Every bee in the media hive is sweating the future of journalism, but it’s safe to say that very few of them think print is a solution. Paul Carr, boss of the Vegas-based media startup NSFWCorp — which bills itself as “the future of journalism, with jokes” — is one of that possibly crazy minority. This month, the company will roll out a monthly dead-tree edition. Don’t look for it on newsstands, though — it will be available only to subscribers to the online version (nsfwcorp.com) who upgrade. It’s a gutsy move for a young company that hasn’t hit profitability yet (by the end of the year, Carr says), and which, among other old-media sins, doesn’t “synergize” or “partner” with advertisers (because it doesn’t have or want any) and, in Carr’s telling, spends pretty freely on talent and editorial expenses. We spoke with Carr during the ramp-up to the print launch (which will also involve a website redesign that will see its online content go from daily postings to a (mostly) weekly cycle. (Note: The interview has been edited, condensed and rearranged by subject matter.)
ON REFERRING TO “THE PROVEN ECONOMICS OF PRINT” WHILE TOUTING NSFWCORP’S PRINT EDITION
That phrase is going to come back and bite me in the ass, isn’t it? It’s like saying “Nothing can possibly go wrong,” in a movie. That means someone’s about to lose their arm.
ON PRINT MAGAZINES
Time did the health-care piece, which, to me, reminded the world of what Time magazine is for, and what the future of Time magazine should look like, which is, one big, amazing piece of journalism, like 22,000 words of reporting you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Print magazines have a role if you identify what print does well, and something like “Bitter Pill” in Time is exactly what print does well.
ON DOING PRINT
It would make me look insightful if I were to say it was always part of the plan, but it wasn’t.
Increasingly, as our audience has grown and we’ve been able to identify who they are and what they’re like, there’s a percentage of them who say they print out what we write. If a piece is 5,000-plus words, they print it out. OK, that’s an interesting, telling sign.
As our pieces grew to the size of e-books, like the Josh Ellis e-book we did about Juarez (An American Vampire in Juarez), when you get to that point, you’re at the outer edge. Some people will read that on a tablet, but everyone would, if presented with it in print. On a web page, absolutely not. It [print] became more and more logical.
You can’t make an e-book with 20,000 words — people feel ripped off. But you do a magazine that has two 12,000- to 15,000-word pieces in it [NSFWCorp’s format], and they feel like they’re getting a really good deal.
The world isn’t quite ready for subscription e-books, but they are ready for two long pieces stuck together as a subscription magazine.
ON WHETHER PRINT HELPS OR HURTS THE DRIVE TOWARD PROFITABILITY
Only if we fuck it up.
If we were trying to do a newsstand magazine, it would kill us. The amount of just throwing shit at a wall you have to do for a newsstand magazine is just ridiculous. And for us to try to convince people to carry this thing, we’d kill ourselves. But we have an existing and growing subscription database of people who are comfortable paying an extra $4 to get mailed to them something which we can apply a lot of the reporting costs into what we’re already doing. It’s not like we have to hire a whole new team.
We’re getting people to pay us $4 a month for something that physically costs us less than a dollar. So that adds to the bottom line — as long as we use our resources wisely.
People are comfortable paying for print. They’re just not with online. You tell people you’re a paid-subscription website, and they go, “Explain that to me.” You tell them you’re a paid-subscription magazine, and they nod.
I don’t want to build a business based on advertising. Because I don’t ever want to be the CEO of The Onion having to apologize for one of his joke writers writing a joke.
I want to be able to tell people to fuck off.
You have to pick a side, and we pick jokes.
We’ve converted 30 percent of our online subscription base. It’s not 5,000, but it’s not 3,000, either, based solely on word of mouth.
If in six months we haven’t doubled what we have now, we’re not doing our job properly because we’ve been actively not selling subscriptions, and now we’re going to actively start selling them.
In terms of subscribers, somewhere between 20,000-30,000 would be a good number. In the cash-flow projections, we have 18,000 by November, and we’ll show some black ink, with the other [new] stuff we’re doing. [Which he wasn’t prepared to talk about.]
The key is to say, we’re not going to get the whole world, but thanks to the Internet there are at least 100 million people in the world — and we’re not going to reach all of them, by a long stretch — but 100 million people who would laugh at this joke. Some of them very heartily, others would just kind of say “heh.” But that’s a big fucking audience.
