Whether it’s the dormant corporate blogs, the desolate Facebook/Tumblr/Pinterest pages or the media start-ups that kick off with a hiss and a roar, are temporarily fuelled by enthusiasm but end up falling over, the internet is littered with good intentions. But Duncan Greive, founder and editor of TV-obsessed website thespinoff.co.nz and Barkers' magazine 1972—is confident he’s found a model that works. And it’s all based around content marketing.
Humans—and particularly humans who work in the media—love a good origin story. And, like many businesses, The Spinoff and its editorial focus owes its existence to a combination of good luck and good planning.
“I’ve got children so I stopped going to see bands as much and started watching a bit more TV, which is probably true of most people with kids. But I’d never had much of an opportunity to write about it. My friend started working at Lightbox and I’d been using Netflix for a while, and I was just chatting to her and said you should do something with an editorial side. The algorithms are fine but they’re not everything. They liked the idea, so I wrote a prop.”
It was initially intended to be housed within the site, and he thought it was something Lightbox would do as part of its marketing and he would contribute to it. But its legal team said repurposing images and showing YouTube clips in the same place where the content was being screened contravened its contracts.
To its credit, Lightbox thought the idea still had legs so it came on board as a sponsor of a site that focused more broadly on TV and featured content related to shows on other networks.
“I think it worked out for the best for all of us. So we’re wholly independent and have a sponsorship agreement. TV grew out in that sense.”
Greive says there's so much great writing about TV and culture online, but he felt it was only in little pockets, so the big opportunity was to fully embrace that area. However, he was very conscious of the blindspot many on the editorial side have when it comes to the importance of sales, and he didn't want to do it unless it had a solid funding arrangement. Added to that, while he has won a number of awards for features that appeared in Metro, North & South and other titles, he knew he had to dedicate the vast majority of his attention to this rather than continuing to do freelance.
"Eight years ago we had a blog called Deadball that we had with a few friends. We ended up writing about New Zealand's Next Top Model and Shortland St, so it's not a thousand miles away from where I wanted the Spinoff to be. I was also editing Real Groove at the time so I was getting up at 5am, and it generally fell to me to do the heavy lifting. Ever since then, I’ve known that if you’re going to create a sustainable vehicle for publishing cultural content there needs to be money involved. There’s all this enthusiasm when you’re having a few beers on a Friday night and talking about things you could do, but the reality of grinding it out month after month is impossible to sustain."
He also points to The Corner, which featured some great writing and ran for five years but ultimately had to close down.
"That’s absolutely the hard part," something publishers big and small are battling with in this age of media plenty and evolving media consumption habits. And without a so-called 'quiet billionaire' like The Guardian (through the Scott Trust) or First Look Media (through Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar), he and many others need to be pragmatic if they hope to keep the lights on.
And that pragmatism is increasingly manifesting itself in brand-funded editorial products. Greive says his dalliance with this area started with 1972, the twice-yearly magazine (and blog) he edits for Barkers.
After he resigned from Real Groove, he moved to Barkers and worked on marketing and "weird project stuff" and he says it always bugged him that the company made a lookbook because "they cost a bomb" and he "didn't think it’s in New Zealand mens’ makeup to look at lookbooks".
"I would look at the money spent and I would think about the money it took to make Real Groove and I said 'what are we doing here? You could do so much more with this money.'
So the managing director Jamie Whiting said 'then let's do a magazine.'
It was Greive's job to find the writers and "figure out what it was". Now it’s over four years old and, as it says on the tin: "While a clothing company might not look like a natural publisher, the magazine quickly proved itself much more than just some pretty pictures and style tips. With meaty features from Canon Award winning writers and some of the best columnists in the country, the magazine quickly became a cult hit."
"They’ve been amazing. I can’t praise them enough for the confidence they’ve shown in the idea. They fill the fashion pages and they leave me to fill the editorial. And the last issue is one I’m really proud of. I think the feature articles are as good as anywhere else. We haven’t always achieved that. But that’s what I’ve always aspired to."
Greive calls himself one of the rare "native [advertising] optimists" from the editorial side. And he points to the first story he wrote for 1972 to prove that ideas that come from a company don't necessarily have to be naff.
