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May 15, 2012, 11:22 a.m.
Business Models

PubliCola, 2009-2012: How a Seattle news startup built an audience but not a business

Founder Josh Feit says the operation could never gain the business-side momentum needed to turn the local politics site into a sustainable organization.

The last time we checked in with Seattle news startup PubliCola, in 2009, it seemed to be thriving despite an awful economy. Just five months after its launch, the local political news site had a growing audience, two investors, ad revenue (at least to pay its then only reporter’s salary), and plans to expand its coverage. The site’s serious reporting on city hall and the state house was drawing attention, gaining credibility, and taking advantage of a boost in momentum for American politics. The site was launched one day before President Obama’s inauguration, and as PubliCola’s founder Josh Feit puts it, “there was tons of political excitement.”

Three years later, PubliCola is gone. Last week, Feit announced that the site was going out of business because ad revenue “has been limited and inconsistent.” PubliCola had an audience, though — about 400,000 monthly pageviews during political season. So what went wrong?

Feit said the main problems came on the business side and could be grouped under a single heading: a lack of scale and infrastructure to execute commercial ideas and to follow up on promising projects. Let’s go through some examples:

Advertising execution: PubliCola’s plan to bring in advertisers in never took off because, Feit thinks, the effort was erratic. Because of their small scale, advertising sometimes had a full-time dedicated staffer, sometimes only a part-timer, and sometimes no one at all.

“Our intent was to go after the lobbying firms that were promoting issues in the state capitol…the people who wanted to be seen by politicians and leaders,” he said. PubliCola was read in the “cubicles of power”: aides and staff at the capitol, city hall, and even U.S. Senate offices. “That was something we were doing editorially that was attractive to advertisers, but we didn’t execute very well on the advertising side,” Feit said.

Execution on events: Civic debates were one thing PubliCola was really interested in covering and in promoting. The site organized three debates (one of them about a controversial tunnel) which were “incredibly successful”, according to Feit. Unfortunately, PubliCola was unable to keep up with the business opportunities that type of events offered: “There were moments when we were picking up steam and I don’t think we were able to follow through.”

Lack of planning: Being a two-person operation played against the site’s sustainability as a business. Feit and Barnett wore many hats and ultimately were caught up in the day-to-day mayhem. “We didn’t have a long-term editorial and business calendar, which is pretty basic,” he said.

Experimenting: The site flirted with the idea of charging for some content, like a paid newsletter with more in-depth features, or giving access to detailed data from polls published by the site: “The problem with that was, again, there were only two of us doing the reporting, so I don’t know if we could’ve delivered.” What about a paywall? “The New York Times route,” as Feit calls it, was never an option because he felt it would go against the site’s mission: news for the public.

One thing that PubliCola did experiment with was widening its focus, covering more beats than just local politics. The move was intended to lure advertisers related to other topics like music, books, culture, and crime. “We tried the general-interest approach and quickly backed away from it,” Feit said. “It was a mistake.”

Instead, Feit and Erica Barnett, PubliCola’s other reporter, will be joining a general-interest site rather than expanding into one. They will continue writing PubliCola’s two most successful columns, Morning Fizz and Afternoon Jolt, for fellow Seattle site Crosscut.com. The reporters will be on contract while their new bosses explore if they can get funding to make the positions permanent.

Crosscut describes itself as “a general-interest news site, with coverage ranging over politics, business, arts and lifestyle, and the world of ideas.” It once, like PubliCola, operated as a for-profit company, but it became a nonprofit in 2009 as a way to keep the site up and running.

“We did think about it [switching PubliCola to a nonprofit model],” Feit told me, “but we ultimately ruled it out because our sense was, right or wrong, that it somehow might make the product less lively and exciting.” He acknowledged that the model allows more revenue stream through memberships, grants and social advertising, but said he believed it could also “de-energizes” the reporting. (Does that mean that their journalism will be less “energetic,” now that it will run on the nonprofit Crosscut? No, Feit rushed to clarify. “They [Crosscut.com] want to add our voice and they want to preserve it. I’m excited to be in that mix,” he adds.)

POSTED     May 15, 2012, 11:22 a.m.
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