There’s probably 10 million people who would be our maximum potential audience internationally. We only need a very small percentage of those to make a huge fucking business — the same way a boutique hotel does, but a boutique hotel is stuck in one location. We have the Internet.
ON TRADITIONAL MEDIA EXECUTIVES
They all want to keep their jobs, and the way to do that is by slashing print, because that looks forward-thinking. They’re making “tough choices.” Great, you can make tough choices, but — it’s the Tim Armstrong at AOL thing. He’s great at making tough choices. They’re all stupid, but they’re tough.
No one gets fired for making tough choices. No one gets fired for gambling on the Internet; these are not fireable offenses. Doubling down on print, someone’s getting fired, and then replaced by someone who makes tough choices.
So we’re making tough choices, to do print.
I feel sorry for big media companies, because there’s such an expectation of stability.
ON NEW-MEDIA FAILURE
A lot of people are rewarded for producing fancy wastes of time.
It’s so bizarre to me that The Daily tried to be so dumb. They tried to be The New York Post on tablet. You’ve got people who are willing to buy tablets, and who are willing to buy magazines on tablets — that’s not inherently a mass audience. It’s an audience that’s inherently tech-savvy, that has a certain level of education. And you’re inevitably going to get only a portion of that audience. So what you do is, pick a portion and target everything at them. Instead they tried to be a mass-market thing on a small format. It was fucking stupid. So what we’re trying to do is do the exact opposite. You can access us on any platform, including print — but we know who our reader is. And if we keep improving what we’re doing, we’ll get more and more of that reader.
Content is expensive.
People aren’t crying out for it, either; it’s not like America is taking to the streets when it doesn’t have its long-form reporting. Americans in large numbers — just like Brits and everyone else — are perfectly happy with cat videos. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s not like people are sitting around going, “I don’t know this is going on in Iraq.” They’re sitting around going, “I guess all that’s happened today is these cats did this cute thing.” They don’t know that they’re missing a story.
There’s very little incentive to send someone like Josh into Juarez, which wasn’t a huge expense by some of the standards of what a New Yorker story would cost, or having Yasha Leving out in Victorville, following drones around. The fact that ad rates are so low online, and it’s all page-view-driven, you can’t justify that kind of reporting.
ON THE IDEAL NSWFCORP READER
Somebody who expects The Economist as written by The Daily Show. The Not Safe for Work Corp reader is someone who cares about the world and is fascinated by what’s really happening, and when they hear about something fascinating can’t wait to tell everyone else. But if they’re anything like me, it’s like, reading The Economist can sometimes feel like homework. Like, I know I want to be interested in this, and I know it’s interesting, but what I really need is someone who’s already read The Economist and can make it funny and interesting to me.
They like the fact-checking; they like knowing professional journalism has been done. But they see through the bullshit of the fake balance.
ON THE NSFWCORP MIND-SET
We have a rule that we never explain the joke.
When we get new hires, we have to unteach them 10 years of damage done to them by major media companies, where they’ve said to them, you have to be cognizant of the commercial effects of what you’re talking about.
I won’t tell writers the page views on individual stories. They’re not allowed to know. It really annoys the shit out of some of them, but it’s just a horrible slippery slope.
“SEO,” “page views,” “sponsorships,” “advertising” are words I never want to hear in the newsroom. The word “cunt” I’m fine with.
ON THE RISKS
It’s not a slam dunk. There are still a lot of costs associated with setting up print. But we don’t need that many subscribers to go with the print option to at least break even. And advertising revenues [if they eventually try selling ads] are potentially much higher in print.
We have nothing to lose. If we fuck up dramatically, worst-case scenario is we’re a startup that failed. People joining Not Safe for Work are joining a startup, and they’re aware of what that means.
I would hope we’ve piled together enough different things that we have something new.
I’m exactly as confident that print will work as I am confident that the whole business will work. But I’ve written about and had enough startup failures to know that being confident is the first step toward failure.
Every single decision is focused on us not going out of business tomorrow. On the editorial side, every decision seems to be made about trying to put us out of business tomorrow. Therefore, the business side is the opposite. If I can keep the balance, we’re OK. If one of those gets fucked up, we’re dead tomorrow.