Hot, Off the Presses: Former City Pages Editor to Launch Hybrid Web Daily

When he resigned from his job at City Pages in January, editor Steve Perry cited "philosophical and practical differences" with the paper's new owner, Village Voice Media. Since then, City Pages has taken one path, very different from the one he set for 13 years as editor, and Perry has taken another. For the past six months, he's been writing a business plan, picking the brains of consultants, writers and technology experts and laying the foundation for the hybrid news, culture and conversation site he'll launch late this fall. Granting me first word on his new project, he agreed to an email interview in which he discussed the site's tone and functionality (think: Gawker bred with MNspeak and The Stranger), his assessment of the competition, and the national culture writer -- and inlaw -- who'll be contributing.

Paul Schmelzer:
What is it and how will it be different from City Pages and all the other local news sites running or in the works in the Twin Cities?

Steve Perry: It'll be great! There's maybe a dozen people directly or indirectly involved in this project so far, and most of them have already reported experiencing better sex and shinier hair.

It's a Web-only local publication. Daily. Blogs- and multimedia-based, so the writing will
usually be short and a lot of the content won't revolve around writing. We'll build to a pretty high posting volume, but there won't be any feature-length writing, at least initially. There will be original reporting and news analysis, and local arts-and-scenes coverage, and we'll do a lot of filtering of the most interesting events and conversations around town and in other media. I also want to experiment with using non-expository content like annotated maps and infographics as ways of telling complete stories, not just as illustration/accompaniment to longer pieces of newswriting.

So it's a professional journalism site, but it's just as importantly conceived to be a community-and-conversations site. I love the idea of building a forum that wantonly blurs the lines between "professional" and "amateur" voices wherever appropriate. After we started blogging extensively at City Pages, I was struck by how much I learned from the comments and correspondence it generated.

I didn't just get a better sense of who the readers were; many of them made tangible contributions that helped me do my job better. But this all happened in the background, more or less. Since that time, what I've really wanted to do was a site that integrated, and more regularly foregrounded, what readers and users had to contribute. This area in particular seems so ripe for it. The degree of public engagement with media here has always been pretty incredible. And there's a great web climate. Minneapolis/St. Paul never gets mentioned near the top in lists of "most wired cities" anymore, but it has the fifth-highest local Web penetration of any U.S. Top 15 market.

Lately I have learned many such fun facts.

PS: The local online media scene has its players, and they all seem to serve specific niches: MNspeak for a community message board, The Rake's online look at culture and dining, videoblogging from Chuck Olsen and The Uptake, community news and aggregation from the Daily Planet, original reporting from yours truly and my capable colleagues at Minnesota Monitor, and blogs by the mainstream magazines, radio stations, and newspapers. And Joel Kramer is starting up his enterprise later this year. Yours seems... different. A combination of some of the above and something new. What sites inspired different features you're considering?

SP: All the local sites you mentioned are ones I've learned things by watching. Creatively, they and a few others have been trailblazers in working out interesting ways to do local web content. Especially Chuck Olsen.

I think The Stranger in Seattle does an amazing job with its Web content, and they have great, robust, funny community interaction happening all over the site. They're definitely kindred spirits in my eyes. I like Gothamist and its affiliated sites in other cities. They capture part of the equation.

And the Gawker blogs are a very useful model for anybody setting out to do professional blogging, because nobody studies the factors that drive traffic -- packaging, item lengths and formats, posting times, posting frequency -- as doggedly as they do. I think Adrian Holovaty's work is always interesting, even though the Backfence project went toes up a couple of months ago. And there's an intriguing Web-only publication called Crosscut, which is also in Seattle, but it's much more an online newspaper than this project will be.

Content-wise, there aren't a lot of models for what we're hoping to do here. It's a mash-up of elements. The site tools and features, and the navigational architecture, will be very simple. The goal is a site whose content and tool-set will scratch Web-savvy users where they itch, but at the same time make it transparently easy for technology-shy people to jump in and participate.

PS: Given the hybrid nature of what you’re working on, it doesn’t sound like you really have direct competition. There is no Minneapolist or GawkerMN or anything comparable. But Joel Kramer’s site, which (unlike yours) I’ve heard will be non-profit and follow somewhat of a newspaper model, seems to be the closest thing. He’s got some good staff -- Roger Buoen of the Strib (and current Minnesota Monitor editorial mentor), former Pioneer Press editor Don Effenberger, City Pages’ Corey Anderson as Web editor, plus ties to lots of bought-out Stribbers -- and a lot of funding. Do you see him as competition? How will you be funded? And finally, you told me once that a big-name national culture writer will be on board. Can you share who that is?

SP: I know a little about Joel Kramer's site, and it sounds exciting. He and I have talked about it, and we talked in passing about the possibility of working together on certain aspects of what we're doing. We'll see. I'm confident the sites will be pretty distinct from each other, but of course there will be competition for local Web ad dollars. There already is. The new factor is that you've got Web-only publications entering the picture. My feeling, as I told Kramer when we talked, is that we have more in common as new-media sites looking to put across our stories in the local Web ad market than we have separating us as potential competitors.

I don't know when his site will formally launch -- the buzz now seems to be October or November -- but frankly I don't know when our site will move from beta to hard launch, either. I made the decision early on to put off meeting with potential investors until I had not only a fully developed business plan but a site prototype built as well. So I've spent my own money on the latter, and secured some initial investment for the start-up, but I'm really just beginning to have the money conversations. And obviously they have an impact on the timing of the rollout.

The writer you alluded to is Greil Marcus, but I don't want to give the impression he'll have a blog of his own there or anything. He's agreed to be an occasional contributor to our national media-culture blog. I'm thrilled to have him as a contributor, and although I wish I could say it was the sterling content plan that won his heart, the fact my wife is a) an important part of this project and b) his daughter may have tilted things a smidge.

There are some other national bylines that may find their way into that space as well, but it's misleading in a way to talk about nationally known bylines -- the site overall will be very much local.

PS: Got a name yet?

SP: Yes, but I'd rather hold off on disclosing it until the design work's done and I can show as well as tell. Actually, the whole site's under construction as we speak. I've got a great IT partner in the Clockwork web firm, and we're on schedule to have it up in a limited, by-invitation beta next month.

PS: Give us a hint about the name. Will it be more straightforward, like Minnesota Monitor, or along the cryptic-poetic lines of The Rake?

I always thought a publication called The Hoe would make a nice companion to The Rake -- no disrespect intended to The Rake, but the name conjured visions of an entire empire of niche publications named for garden tools.

But that's not it. I couldn't have gotten the URL anyway. The name we chose is sort of eccentric, and we hope memorable. Playful but with resonances we liked. The word "Daily" is in the name. Let's call it the Daily X for now.

Perry is looking for 100 beta-testers for the new site. To be invited, email beta.list@gmail.com.

Crossposted at Minnesota Monitor.


Aaron said...

Awesome. Thanks for doing this interview.

Anonymous said...

Double that. I'm really looking forward to this.

Chuck Olsen said...

excellent breaking news, sir.