Platforms Are For Pussies
From the first conversation Mark Ames and I had about NSFWCORP, it was clear he and I shared a similar view of the future of journalism (with jokes). Really there was no question that Ames belonged at NSFWCORP or that it was my job to figure out the logistics of making that happen.
The only wrinkle, Ames explained, was that he had just submitted a lengthy piece about Mitt Romney to another fledgling electronic magazine: Punch! (punctuation: magazine's own).
I already knew all about Punch! — Maer Roshan's thing, funding from John Borthwick's Betaworks, some other kind of backing from Brooke Siegel from Daily Candy. An all-star team, in other words.
What I hadn't done, until that point, is actually read an issue of the iPad-only magazine. After some faffing about with iTunes, I finally found the thing and signed up. It downloaded, after a while. And that's when the fun began. Simply put, it didn't work. The magazine did not function. I clicked on Ames' article and — nothing happened. I clicked again — progress! — an error message. I tried a couple of other pieces: similar story — eventually a picture of, I think, Rush Limbaugh appeared. But that was it.
I emailed Ames. "I know, I know" he said. "I can email you a copy of the piece." And that's when I knew we had him. Punch!, for all its star writers, hugely talented editors and deep walleted investors and Radar Magazine + Daily Candy = evens — for all of that, the simple fact that the publishers had put the form of this beautiful thing above the function of allowing anyone to read the articles meant that they were never going to be a competitor in any meaningful sense.
Best case scenario, we'd win all the great writers, they'd win all the great designers and the world would keep turning. Worst case, they wouldn't fix their technical issues and wouldn't make it past issue three.
It was worst case.
Today the New York Observer reports that the magazines is going on "hiatus" (I think even Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien is technically still on hiatus). Specifically — and here's the point of all this — the company is switching its focus to become a "publishing platform" for other publications.
ENOUGH. ENOUGH. ENOUGH.
Every day another independent publisher pulls this same move: "we're going to refocus on being a platform". Evan Ratliff's Atavist has all but abandoned its original publishing model in favor of its ebook "platform", GOOD magazine has fired its entire editorial staff and will instead focus on being "a platform for social good" and now Punch! wants to help other publishers make it impossible for readers to click on articles about Mitt Romney.
I mean, I get it. Editorial is expensive. Christ, it's so expensive. Especially if, as we do, you send people to places to do things (before noon today I'd arranged for one writer to fly to the asshole of Mexico and wired a sack of money to an editor who has just arrived in a strange town and needs to rent an apartment and buy a car — meanwhile Kotecki continues to haunt the parties of North Carolina on our dime, largely to spite Jeff Jarvis).
But it gets worse: Not only is editorial expensive, but nobody wants to pay for it. Readers, we're told, don't want to pay for it (I'll deal with that bullshit another time). And investors certainly don't want to pay for it. Of our three investors, two were good friends (one still is) and the other was happy to take the risk because he wants to encourage companies like ours to set up shop in Las Vegas. No investor of sound mind thinks he or she will make money from a magazine, any more than they think investing in restaurants or airlines is a smart move.
A platform, on the other hand ... well, that's the answer to everything. No-one ever went broke building a platform. For one thing, a platform doesn't need to commission editorial: some other sap takes care of that — either clients (Atavist, Punch!) or Joe User (GOOD magazine). Just dispensing with those needy, costly hacks is enough to turn a media business profitable at a stroke.
And the benefits don't stop there: platforms are like catnip to investors. Soon after the Atavist started talking its platform talk, the company scooped $1m in seed money from investors including Eric Schmidt of Google and Mark Andreessen, formerly of Netscape. (Andreessen loves platforms, having also invested in Hyperink — an ebook publishing company that offers a — yup — Platform for bloggers to turn their work into books.) As platforms rather than publications, don't be shocked if GOOD and Punch! suddenly find Silicon Valley money flowing like water.
It's hard to blame them, of course — and impossible not to envy the little shits. Money is great! Anyone who has seen the Facebook movie — the uber platform! — will tell you that. But if money was the goal, what on earth were they doing in journalism in the first place?
Porn: that's where the money is. Or banking. Nigerian wire fraud. But journalism? Publishing? Those are things we do because we have stories to tell, or an inheritance to burn or because we want to send people off to the asshole of Mexico to write books. Those are things we do because there is literally nothing else on earth that we can do. Jesus, even Arianna didn't go into journalism for the cash, but rather for the influence — to become the person you don't fight with, because she buys ink by the barrel.
Becoming a platform just feels so ... well ... grubby. It's the rich man's equivalent of a novelist going into PR because no-one will pay him to tell the truth.
I'm setting myself up for a long, long fall here of course. Statistically speaking, there is zero chance that NSFWCORP will still be in business this time next year. The fact that we're a month away from our first birthday and still solvent is a miracle on par with loaves and fishes. (Say it in hushed tones but we're about half way to break even, with a little over 3000 subscribers — yet still every day is a gift from God.)
It would be sensible commercial practice to hedge against failure by developing a platform business on the side. Just in case. It wouldn't be that difficult — everything you see on NSFWCORP was built in house — the subscription management stuff, the publishing stuff, the Desknotes feature that allows you to spy on our writers as they pitch and discuss stories — even the tools we use to allow subscribers to share articles beyond our paywall. We own all of that, and we could easily let other people use it. There are plenty of publishers who would pay a few dollars a month for access to those tools as a more commercially-focussed alternative to Wordpress.
BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT WE DO.
I make that point as much for myself as for else. It's easy — particularly when faced with another dizzying invoice for libel reading or the bill for a flight to the middle of nowhere, or the fee for 800 perfectly turned words from a professional — to envy those who took the escape pod.
But just entertaining that thought is suicide. If we survive to the final whistle of this game it'll be because we didn't lose focus for a single second. That there was nothing we wanted to do — nothing we could do — except to continue publishing original words that we ourselves commissioned from the best writers we could lay our hands on. That's the only way we can build something that our subscribers — you wonderful, beautiful bastards — will continue to pay for.
As long time readers will know, I'm a great believer in beating temptation by setting oneself up for public shame. By making this pledge: that NSFWCORP will stay true to its original mission, come what may, I'm writing myself into a corner: publish or be damned.
Because should the bell toll on NSFWCORP — either next year or twenty years from now — I need to be able to crawl to the window of my debtor's prison cell and shout these words to the world: We never became a fucking platform.