-deductible and allow for you to approach partners from more of a community stand-point and not just what I can do for you. It also allows one to create in-kind partnerships that allows for you to use professional services on any number of fronts. Of course, this all hings on your mission being compelling enough to attract partners.

    Saying that, running a small publication on a shoe-sting more or less means taking a vow of poverty. I’m the Executive Director and I barely get by at SR. So, being able to make a living wage and put together even partly funded news team is stretching it. I think it can be done, but in this climate, it’s tough.

    My humble two-cents.

    We all appreciate your work.

  2. Hey thanks Israel
    You are one of the sharpest and toughest guys out there IMO. I agree 100% with your comments. I certainly didn’t mean to discourage journalism venture and start-ups. The opposite, I want folks to step the game up, keep experimenting, but think like a publisher and a journalist, not just as a journalist, because on the web, every journalist is a publisher as well. So, they have to think in a way they are not use to (they call it Entrepreneurial Journalism I think) I think beat reporters are increasingly turning into beat bloggers and issue specific websites- bikes, transport, healthcare, poverty. I think there are still niches out there that folks could carve out for themselves- schools, crime, arts, perhaps land-use– anyway. Cheers

  3. Ron Buel said:

    Some principles I think you both miss in this discussion so far:

    1) Audience before monetizing the audience, whether its a non-profit or a for-profit. As Lew said to me, as a start-up, you find your audience through side doors, not through traditional marketing. Those side doors need to involve daily “push marketing” effort in which you get your product in front of people AND community service related to a publication’s mission. The point is not to give up your quality before trying to build an audience. It takes time and money to do it right. Bootstrapping a news operation is harder than most journalists think in today’s commercial world, even though money is moving from legacy media to digital media. That doesn’t make Lew’s effort wrong. But Cornelius is right — we need to learn from Lew.
    2) Critical mass is an issue. OPB gets $9 million a year or so from its members. But they have a sizeable operation and they work hard and smart. I’m not saying they are doing a lot of great reporting yet, but Think Out Loud and their website news and radio news are going to be growing. Their digital journalism boot camp tonite is evidence.
    3) Clay Shirky says that in saving journalism, “nothing will work but everything might.” The limits of this axiom are found when one tries to make a profit that would sustain the quality journalism you are trying to do. It’s why people are moving to non-profits, which fit the community service model that journalism really provides.
    4) The loss of Lew Serviss and Enzyme Media is a big deal to Portland. Part of what has happened is that the city we love doesn’t understand what it needs. There is a patina of arrogance and satisfaction, a facade if you will. As Lew says, “I really believe this town could be as great as it thinks it is.” Content isn’t always king. Sometimes context is king.

  4. C — didn’t take your posts to be discouraging start-ups or small publications at all. I thought it was well-written and right on target. Just dropping my two cents on the industry as a whole, and maybe a drop of something we continue to learn.

    Keep up the great work!

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