Many print publication editors are now setting their sights on the new media promised land. Traditional publishers may lump Internet, radio and TV in this category under the umbrella of multimedia. And everyone is after the same attention pool.
Yet the new media editors are showing a grasp for this space that is really hard to follow when coming from traditional print. They are natives online. As you will read in this interview with new media editor Chris Baskind, parsing content in the appropriate medium to fit the needs of a diverse readership is second nature to them.
Online is fast becoming a very competitive business model -- how do you keep the value from turning into commodity?
Chris: There’s value and there’s commodity. Both sell. Value is best, since it distinguishes you from the marketplace. You’re right: it’s getting crowded online. The best way to deal with this is to narrowly define a readership and super serve it. Take my sector: the green online press. It’s full up. Anyone getting in now will have to commit enormous resources to stand out if they intend to be a “big box” site.
Look at Treehugger, the leviathan in our genre. They were just purchased by Discovery for $10 million. With pockets that deep, nobody can easily assail them for big box leadership. So you choose a smaller niche and delight its partisans. That’s value.
And the trend towards "green" may be a blessing and a challenge at the same time. What do you see happening in terms of competition?
Chris: I’ve started calling what is happening these days the New Green movement. It’s different from the old environmental movement — the one which really took off in the early Seventies — in that it is considerably broader across the base. Seventies environmentalism never achieved grassroots status. It got a lot done, but was always the province of an elite.
The New Green is bubbling up from a much broader set of influences: the rise of new industrial economies, such as China and India; informed consumerism, sprouting from the taproot of the earlier movement; steadily rising energy costs; climate change; and that competitive aspect you mention. Governments and investor-held groups are rushing into the green sector to stake their claims. It’s the Gold Rush of our era. It’s not a fad, and it won’t go away. It will only get bigger and more competitive, which is good for everyone.
How do you keep things relevant and sustainable at your publication? What is your definition of success?
Chris: Sounds corny, but my favorite metric of success is when a reader lets us know something we’ve published has made a difference in their life. That also lets me know we’ve been relevant. From the perspective of our business model — we’re bootstrappers — seeing steady, incremental progress in our monthly traffic gets us closer to our ultimate goal, which is being profitable enough to sustain this project and spin-off new ones. We’ve exceeded our goals so far, but there’s still a long way to go.
What is your strategy for inviting contributors?
Chris: On Lighter Footstep, we’ve done virtually everything in-house so far — from content to web development. But we recently helped create a cooperative of a half dozen or so like-minded green websites. We’ll be sharing content in much the way wire services such as the Associated Press got started. I think small networks like this can be highly productive for genre publishers: it provides quality content and byline exposure for the members. Win-win.
I see our readers as the most likely source of outside contributions: they’re smart, living the lifestyle, and passionate. We actually advertise to them, just as our clients do. But we’re looking for writers. We’ll stay mostly with volunteers this year, reinvesting advertising revenues to start paying regular contributors as our cash line develops. It’s an organic process — sustainable, if you will.
Do popularity and voice play a larger role in that than publications' focus?
Chris: If you understand your readership — or potential readership — substance trumps style every time. That being said, voice matters. In our case, we work hard to write in a popular, accessible tone. We’re a magazine, not a newspaper, and we’re certainly not a technical journal. I think that if you hit these things, popularity will follow.
Where do you draw inspiration? Do you read other online publications? Which ones? How are you influenced by them?
Chris: Oh, I read lots online — maybe too much. And not just in our field. I’m a huge fan of Gawker Media’s Lifehacker. They manage to find a ton of really relevant stuff for their readership everyday. It’s amazing: they’re a case study in efficiency and super serving your core readers. Lighter Footstep works very closely with sites like Ecorazzi, EcoGeek, and Green Options, so I read pretty much everything they publish.
Darren Rowse is always an inspiration. So are Chris Garrett, Muhammad Saleem, Tony Hung, Web Worker Daily, Brian Clark, and probably a dozen other sites and people I follow on a daily basis. The web is its own best tutorial.
In terms of business models, I watch groups like b5 Media: they really understand micropublishing. But I’m a big magazine fan. I look to things like Body + Soul for inspiration in clear, targeted writing and amazing creative layout. It’s a mistake to go online for everything. There’s so much out there from which to learn.
Do you feel threatened by the idea of user created media? How is what you do different from user created content? Is there still a place for traditional editors in the 21st century?
Chris: Everything we do is user-created media. We’re just users who got serious enough to start building sites. I’m begging the question a bit, I know, but I think the term “user created media” is pretty slippery.
Social bookmarking sites are generally considered user generated content, but their content must be considered in terms of what the bookmarks and commentary reference -- which might be entirely conventional. While lot of the stuff on YouTube is user-created, much of it is either stolen from or placed by traditional media, too. And mainline publications such as USA Today have some user-generated content in the form of comments and reader blogs. So the lines are pretty blurry. Engaging your readers and giving them conduits through which to respond can inject user-created media into anything.
As for editors: yes, of course they still have a place. Maybe more than ever. New Media Editors are the web’s brand managers — they’re responsible for keeping their publication moving in a coherent direction. My business partner, Lisa Cagle, and I both come from radio backgrounds. Program Directors are the people who are the most directly responsible for what you hear on the air. They choose the talent, define the mission, and represent the interests of both their listeners and the station’s ownership. That’s what New Media Editors do. They even have to watch out for payola, just like their radio counterparts.
Chris: I have an Aha Moment™ every single day. It’s usually when I realize I’ve been doing something stupid — there just aren’t any rulebooks for building and growing online media. So learning to admit your baby is ugly produces more Aha Moments than anything else.
Occasionally, you’ll see something fresh. We’ve spun-off a couple experiments to support Lighter Footstep, for instance. One is brand new: our Twitter stream. I’ve used Twitter for a while, but it just recently occurred to me to dedicate a stream to short eco-updates, inviting our readers to follow. Most importantly, we’re following them -- subscribing their streams and getting an incredible view of our readers’ lives. That’s better than research. It’s a gift.
We also launched a tumblelog, ecoTumble. Tumblelogs have been around for a couple of years. They’re a very compact subset of blogging. If you’ve seen Tumblr, you know what they are. But ecoTumble wasn’t created to enter a new genre; I created it to find a place for all the great links and multimedia I encounter during my publishing day that might not fit Lighter Footstep's narrative style. And it’s doing so well that we’ve already redesigned once and are start to treat ecoTumble as its own product.
Online, we’re bombarded with great ideas. The fun part is picking the ones to run with.
What’s next for Vida Verde Media?
Chris: We’ll continue to grow our core product, LighterFootstep.com. But we also have two new projects in the pipeline — both of which have a great deal of affinity with Lighter Footstep, but are much more narrowly targeted. We’ll launch at least one of them this autumn.
One of our most exciting new projects is something we call the Green Blog Incubator. It’s really a mentorship program designed to turn readers into green publishers We’re also branching into advertising design and client consulting services. And we’ll keep greening the planet. That’s what we’re here for.
Thanks for the chat, Valeria. You’ve been a supporter since before we launched, and we value your continued interest.