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Man bites dog: How hardcore policy reporting is paying the bills at a Seattle web startup (in 4 easy steps)

Beat reporters have always had to guard against going native: seeing stories with the narrow viewpoint of your sources, sliding into jargon, getting tangled in micro-stories that matter only to insiders, losing touch with the general audience. It’s an occupational hazard. Or, at least, it was. Now it may be a funding model.

In media-rich, ahead-of-the-curve Seattle, where the general audience has been splintering for more than a decade, one of the biggest success stories has been a profane, lighthearted alt-weekly upstart called The Stranger. You likely know it best as the home of sex columnist (and editorial director) Dan Savage, but The Stranger some years back stumbled upon an unlikely niche: heavy-duty city hall coverage. Much of that work was done by The Stranger’s perennially award-winning city reporter, Josh Feit, 42.

Now Feit is looking to mimic that formula on his breezy, shamelessly wonky new online startup, Publicola. And so far, against all odds, he’s succeeding — and simultaneously helping to answer a really big question:

If databases can write tomorrow’s cops blotter and philanthropy can fund tomorrow’s big investigations, who’ll finance the day-to-day surveillance of city hall for petty corruption and bad decisions? Feit’s finding out the insiders will.

Ethically problematic? Totally! But after drawing two bursts of venture capital and a respectable stable of advertisers, a site that appeals largely to folks “in the cubicles of power” totally seems to be working, too. Working so well, in fact, that city hall and statehouse content is now subsidizing Feit’s next goal: beefing up culture coverage to create, more or less, an online-only alt-weekly.

Here’s how Feit spun insider-friendly content into gold, in four simple steps.

1. Elite benefactors contributed. When Feit conceived Publicola in 2008 — the site’s branding plays up the “cola” angle, but it’s named for the guy who leant a pseudonym to the Federalist Papers — his first recruit was business advisor Sandeep Kaushik, a former reporting colleague who had jumped the fence to become a professional political consultant. Then Feit started calling well-to-do admirers of his work at The Stranger.

“I’ve been covering Seattle politics for 10 years,” Feit told me. “I’m really wired in.”

Three of his wires lit up: cash donations. The money wasn’t much, Feit said, but it helped defray his costs while he was burning into a year’s worth of personal savings. Maybe more importantly, having something Feit could point to as “startup money” gave him more of the commodity any news site needs most: legitimacy.

2. Insiders had been primed for insider-y content. With the state budget in dire straits, Washington’s 2009 legislative session was awash in red ink and in news. And the contracting newspaper industry was in no position to keep up: three of the statehouse’s top reporters had all left the business in the last year.

That left thousands of bureaucrats, lobbyists and activists parched for legislative scuttlebutt, including billions of dollars in state cuts. So two months after Publicola’s January launch, Feit became Olympia’s first credentialed online-only reporter.

Between February and April, Feit said, his audience jumped from 600 unique daily visitors to 1,500. “You start with your strength,” Feit said. “The audience was clearly political wonks, insiders, people in cubicles in Olympia.”

3. Niche ads and investors followed. Fifteen hundred uniques a day isn’t a huge number. But if it’s the right 1,500, there’s money to be made. In May, Feit hit a milestone: Publicola’s display ads, sold on commission by a part-time saleswoman, covered his salary. (His office space is donated, he said; other costs were minimal.) The vast majority — “98 percent” — were political: consultants, causes, campaigns. (At the moment, there are 16 ads on Publicola’s front page, covering topics from light rail and a conservation fundraiser to political consultants and a city council candidate who proudly promotes himself as “wonky.”)

Once he’d proved that his content could support a one-man staff, investors noticed. Feit sold a minority stake on June 1 to Greg Smith, a green developer in Seattle who’d admired Feit’s left-leaning land-use coverage.

“The buzz around town is real,” Publicola’s press release quoted Smith as saying. “The smartest and most informed players in politics and government all tell me they’re reading it.”

Smith almost immediately introduced Feit to his second investor, travel-management entrepreneur Rajeev Singh. Singh put up enough cash to ensure that, Feit reported, “PubliCola is going to be around for some time to come.”

4. Coming next: culture? His early success with display ads aside, Feit says the audience for political content is too small for Publicola to support itself on political ads alone. So while his first full-time employee (a former Stranger colleague hired the day after the Signh deal) throws herself into Stranger-style politics coverage, Feit’s saleswoman is now hitting up nightclubs and music venues — and Feit is now trying to coax must-read cultural content out of a handful of paid stringers.

Will it work? Pushing concert reviews and local-sports commentary on the city hall suits Publicola has worked six months to win over would be a strange maneuver, but that’s exactly what Feit plans.

“People who are obsessed with city hall are people who really care about Seattle,” Feit said. “And I think think people who really care about Seattle know that we have this really exciting soccer team.”

Maybe. But as Feit and his team prepare for their leap back toward the general audience, let’s pause to reflect on the old-media refrain that the only way to profitably serve up serious policy reporting is to subsidize it with general-interest cultural candy.

For now, at Publicola, it’s just the opposite.

                                   
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