New media, old politics

PubliCollateral Connections

Strange bedfellows at the hot new news site’s coming out party.

By Eric Scigliano July 2, 2009

It was a party where everybody had an angle—an ear to bend or information to extract from someone who was bending ears—and still had a good time. Local politicos, political handlers, and political journalists gathered last night to celebrate the launch (or re-launch, nearly six months after the start-up) of the dishy PubliCola, “Seattle’s News Elixir,” the latest site to propose filling the gap as newspapers shrink, disappear, and retreat from political coverage.

Belltown’s Rob Roy was packed to capacity. Tim Ceis, Seattle’s deputy mayor and Mayor Nickels’ feared enforcer, was caught up in the spirit; he started out the door pint in hand, and got snagged by the bouncer. I wondered if this meant he would run for City Council; when Tina Podlowdowski ran, she got busted with a beer in a park and locked up the vast wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-be-able-to-have-a-beer-at-the-beach vote. Especially since Ceis was also overheard boasting to Peter Steinbrueck about everything “I’ve accomplished” as may—er, deputy mayor. But no, it seemed an innocent mistake; an adjacent door led to a sidewalk beer garden.

Inside, PubliCola’s editors/founders were basking in the glory. They’re three former Stranger political reporters with an insatiable zest for local governmental doings: Josh Feit (editor), Erica Barnett (news editor, whom Feit earlier lured from Seattle Weekly to The Stranger), and the ebullient Sandeep Kaushik (“Spiritual Adviser, Guitars,” a cute way to say “publisher”). Another key player got less limelight, though he stood taller than everyone else in the room except Ceis: glamorous green developer Greg Smith. Smith doesn’t appear on PubliCola’s masthead, but his company banner (Urban Visions) tops the homepage, and he’s PubliCola’s first big angel. (Concur Technologies president Rajeev Singh has since invested as well.

Smith’s politically engaged too—he considered running for mayor this year—and over the bar clatter he said he’s taking an active role in PubliCola. He sees it filling a hole in local coverage: The Stranger’s “too extreme, as it should be.” The Weekly’s “lost its footing…. all the big companies have lost their footing.” And though he lauds Crosscut founder David Brewster, that pioneering regional news site is “for the over-50s.” Smith glanced around the Rob Roy. “These people aren’t going to read it.” Never mind the agonies of the shrinking and disappearing dailies.

So what does Smith think about PubliCola cofounder Kaushik working as a campaign consultant and publicist for Nickels—the mayor Smith nearly challenged and who, via Ceis, scuttled Smith’s plan to save the waterfront streetcar? “That is a concern,” Smith conceded. “We’ll probably have to do something about that eventually.” But he wondered whether conflicts like that matter as long as they’re duly disclosed. Everyone has interests and involvements, he noted: “I’m a developer, for example. What’s essential is transparency.”

Kaushik also worked for King County Executive Ron Sims, and he works for Sims’s would-be successor Dow Constantine. He assures readers that Feit is “in charge of what gets posted,” and that “neither Greg nor I have day-to-day control over the content.” And he promises to follow two old-media precedents of owners keeping their hands off the coverage—Hearst with the P-I, Frank Blethen with the Times.

But the question with ownership influence is almost never “day-to-day control.” It’s general direction, selective positioning, unspoken boundaries, and chilling effect. When the P-I in 1980 strayed off the Hearst Republican ranch in its presidential endorsement, publisher Virgil Fassio gave the editorial board a two-word message from HQ 1n ’84: “It’s Reagan.” Blethen famously flogged a pet crusade, repealing the inheritance tax, in Times editorials, and donated ad space to the repeal campaign.

Perhaps PubliCola’s Nickels and Smith connections cancel each other out. That would be a novel notion of journalistic ethics, but times are changing, especially in media. "Reporters need to make a living," says Smith. Sandeep’s private work "just doesn’t weigh in our thinking."

Turmoil means opportunity to Smith: I think the market’s wide open" for an online “newspaper” (he sometimes calls it that) serving politics and lifestyle (as dished by a “Food Nerd,” “Film Nerd,” etc.) to a “young, professional audience.” PubliCola might also serve as a portal to hyperlocal sites like the West Seattle Blog, says Smith: "We see it as Seattle news down to neighborhood-level news…. Raj and I are business people. We come from different backgrounds. We’ve identified what we think is lacking in online media…. We don’t bring any baggage from the past. That’s the neat perspective."

This posting was updated on July 8 with further comments by Greg Smith.

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