Who could have predicted Urban Milwaukee would launch a new media
The wonky website had been quietly
covering city issues – development, transit, planning and the distinctive
rhythms of urban life – for some four years when it got a boost in profile and
editorial know-how last year. That’s when Bruce
Murphy joined the website as its first-ever editor, not long after his
departure from Milwaukee Magazine.
(Disclosure: In case you didn’t realize, this is that magazine’s website.) Under his contract, he'll earn a stake in the business founded by Jeramey Jannene and
Dave Reid over time.
In return, Murphy has expanded content
and drove up traffic, from about 29,500 page views a month, at the time of his
hire, to 150,000. And now the company has made headlines
of its own by buying up Third Coast
Daily (formerly Third Coast Digest),
a site devoted to local art news and reviews.
The deal is a new lease on life for
TCD, which has struggled to find a
path to sustainability, and it sends Urban
Milwaukee on a new and riskier path of its own as a serious business. Between
milwaukeemag.com (yep, this very
website), the Shepherd Express, OnMilwaukee.com,
and the Journal Sentinel, the
competition for arts and entertainment readers and advertisers is growing more
crowded by the day. Only the fall of the A.
V. Club’s Milwaukee website has lightened production.
|Bruce Murphy (photo by Adam Ryan Morris)
News of the TCD buyout came as a surprise, but the deal has deep roots. Jannene
operates Fresh Coast Ventures LLC, a web development company that counts TCD among its clients, a relationship that
dates to 2009, when Jannene was hired to help with the website’s conversion
from Vital Source magazine.
The two web publications have rather different stories. Urban Milwaukee grew out of the personal
interests of Reid and Jannene. “Dave and I were both writing blogs about city
issues,” Jannene tells me in an email. Crossing paths in cyberspace, then in
person, they struck up an alliance and even opened a Downtown gift shop last
year called Urban Milwaukee: The Store.
Next came Murphy, who had followed Urban Milwaukee while working at Milwaukee Magazine. He says the website “had
a good name with strongly defined editorial content,” and he approached Reid
and Jannene in mid-2012 about bringing him on as editor of the outlet.
They agreed. “We have gone from two
articles a week to three a day,” Jannene says. “This has allowed us to cover
more issues affecting the city and its residents.”
Free content from the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and
the Wisconsin Center for Investigative
Journalism has provided some of the grist for that mill, and so has Steve Walters. When the Journal Sentinel cut the political
column written by its former Madison bureau chief earlier this year, Murphy
struck a deal to run the pieces at Urban
The new editor also brought on Michael Henszey to serve as a new,
full-time sales director (the two had worked together in the late 1990s at
Murphy’s alt weekly, Metro). The hire
necessitated a loan, a fresh load of debt for a company that had, until then, treaded
water, remaining debt-free, which Murphy says was the “good news” about Urban Milwaukee’s financial condition.
“The bad news was,” he says, “we
had no revenue.”
TCD grew out of the print
magazine Vital Source, which was founded
and first edited by Jon Anne Willow.
After taking a buyout from the Journal
Sentinel, classical music and dance writer Tom Strini joined up with the outlet in 2009 as an editor and business
partner, and he remained on board as the publication converted to the
online-only Third Coast Digest. (Other
partners included Mehrdad
Dalamie and philanthropist Chris
Abele, now Milwaukee County executive.)
In its first three years, TCD offered an arts-heavy but eclectic mix
with stories on politics, travel, neighborhoods and an assortment of urban
topics. After Strini friend John Shannon
bought the website in 2012, the site narrowed its focus, somewhat, to art
and lifestyle topics and swapped the “Digest” in the title for “Daily.”
That’s where the operation stood this
spring when UM and Shannon began
discussing the possibility of selling advertising together.
When Strini left a senior editorial
position at TCD in September, he
told readers that:
business development that I had hoped for has not occurred, and I cannot enter
another arts season without the staffing to continue to execute at a high level
on the editorial side or to pursue new revenue streams on the business side. My
exit will open the door for John to develop a somewhat different
business/editorial model for TCD.
Strini’s departure also set the
stage for UM’s purchase.
The new owners say they plan to keep TCD as a stand-alone website, and Murphy will add editing the
publication to his own duties. The current managing editor, Matt Reddin, was let go in the
transition to UM ownership.
Its partners are planning changes
in design and coverage, “as well as a new name that reflects the coverage
area,” says Jannene, who carries the title of president of Urban Milwaukee Inc.
“The publication has always had a focus on the fine arts, but we see a world of
opportunity in broadening that focus to arts and entertainment.”
Murphy seems to be of the same
mind. “There wasn’t much coverage of rock music, and there’s a big audience for
that,” he says. “That will drive more traffic and eyeballs.”
What the partners don’t expect is a
merger. “There are a number of issues on which we will cross-promote,” says
Jannene, “but each publication will have its own voice.”
Still, it won’t be easy. Although it
does pay some contributors, Urban
Milwaukee has benefited from a lot of free content, as Murphy acknowledges.
“We do hope to eventually pay everyone,” he says.
“We wouldn't be doing it if we
didn't think there was a viable business,” Jannene insists. “Obviously
advertising online is a tougher world than print at this point, but we're
supplementing that with some unique partnerships that we’re developing.”
TCD pays freelancers
and will keep doing so, Murphy says. The publication also benefits from a
regular stable of advertisers. But as Strini noted in his farewell piece, TCD’s investors often went without pay
so the operation could meet payroll, a practice that ended under Shannon’s
Now blogging at Tom
Strini Writes, he told
readers last week after the deal was announced that even TCD has “relied too heavily on unpaid
contributors … If Urban
Milwaukee/TCD is to thrive, it will thrive with a small roster of professional
writers rather than a long list of amateurs.”
And that means generating reader support and contributions, like public radio.
Pay walls, he warned, “just
drive readers elsewhere.”
Strini adds, “I learned the hard way at TCD that you can't build a
business of this sort out of sweat equity alone.”
whether Urban Milwaukee’s team learns
the same lesson – or teaches the rest of us in the media a new one.
More about the A.V. Club: It should be noted that, in closing the A.V. Club’s local website next month, The Onion says revenue wasn’t the
the change earlier this month, local A.
V. Club city editor Matt Wild
asserted that “content and revenue
have never been problems.” The change was driven, he wrote, simply by The Onion’s plan to go digital-only, ending
its last three print editions in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Providence, R.I.
Both The Onion and A. V. Club will remain as national
operations on the web.
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(illustration by Matt Hrodey)