Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure

Although I resigned my post as editor and co-founder of KCFreePress.com back in May 2010, I never took any real opportunity to explain why. But being away for a while has given me some perspective on the experience, so I thought I’d take the time to talk about what happened at KCFP and what I learned from the whole thing.

For those of you who didn’t visit the site during its short tenure, KCFP was an online publication launched by Jeff Henry, the owner of BigShot marketing and a former Pitch sales guy who always wanted to create something similar on his own terms. I was introduced to Jeff through a colleague at Universal Press and quickly went about outlining the site and recruiting different people to take part, including executive editor Jay Senter (who now publishes PVPost.com) and Emily Farris, a talented freelance writer for several national sites.

With the help of about two dozen freelancers, we launched a site that focused on a wide range of local news and events, publishing about 20 stories a week along with photo galleries, video features, polls and an extensive events calendar. Though the initial efforts were met with enthusiasm, solid readership and a genuine belief that we were doing something new, financial issues and lack of resources caught up with us rather quickly. After the last of the initial crew quit last summer, the site stayed up under Jeff’s leadership until someone finally flipped the switch in October 2010.

Though KCFP was unsuccessful on many levels, the experience was highly educational, and it’s with that spirit that I’d like to offer these 15 hard-earned guidelines for anyone wishing to enter the wild world of local online publishing.

Know who you want to be

If you have too many disparate ideas about what your site should be, you’re going to have a hard time letting site visitors know who you are and why they should check you out. “Cast a wide net,” was one experienced journalist’s advice to me before we started. But, he added, once you find out what works, that’s what you have to focus on.

The days of being an all-encompassing source are over, at least for start-ups. Chances are people will go to you for one or two specific things. Even if you’ve got a unifying theme such as location, you’ve got to keep a consistent tone and clear presentation or else you’ll find yourself trying to cover too much ground without being able to establish expectations for your readers.

Be realistic about your market

Writing about offbeat places, local history and cultural events in Kansas City worked fine for my personal blog, with a few hundred readers a week at most, but I think the general readership in the area is much more interested in hard news, sports, and crime stories.

The beauty of blogs is that anyone can start one, but when your aim is to capture a wide audience and/or make a profit, you have to place the interests of your reader above your own.

Acknowledge your competition, and be realistic about what niche you can fill

In the planning stages of our site, it was easy to be bold about how we would be better than the other outlets. The Star was struggling with layoffs and still had a clunky website that would pop-out, shift and contort whenever you tried to click on something. It often looked like they were trying to recreate Facebook, with cleavage occupying the space where the lead news story used to be.

To me, Ink was an insult to the intelligence and depth of its entire demographic (or perhaps just a cynical reflection of it). The whole thing seemed designed to sell condos and promote the Power and Light district, and part of what we wanted to prove with KCFP was that people in their twenties and thirties care about things beside seasonal fashion and cocktail guides.

The Pitch had a great staff and calendar, but the snarky, disaffected tone that made them edgy 15 years ago seemed a bit tired today. As our site progressed, however, I don’t think we ever made it out of the Pitch’s shadow in terms of our content or audience, which is not surpising considering our publisher got the idea for KCFP after working there.

By hiring talented people and coming up with something fresh and inspiring, we believed KCFreePress.com would simply be better. Which is fine, except it’s not that easy. Though they each have their faults, the competition had something we didn’t — an existing infrastructure, built-up readership and more than three people on staff. I still believe the work we produced was of a high quality, but we didn’t do enough to differentiate ourselves from the competition.

Have a marketing plan that makes sense for who you are

You can come up with the greatest content in the world, but if nobody knows it’s there, none of that matters. Young people can see right through clandestine attempts to market to them, so you have to do it openly and creatively. I disagreed with the publisher about sending unsolicited e-mail blasts, because I think people are more likely to regard them as an annoyance than an incentive to check you out. Partnering with other websites or businesses to put on events and concerts is one idea that can work well for a site like ours, and something Jeff wanted to do from the start. There are all kinds of fantastic marketing opportunities using social media, but you have to really be willing to figure them out well enough to use them in a meaningful way. One local expert on that stuff is Ramsey Mohsen.

Tether success to a fixed objective.

One of the biggest lessons of the dot.com bust was that popularity and high page views are fleeting and can’t be monetized on their own. Statistics like visitor loyalty count much more than a one-off spike in traffic provided by Fark or a link from somewhere else. It’s critical to create a solid business plan that accounts for expenses and includes realistic ad sales and revenue targets for the first several years.

Secure enough start-up capital

With the vast majority of sites, it will take some time to find your niche and let people know you’re there, so you have to do everything you can to make sure you don’t run out of funds before that happens. Jeff spent a significant amount of resources and money financing the thing throughout its growing pains, but in the end we would have needed to start out smaller or have secured outside support to carry us through the first year or two. The harsh reality of business is that it can take at least this long to break even, much less turn a profit.

Be honest with each other

It’s tempting to believe everything is going great, but if it’s not, you need to find out what’s wrong — fast. This takes open communication and a willingness to face uncomfortable realities with each other. Not getting a straight answer from the boss about the status of finances and paychecks made it difficult for us to keep the contributors informed and take corrective measures before the bounced checks started adding up.

Set realistic goals

At the outset of your project, it’s tempting to set ambitious, hard-to-quantify goals like, “We’re going to be the best,” and “We’ll build a site that everyone will love.” But it’s probably much more helpful to set goals like, “We will publish five interesting feature stories a week, three video features, two photo galleries, and one quality weekend events preview,” or “We’ll sell profiles to five businesses the first month and 10 the month after that.” Starting from the ground up might sound like a cliche, but look at how the Pitch was started — a few folks at the record shop writing record reviews and humorous columns about local events. If we’d started smaller and concentrated more on having fun, we might have wound up with different results.

