PubliCola Pulls the Plug

Popular Seattle Political Website Leaned Left, but Was Grounded in Solid Reporting – Advertising Model Didn’t Work

PubliCola's farewell announcement, posted at 2:46 p.m. Wednesday.

UPDATED Thursday, May 10.

OLYMPIA, May 9.—PubliCola, the Seattle-based website that won a major following among the state’s political junkies and progressives during its more than three years of operation, announced Wednesday that it is pulling the plug. The site couldn’t make it on advertising alone, according to a statement posted on the site Wednesday afternoon.

Its two full-time writers, founder Josh Feit and Erica Barnett, will continue posting material on Seattle’s Crosscut website. But it’s the end of the first and one of the most prominent political news sites on the Washington-state Internet scene. Already the duo has packed up their 300-square-foot office and has moved their gear to Crosscut’s Pioneer-Square digs.

Feit wasn’t giving interviews Wednesday – it was all too much of a downer. But in the statement he posted on the site, Feit said, “it’s also a big loss right now. And a hard one for us personally. PubliCola, an idea I hatched back in 2008, has been a wonderful obsession that’s defined my life for more than three-and-a-half years since becoming the first online-only news site to be credentialed to cover the state Legislature.”

For the record, Washington State Wire launched a year later.

End of a Dream

PubliCola founder Josh Feit

Feit, a former political reporter and news editor for the Seattle weekly alternative newspaper, The Stranger, flipped the switch on the site in late 2008, just before the start of the 2009 legislative session. That summer he brought over Stranger colleague Barnett and doubled the size of his staff. PubliCola quickly became a must-read in the state’s political circles, specializing in political gossip, items of political news – generally short  – and occasional bits of commentary. The site was akin more to the breezy political columns in the newspaper days of old than the weighty in-depth Sunday stories that are typical of newspaper-trained traditionalists.

PubliCola reflected the perspective of the Seattle progressive crowd in its story choice and spin. One Feit commentary last year, for instance, chided Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna under the headline, “McKenna Belittles Last Week’s Protesters as Jobless, Single, Lazy Losers.” Whenever a Republican committed an outrage or a Democrat did the work of the angels, the site would be quick to point it out. Yet PubliCola’s coverage was grounded in solid reporting and maintained journalistic standards of accuracy. And perhaps what distinguished it the most from the dozen or so other websites in this state with a political focus was that Publicola originated news. It didn’t confine itself to comment on stories that others had produced. In fact, it frequently scooped the dwindling ranks of newspaper reporters who remain at the statehouse at Olympia.

It built an audience — 400,000 monthly page views during the 2010 election cycle, according to the Wednesday posting, and currently more than 10,000 Facebook and Twitter followers. For anyone in the political trade, or anyone interested in the business of public policy, the site became a daily must-read – left, right or center. And because the site was chock-full of Seattle City Hall news and gossip, city workers tell Washington State Wire that when it was time for a coffee break and no one was looking over their shoulders, PubliCola was the first thing they checked. Some say that when the McGinn Adminstration came to power, PubliCola was quicker than official channels when it came to news of staff shakeups and policy shifts. At least one prominent city official referred to it as “the company newsletter.”

“In a sense, it is sad because I came to rely on them as my source of information on the [Democratic] party line,” says state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur.

He points out the demise of PubliCola shows progressive donors weren’t willing to step up to the plate.

“To be honest, it is a shock. I would think that is exactly the kind of medium that would survive in a liberal town and in a liberal atmosphere such as Seattle and Washington state have now. Wow, maybe we are not as liberal as people think. I am now inspired. I mean, if PubliCola can fall, so can Jay Inslee and Barack Obama.”

Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz did not return a call for comment.

Moving to Crosscut

Although PubliCola announced a few “angel” investments early in its existence, apparently that money was burned through. According to an account posted on the Crosscut website Thursday by publisher David Brewster, Publicola was notified a few months ago that its funders would be withdrawing support. The site then made an appeal for reader donations. “We haven’t been successful as a business,” Feit conceded in his Wednesday announcement. “Advertising revenue has been limited and inconsistent.”

Feit and Barnett are moving to Crosscut, the online venture launched by Brewster, the founder and 21-year publisher of The Weekly, Seattle’s first modern alternative weekly newspaper. The Crosscut site has become the state’s leading online venue for commentary and magazine-style journalism of all political stripes.

Brewster said, “We’ve been working hard to see that the good work of covering Olympia and Seattle-area politics and public policy doesn’t go away as PubliCola winds down. Sensing that the for-profit site was running low on funds, I approached Josh and Erica to see if there could be some mutual arrangement, from a simple plan of joint advertising sales to a full importing of them to Crosscut. Our plans are not for a merger, but to hire Josh and Erica, on their present beats, as fulltime reporters for Crosscut, but we have to come up with the funding for this sudden opportunity. I’m working on it and we have good progress so far. Meantime, we’re going to be able to fund them part time at their new temporary home at Crosscut. They do good work, are excellently sourced, and are widely read. Hats off to the PubliCola investors who kept them doing all this good reporting for the past three years. This region cannot afford to keep shedding such experienced public-affairs reporters.”

Brewster tells Washington State Wire that if funds can be found, he hopes to use the pair to expand Crosscut’s reporting on the statehouse and statewide political issues. Survival in the Internet world isn’t easy, he notes. Originally Crosscut was begun as a for-profit advertising-supported site, but it was forced to shift to a non-profit reader-supported model.

“I wanted to see if we could keep them going and whether Crosscut could provide a home and maybe help others that are struggling that way,” he said. “I hope we can provide a long-term solution, and I wanted to give it a try.”

Dismay Among Readers

By 11 p.m. Wednesday, eight hours after the announcement was posted on the PubliCola website, readers had posted some 82 comments. Remarked one, “Just in — city work productivity increases.” And a follow-up, “Are you kidding? Back to web porn for our civil servants.” But aside from chortling from the few, reactions to PubliCola’s demise were filled with dismay. Said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, “you can be proud of your efforts to challenge the institutional lethargy of the status quo and open the door of new media with ideas and attitude.  You have helped to elevate our state’s policy and political dialogue even when throwing an occasional elbow.  As the industry shakes in the likely evolution to a fully online world, you established PubliCola as the ‘Politico’ of our state and have made an impact.  It has been recognized.”

And in a Facebook posting, the National Federation of Independent Business, hardly a liberal organization, reacted:  “Love ’em or hate ’em, PubliCola has been a great source of information about political happenings in Seattle and the state Capitol. We here at NFIB/Washington hope their new arrangement with leads to a more certain future. It also goes to show, once again, that it isn’t easy being a small business in this state, no matter how hip, progressive or well-connected you are.”

Freshman state Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, the target of more than a few PubliCola barbs during his campaign for state House in 2010,  said it was one of the sites he checked on a regular basis. “I think their perspective really fit Seattle. They were pro-higher ed, pro-environment, and I didn’t find it to be overly extreme. I though they brought a reasonable point of view to the table, and you know, I think one that really represents where Seattle is coming from. If you wanted to understand the Seattle perspective, it was the place to look.”

State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said he’ll miss PubliCola – even though a month ago the site observed that “many in the Democratic Party consider [him] to be a Republican these days” after he shook the Senate with his vote for a Republican budget. Tom said, “They weren’t always fans of mine, but I thought for the constituency they had, they did a good job. It kind of surprises me that a group of funders wouldn’t step up, but it tells you that money is tight in politics these days.”

He added, “This is a real shocker to me. I guess we didn’t give them enough news in the Legislature to keep them alive. We’ll have to provide a little more excitement next year.”