The Greg Smith Deal

By Sandeep Kaushik June 3, 2009

A walk down memory lane: Back in October 2008—seems like ancient history now—Josh called me up and suggested we roll the dice and try to set up a web news site. I thought he must have taken up smoking crack, but we met one evening a few days later in a Capitol Hill bar to talk. I think I must have had one whiskey too many because I didn’t dismiss his ridiculous idea out of hand. Instead, we brainstormed that night about what we would want to include on a new site (the Nerds were born that night), how we could create a coverage model that might build readership and an advertising base, and what we would need to do to make it all happen.

As we moved forward with our plans over the next three months, and Josh did the hard work of getting the site ready for launch, I still had my doubts. I thought we could produce some good work, and I agreed there was a growing coverage void left by the retreating dailies (made worse when the P-I announced  it was shutting its doors just as we were in the last stages of getting ready to launch). But I thought there was a good chance we’d fail—that after a few months, we’d throw in the towel and Josh would have to do what he feared the most, i.e. get a real job. Or perhaps, I thought, we’d have some success on the content side—and indeed, PubliCola was the first online site in the State to get full press credentials in Olympia and Josh has broken a lot of news—but that Josh would slowly starve to death.

Well, we're still going. And there's some good news: As we announced on Monday, green developer Greg Smith has bought a stake in PubliCola. We’ve been meeting with Greg over the last few weeks as he considered getting involved, and can say we are excited to have him as part of the ownership team. Yes, we were thrilled to put our hands on some of his money, but Greg brings a lot more to the table than that. He gets what we are trying to do. He’s got demonstrated business savvy, an enviable record of civic involvement, and a commitment to sustainable development and an urban green agenda—he's responsible for the first LEED standard residential and office buildings in Seattle—that meshes well with our own.  And he has got good ideas about how we can improve the site and make it a financial success.

As expected, some have responded to the news that Greg is now a co-owner of the site with fair questions about whether our content will be compromised by the association. The answer: It won't be. We are handling Greg’s involvement the way Josh and I decided to handle mine, as I'm a political consultant and currently do campaign work for Mayor Nickels and Dow Constantine. Josh is the editor of the site, and in charge of what gets posted. While we are very involved in the broader strategic discussions about how to build the site, neither Greg nor I have day-to-day control over the content (which can be a pain in my ass, let me tell you). Every media entity has an owner—hello, Frank, hello, Hearst—and like them we have some simple rules in place to keep that ownership from altering the coverage.

On the financial side, Greg is putting in enough so that the site is stable, at least for a while. I’m sure some around town will be disappointed, but Josh isn’t going to starve. And we will have the resources we need to be able to make some of the improvements we have wanted to make almost from the day we started. The changes are going to be incremental, and our expansion will be modest, tracking our expected growth in readership. We're not out of the woods yet. We need to continue growing the site and building readership if we are going to make PubliCola a viable long-term enterprise. As Josh told the Puget Sound Business Journal on Monday, PubliCola has been a scrappy (read: shoestring) operation, and it is going to remain a scrappy operation.

As a reader of this site, what should you expect? Expect a new look for PubliCola, with the site a little less bloggy, a little more structured. Expect our coverage to expand. Without losing the sort of content we have now, we want to expand our readership beyond those hung up on politics and public affairs. Expect our stable of Nerds to be happier, since we are going to begin paying them. It’s a laughably small amount of money, but hey, Nerds, it’s better than nothing.

And expect more announcements in upcoming weeks as we get moving on our expansion plans. Stay tuned: There is a lot more to come.

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