Surround yourself with talented people

This is one area where I thought KCFP excelled — so many interesting, talented and hard-working folks stepped up to take part even though the idea was entirely unproven and we weren’t offering much in the way of compensation. Being able to recruit so many talented writers, bloggers, columnists and photographers reinforced our belief that Kansas City would welcome a smart, well-designed, locally owned website. I often passed up sleep in favor of typing e-mails offering suggests and eliciting ideas from the contributors about what the site could be. Working with readers on their stories and ideas was my favorite part of the experience, and my biggest regret when I quit was that hadn’t been able to make more of their efforts.

Have a thick skin

Media folks in Kansas City seem to want to get all up in each others’ business. Don’t think that being a newcomer on the scene will protect you from other peoples’ criticisms, histories and prejudices. At first you might feel like everyone is reading and believing everything that is said about you, but I suspect a very small number of people take any of it at face value. All you can do is keep your blinders on and do your business as honestly and transparently as possible.

Have Fun

Unless there are massive stacks of cash on the table and/or the opportunity to work with people who you can learn from, you’d better be getting some laughs and personal satisfaction out of the experience. You’ll wind up producing better work, and your readers will have fun as well. If you’re not having any fun, it’s probably not worth it

Keep your perspective

Because I spent so much time planning the site and recruited everyone I knew to take part, even the tiniest mistakes felt like a personal failure. But as much time as we invested on KCFP, and as strongly as we wanted to bring an exciting, viable, new website to the area, at the end of the day it was just that: a website. Having a hyperinflated idea about the importance of what you’re doing can put strain on your mental health and relationships and keep you from being productive.

KEEP IT SHORT!

This sounds like something my sister would type, but this pointed, all-caps suggestion actually came from one of my retired journalism professors who — though he had been managing editor of a major daily during the print era — nonetheless recognized that the web is an entirely different animal. Write too much, and people won’t read it. That simple. (Obviously I’ve overlooked that tip here!).

Make it easy for people to participate

When it comes to the Web, people want to take part, suggest stories, comment, and steer the conversation to something that they can see themselves as part of. It’s important to use a platform that makes it easy for people to comment without too much registering or password-recollection. If it takes them an extra three seconds to log in, many folks won’t bother (though they will almost certainly take the time to complain about it on Twitter).

As for comments, you also have to establish clear, consistent parameters for what people can and can’t get away with. I don’t think keeping personal attacks and libelous statements out of the comments is a bad idea if you want to promote a civil dialogue. That, however, is subject for another article.

Closing thoughts

As I said, six months (10 if you include the intensive planning period) is far too short a time to claim any real authority on how to run or not run a website. Still, I wanted to share my experience in order to come to terms with the whole ordeal and also share what I did learn.

Working on KCFP opened my eyes not only to the realities of business and publishing but also to how many talented and interesting people live and work in the Kansas City area. Though it can at times feel like the same stories and names are repeated in the local media over and over, there are always lesser known events taking place beneath the surface for those who take the time to dig.

Kansas City is a complex place facing its share of problems, and I think it’s important for independent sites and blogs to call attention to issues and discuss them even as the Star continues to shrink. KCFreePress.com was not around long enough to make any lasting contribution to the media landscape, but the enthusiasm and support we encountered in that short time speaks to the importance Kansas Citians place on staying informed about and discussing local events.

Though my experience at KCFP was a rough one at times, I still believe that Kansas City is a place where people respond to projects carried out with passion. Combine that passion with a good idea, a bit of business savvy, and a great deal of persistence, and you just might have something.

All the best,

Lucas Wetzel

Post script:

Astute readers of this text will note that I’m one shy of the promised 15 suggestions. My last one would be “Keep in touch.” I haven’t done a great job of that, but I do still value the connections and friendships I made while working as the editor of KCFreePress. From what I can tell, everyone has gone on to or continued to do something interesting.

Jay has launched the exceptional hyperlocal blog PVPost.com in addition to working for University of Kansas Hospital. Emily launched MidtownKCpost.com and got a job working for the Roasterie. John Simonson’s book version of “Paris of the Plains” came out last year, and the “Commuter City” authors Stephen Mueller and Ersela Kripa are architecture fellows at the American Academy in Rome. Juana Summers went on to work for the Kansas City Star and now writes for POLITICO.

Others continue to excel at what they’ve always done… Steve Wilson is still writing about (and playing and selling) music. The DLC still covers KC Lunchspots far and wide. Jennifer lives with me in Leipzig and continues to do photography here and in Berlin. Abbie Stutzer is still doing freelance articles and reviews, and Josh Hammond is still running Pop Wreckoning. Rob Bingaman is still painting and working for the Kemper, and last I heard, “Jeff the Creepy Chef” was still conducting bizarre culinary experiments with pappardelle.

Too many fine folks were involved for me to accurately name and link to everyone here, but if anyone wants feels like saying hello or commenting about what they are up to, I would welcome it. Thank you for reading and best of luck to everyone.

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1 thought on “Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure”

  1. Sounds like your overseas sojourn has given you ample reflection time. This is all wonderful and honest advice, and I (amongst others, I am sure) am glad to connect the dots on KCFP’s failure.

    The line about the Star’s website is platinum. Hold on to that one. Tell Jen hey from HB and I.

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