"The company had basically forgotten its history. So the big thing I did when I was there was to reclaim that. Otherwise if a brand doesn’t have its history, it’s just a decal in a mall. So I spent months working on a story and interviewed [the founder] Ray Barker about seven times and told the whole history. And I would put that amongst the 10-15 features I’m most happy with. Sure, it was compromised in its conception. But that kind of a story can be immensely valuable to brands and businesses and worthwhile to consumers and writers."
He admits they're not all going to be like that, but he believes journalists have undervalued their ability to do that kind of thing, "either because they’re sniffy about it or they’re just unaware".
"That’s a rare sort of thing where you can basically set your price. And that subsidises a whole bunch of stuff that might be driven by the journalists."
There's no doubt we live in an age of blur. And there are no set rules for editorial compromise. The New York Times now invites advertisers to attend its Page One meeting, something that would have been deemed unthinkable a few years ago; publishers like Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Vice, Vox and others tends to eschew banner advertising and are attempting to sprinkle their magic dust on brands by crafting ads that look like editorial—whether in the form of posts, lists, quizzes, videos or activations; and local publishers are running content partnerships or even letting brands publish their views (often unmolested by journalists). Some purists believe this quest for cash is eroding the one thing these publishers trade on: reader trust. While others believe consumers don't really care if what they're reading is an ad, as long as it's good and/or as long as it's clearly labelled.
In the world of news, this tension is tough to manage, but Greive says he doesn't blame the Herald or any other publisher for being slightly blurry.
"There’s always a 'who owns this?' question, whether it’s sales or editorial. I’m personally in favour of declaring it, but that’s easier for a smaller company." On the other side of the coin, it's harder to separate church and state in a smaller company, as most larger publishing companies claim they are doing.
But a man's gotta eat, a phrase Greive says he finds himself saying frequently at the moment.
"I’ll do anything for money if the price is right," he says, only half-joking. "And I’m so happy with that. What kind of young writer—even though I'm not that young anymore—doesn’t have that mentality?"
So what would happen if it had to write a bad story about Lightbox?
"When we went into it we said we’d write about shows that we love and ignore the ones we don’t. There are plenty of shows on Lightbox that we couldn’t say anything good about. That’s the deal we struck. They're okay with us having a nuanced perspective, like with the Lizzie Borden Chronicles. It was presented as a cool period drama, but it’s a really pulpy slasher show with some fancy stars in it. That’s what we said about it. There’s always going to be a compromise. And I think it works okay ... There have been moments and I’m sure there will continue to be difficult moments. You just weigh doing it vs. not doing it, you trust the audience and you declare it."
One of the difficulties with brand-funded content is that plans can change and rugs can be pulled. A new marketing manager might decide the money is better spent elsewhere. A big new sponsorship might require some consolidation. And this tends to happen more quickly in comparison to a subscriber-funded model. He's very conscious of that vulnerability, especially with just one sponsor. But what he's hoping to get to is a "diversity of income streams so that we can sustain a shock like that and hustle our way to continue them".
"We can scale back and we are relatively lean in terms of our core fixed costs. I like both of those products [The Spinoff and 1972] too much to just walk away from them. I have contemplated doomsday scenarios and how to bridge beyond that, but I think the Spinoff could end up being a good vehicle for a plurality of native advertisers."
The name is also suitably vague, so while Lightbox currently has exclusive sponsorship over the TV content (it initially signed up for a six month deal and rolled it over again), he thinks it's scalable and it could branch into other areas like sport or music.
"The cool thing about it is that we're a new start-up media brand and a lot of other companies are in a similar position. A whole bunch of companies like Lightbox, Spotify and Coliseum are trying to figure this out and there's a new desire to try things out compared to legacy companies."
He says it's also trying to find a way of articulating to brands that some of the money they currently spend trying to get their PR into the media would be better spent in an environment where the audience is more engaged (on a related note, to him the six PR people for every journalist ratio that's often bandied about implies a market failure as there simply aren't enough publications left to work in this way).
So is the business wiping its face yet? He didn't want to comment on the terms of the sponsorship, but he says it’s breaking even.
