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Alt-Empire
Urban Milwaukee’s bid to go from niche to noted.




Who could have predicted Urban Milwaukee would launch a new media conglomerate?

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.

 
Bruce Murphy (photo by Adam Ryan Morris)
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.

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 Milwaukee.

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:

…the 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 ownership.

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.”

We’ll see 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 reason. Announcing 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)

 





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