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.”
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.
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)