From blog to brand: Lynn Prentice (The Standard)

Given that it’s a political year and that the finely groomed nails of the politicians are already starting to come out, we decided to chat to Lynn Prentice, the founder of The Standard, a website that considers itself “the voice of the Labour movement.”

As would be expected in the highly partisan world of political writing, much of the left-leaning content on The Standard has invoked the ire of several commentators on the right, including Cameron Slater and David Farrar

But in spite of a consistent stream of criticism and comments from trolls, The Standard has enjoyed strong readership growth every year since its inception and this year promises to continue this trend as the added intrigue of an election will almost certainly drive more online traffic to articles on politics.      

How/Why did a team of Labour supporters start a website?

“Labour supporters” didn’t. The Labour party is a broad church, but not as broad as the audience as either the original authors nor the audience they wanted to attract.

A group of the broad Labour movement people got together to try to get a multi-author blog together. Some were members of the Labour party, some were members of the Greens, some were members of various unions, and many had absolutely no organisational affiliations at all. We wanted a site that it was possible to have an intelligent and robust argument on without silly organisational constraints on the discussion. This diversity has continued.

The site was envisaged and still runs as a very loosely coupled cooperative. But I tend to maintain the organising point that people talk to when they want changes. 

How has it changed since the early days?

Some of the early idealism from other authors at The Standard got removed under an onslaught of trolls from the right in our first election year 2008. We went from having a wide open no moderation policy to one that clearly defined what type of commenters the site was interested in retaining. They were intelligent robust debaters who could argue without simplistic slogans. Pompous gits citing the unnamed authorities of their navel hair and mindless sloganeers became unwelcome.

Authors have come and gone from activity (at last count there were 48 people with writing rights) and a lot of the site’s social engineering has been to bring new authors on as others ran out of things to say. A lot of the focus of the site in on making it easy for commenters to engage with each other. In fact, that is how a large number of the posts and authors on the site are created.

How do you go about financing your site? Do you make enough to live off your website?

It has never paid income to any participant. It started on my home servers and I paid for the site’s operating costs as we outgrew a succession of hosted servers. When that strained my monthly wage packet, we started accepting donations which largely covered the server costs for a year. After that we restructured the site to allow advertising.

Has your advertising been profitable? (Also, what determines who is allowed to advertise on your site?)

Scoop has done our advertising since we started that in 2010. They ask me if they think we might have objections to some adverts. So far it hasn’t been an issue for even our picky authors and audience. 

It has been “profitable”, but only because it just pays for the server costs and the occasional bit of cafe food when some authors are in the same town. We deliberately keep the server costs down to the point that we could drop any or all advertising if it ever started to interfere with our objectives. 

What type of advertising works best for your website?

The audience we have ranges from people like myself who are quite professionally affluent through to those on a benefit for one reason or another. The most common factors are that they tend to be quite intelligent, well-educated, and very active in society in one capacity or another.

Advertising that does well is political, governance issues (like taxation changes), tech based, or about entertainment in New Zealand. It has to be New Zealand focused because about 90 percent of our page views are from inside New Zealand. So are most of the monthly 30-50 thousand unique visitors. 

On average they spend about seven minutes per visit, more than half will visit the site at least once per day, and a third will visit it more than 5 times per day. About 25 percent come in on the search engines and only visit once.

Last year they made 300 and 450 thousand page views per month with the seasonal variation, a slight rise on the previous year. As this is election year with the extra traffic growth that entails, I’d expect us to peak closer 600 thousand page views. As in previous elections we are likely to maintain and slightly grow that readership after 2014. 

Do you collaborate with any other websites? (We noticed that NZDNScreen runs all your videos)

We collaborate with a number of other sites in a number of ways. 

There are a number of sites that we have agreements that we can repost any of their material where we haven’t covered something or they have an alternate view. This includes ‘No Right Turn’, ‘Imperator Fish’, ‘Polity’, ‘Local Bodies’, etc. Similarly, we have arrangements with other sites that we will ask to put up their material. 

We put up other public service “ads” to other sites, usually on union events, environmental issues, and constitutional matters. This usually comes from a request from an activist group or author and is predicated by them having a graphic and a site to link to. The NZ On Screen “ads” are just links to interesting politically related documentaries that are free to view and of interest to our audience.

Finally, we run a very active live feed that displays the posts going up in smaller left and environmental blogs, left political parties, unions where they have a feed, and scoop political. 

We’re a very cooperative site across the left, internally and externally. This helps keep the diversity of opinion on the left being aired and helps to induce more comprehension and cooperation across the political movements of the left and advances the labour movement.

Has anyone ever offered to buy your site? Would you mind sharing some stories. What is the most you’ve ever been offered?

Nope. we’ve have had a few “offers” to induce us to close the site. But few offered money and all were from some pretty stupid people. So stupid that I’ve never bothered referring them to the police.

Have you got any funny anecdotes about running a political site in NZ?

Not really. In many ways running a political blog is a bit of a drag, which consists of getting posts up every day and moderating comments. 

The most intriguing discovery about the whole process for me has been the amusing discovery about how thin skinned many journalists and columnists are. It turns out that people on blogs intelligently criticising their performance has been remarkably upsetting to them. Hopefully it will help induce a better standard of political journalist over time. 

What advice would you give to newbies wanting to make it in the online industry?

Decide what you want to achieve, think through it, determine the skills you’re going to have to assemble, and then just do it. Expect it to take years to grow a critical mass of an audience and settle in for the long haul. It is the same as any other startup organisation. My real job is to provide greenfield programming code for similar private sector startups who are building export businesses. This is only different because the funding levels are a lot lower even than those.

What we wanted to achieve was to provide a voice for the Labour movement in the local blogosphere. We also wanted to do it so that it required the least amount of effort for the already very busy authors. That was a task  that my operations research MBA proved to be very useful in facilitating indevelopment. Fortunately, the other authors were, by writing erudite and well-researched opinions, compensating for my unfortunate habit of only being able to write in English when I was highly irritated. But any political site needs a few polemic rants…

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