"I’m really cautious and conservative. I could go out and start to blow it out to what we want to do. We certainly have the writers in New Zealand to do that, and there's so much underutilised talent in writing and in video and podcasting and that is a big part of what motivates me."
Even though the internet has democratised information, he believes there is generation of young writers who are locked out of magazines so he is trying to create a platform for them.
"There are fewer positions and low freelance rates. I admire [Metro editor] Simon Wilson immensely and will always owe him for the shot he gave me. But there are not a vast number of magazines where you can get a start like that now."
He says he was determined to find a young writer who could be the centre of the site, but he didn’t want it to be someone he already knew, so he read as much as he could, from blogs to mainstream news sites, and came across Alex Casey writing an infrequent blog on Flicks called the Filminist.
"She used images really well, she was very affectionate to the medium but could also be withering, so I tracked her down. I have to give immense credit to her. She writes half the site, she’s got a great motor, she has a great instinct, she's very clever, very funny and she’s shaped it. Our biggest hits like The Bachelor coverage, that’s her to a tee."
And Casey, Greive and the vast number of other contributors have certainly helped earn the site a good profile in its eight month existence, bringing in 57,000 unique visitors in April. It also had 15,000 downloads of its The Bachelor podcast and 4-5,000 downloads for the X Factor podcast ("it didn't help that the show fell off a cliff," he says, something he made very clear in this review).
Like most modern media enterprises, it's trying its hand at a bit of everything. Podcasting is the big one, he says, and it has invested in a portable studio so it can record at its new office in Britomart or anywhere else. It's also done a few videos, including some rather awkward interviews from David Farrier for Street Week; Joseph Harper creating the finale of The Bachelor in The Sims (that ended up—spoiler alert—with the house burning down and Art running around the house while the Bachelorettes die in the fire and, as some have pointed out, that is quite an appropriate metaphor); and Rose Matafeo'sMad Men finale recap, which was picked up internationally.
It's also done some video for Lightbox with Greive and Casey talking to Jose Barbosa about their favourite shows.
Like many niche publishers, Greive believes there needs to be a better way of accounting for engagement. The problem is that for many advertisers—and many big publishers—vanity metrics are favoured (and tend to keep people in jobs). But he says it can’t just be about clicks.
"Dumb clicks are so meaningless and gameable." Resonance still matters. So while Campbell Live's numbers may have been lower than some other shows when a review was called for, there's little accounting for that show's impact on those viewers. Magazine publishers often claim the same thing, as reading one requires undivided attention, which is a rarity these days. And Greive says resonance is what it's aiming for too.
"A podcast download is counted as the same as a three paragraph Bang Showbiz wire story with a clickbaity headline. But if you listen to it for an hour, you’re in on that thing. So I hope that in time that will change. I feel like we're in an era where we'll soon be able to weigh things more accurately."
Another revenue stream—and a validation of the quality of its content—is becoming TV critics for the Herald. Greive says he has a great relationship with entertainment editor Joanna Hunkin and as the site is still so young, it also allows NZME to pick up posts from the Spinoff for free and is happy to get a boost in traffic and profile.
There are a rare few New Zealand media properties like Mindfood and Remix that show you can run an international media business from here. And online media sites like Vice, Concrete Playground or Buzzfeed show that small ideas can spread quickly. But at this stage, he says he wants to concentrate on the New Zealand market, and being content with that is a relatively new phenomenon, he says.
"People think that if you limit your ambitions to New Zealand, you’re lacking ambition, but this place is great. I find people like Steve Braunias [who writes a great column on The Spinoff] or Toby Manhire really, really inspiring because to me they’re as good a writer as you’d find anywhere in the world. Sometimes I read Steve and I think ‘you couldn’t do any better than that’."
In saying that, he's not limiting himself to New Zealand and if things go spectacularly well he wouldn’t rule out heading overseas. And in what could be seen as either a sign of confidence or fear of being held to ransom, he recently bought thespinoff.com.
"We’ve been around over eight months and we're really happy with how it’s going ... So much of what you’ve written for years for websites and magazines can feel like it’s floating out into the air. And to see the way people are responding to the site’s tone and approach is great ... I just love our contributors so much for the creativity they bring to covering this stuff. I feel like a very, very lucky editor."