Friday, September 17, 2010

My postmortem on NewsTilt

Dear Paul Biggar,

Thanks for finally posting your promised postmortem on NewsTilt. Although as one of your former contributors, I wonder why it took three months to summarize the death of a company that only lived for two.

Eulogies are meant to be delivered when the corpse is still relatively fresh, not already in the ground and the worms busy plying their trade. They're like news in that way; perhaps that's why the term "deadline" has always seemed apropos.

Still, I'm appreciative that you took the time -- eventually -- to describe your thoughts, motivations and analysis. I think you're spot-on with most of it, especially the limitations Facebook placed on the site and especially its users. When they're reading a newspaper or magazine, people understand that they're getting a bookended experience that has been pre-molded for them. On the Web, they want to roam unfettered, and anything that places restrictions on that soon falls out of their daily loop of browsing.

As someone who participated in NewsTilt from the start -- and, at four to six pieces a week, I daresay was your most prolific contributor -- the interesting part to me is this debate over hiring experienced journalists vs. newbies. You say the journalists you selected were "too good" and quickly lost motivation, and that in retrospect that you should have hired kids fresh out of college who would post five pieces a day.

Perhaps this would have garnered more clicks, but then NT would have surely become the content farm you claim to abhor. It's easy and speedy to aggregate and comment upon the news others have produced; not so much to be the one churning it out.

Here's a truism that not very many readers, CEOs or even some editors really grasp: Good, original journalism takes time.

When I was first starting out I worked at a tiny newspaper for which I did crank out four or five articles a day. When I pull them out now, I'm embarrassed to have my name over them. Frankly, if Perez Hilton is our model for any kind of endeavor, then we might as well all just go into the dildo business.

I'm not surprised that only one-sixth of the journalists you recruited ever posted anything. Imho, your biggest mistake was not paying the writers from the start, even if it was a pittance. "Established" journalists like myself are imbued with funny ideas about being compensated for our work. We don't need exposure; we need cash.

Absent any reward, motivation is bound to flee. Some of us at least were willing to post for free for awhile and see if any money started flowing our way. Others were not, and I do not fault them for doing so.

I sense that you and Nathan believe yourselves to have done a tremendously honorable thing by returning the remaining 20 grand of your start-up funds to your investors. No doubt they're happy to have it back, and should be thanked for putting it up.

Personally, I think the money would have been much better spent compensating the people contributing to the site. If you had thought to write some checks to those most responsible for the success or failure of NewsTilt, even if it was just 40 or 50 bucks a week (to those actually posting), some momentum would've happened.

I won't promise that things would have been a rousing success. But perhaps here in September we would have been talking about how to raise more funds to continue NewsTilt, instead of looking back with regret and reproach on its early demise. After a scant eight or nine weeks of existence, I don't consider NewsTilt to have failed so much as been aborted.

I regard you and Nathan as decent chaps who had good intentions. But from my perspective, you violated the primary principle of what you claimed NewsTilt was about: Putting journalists first. It's all very well to claim that in abstract. But when it came time to (literally) put your money where your mouth was, once again journalists found themselves at the back of the line.

That's just my two cents worth. Which, of course, is a pair of pennies more than anyone who wrote for NewsTilt ever received.

Christopher Lloyd


  1. I'm reading this with no prior knowledge/experience of NewsTilt, just intellectual curiosity about failed startups. But I shall forever value your contribution to journalism, if only for this line:

    "If Perez Hilton is our model for any kind of endeavor, then we might as well all just go into the dildo business."

  2. Thanks for the kind word, Sean. Though since according to one account I read Hilton's web site brings in $50,000 a week in advertising, sadly there are probably a lot of old-media folks who would love to replicate him.

    I just think as journalists, as a society ... hell, as human beings we can do better.

  3. I think you misunderstood the entire basis of what we did.

    Nothing at Newstilt was ever about hiring anybody. This is important. Our entire premise was that journalists are working for themselves now, and that NewsTilt was supposed to be a company building tools and services to support them. (It's a hard thing to get one's head around, so much so that I accidentally said 'hire' in the retrospective. Whoops!)

    We wouldn't have been _hiring_ kids out of school; rather, I felt that the might have been good customers. Remember this is a hypothetical. If it turned NewsTilt into a content mill, which I honestly do abhor, then we would have changed our plan, obviously.

    I'm aware that good journalism takes experience. I'm not 100% sure the web cares. If there were one defining idea that I'd like to beat into the heads of journalists, it's that no-one cares about journalism but journalists. Readers want to be entertained. For some that requires good journalism, for many it does not.

    While I referred to Perez Hilton in a completely different context, to willfully ignore the lessons of one of the world's most popular bloggers would be ludicrous. You may not consider blogging to be journalism, but it certainly competes in the same space for people's time. If journalist's can't look to the web to discover what's popular, there may be no redemption.

    We could theoretically have provided a stipend for journalists. But the only thing worse than not being paid for your work is being paid pennies. Paying $50 a week and expecting people to contribute would have been lunacy, and would have so undervalued journalists' work as to undermine the whole thing and turn us into a content farm. And that, everyone agrees, would have just as soon been the death of us.

  4. Thanks for the response, Paul. But if you think throwing people 50 bucks a week and expecting them to contribute was lunacy, then why did you think giving them nothing wasn't crazy?

  5. The idea was that were weren't hiring journalists, nor buying content. We were providing a service to help journalists through the transition from newspaper-employee to entrepreneur. We were going to be paid for that service with a commission on the revenue we helped them get.

    (Not that any of that worked out, of course, but that was the plan).