New media beast tries unproven business model

Tim CurrieIt’s not citizen journalism, it’s opinion aggregation, say the founders of The Mark, a six-month old news and opinion website. Tim Currie reports on the vision behind the site, how it works, who’s doing the writing and whether or not it’s making any money.

The Mark is a new beast in the Canadian media landscape.

But it’s not The Daily Beast and certainly not The Huffington Post North. Co-founders Jeff Anders and Ali Rahnema want to make that clear.

“It’s a simple comparison but it is a little bit reductionist. When the [National] Post launched in 1998 nobody said this is the new Globe or the new New York Times,” says Rahnema. “We think our mission is very different.”

The MarkThe six-month old website specializes in big-idea pieces by authors ranging from young academics to high-profile former politicians. Recent articles include artist Charles Pachter critiquing star status in art circles and ethicist Margaret Somerville decrying moves to legalize euthanasia.

Anders, 33, and Rahnema, 40, say their mission is to give a voice to the many smart minds in Canada who don’t have an outlet for their ideas. In practice, their business model involves cultivating a stream of original content from members of the country’s intellectual elite, most of whom don’t demand compensation because they already have well-paid positions at universities or research institutes.

“What we do shouldn’t be confused with exercises in citizen journalism, for the lack of a better descriptor,” says Rahnema. “We’re doing, to use other jargon, opinion aggregation.”

And that’s where comparisons to the Huffington Post come in. The influential American site has been credited with providing a high-profile vehicle for bloggers and criticized for lowering the bar for paid content. The Mark differs from Huff Post in that it doesn’t have an editorial voice, it doesn’t cover entertainment, sports or celebrities and it isn’t noticeably slanted to one political viewpoint.

This latter aspect is particularly attractive to reader Neale Adams. “I like The Mark in that it’s not terribly ideological,” says the B.C. retiree.

The site also includes a digest of news from other media outlets. That, in itself, isn’t a new approach, but the editors are curating the news according to topic and relating these topics to previously published opinion pieces by contributors.

The Mark‘s founders are smart and highly motivated. Both were living abroad when, coincidentally, they both moved back to Canada (on Dec. 17, 2007). Rahnema had left his position as corporate development director at the Irish Times, having previously been managing director of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers. Anders had decided to move to Toronto after finishing an MBA at MIT and an MA in public administration at the Kennedy School, where he was taught by Michael Ignatieff. The Mark was founded four months later at the Queen Mother cafe on Queen St. in Toronto, when a mutual acquaintance brought them together.

They both stress a vision behind their efforts — to harness the intellectual energy of Canadians, and use it to leverage the country’s competitiveness and strengthen democracy.

As to the market for their content, Rahnema makes the point of saying it’s not Metro readers … no slight intended.

In fact, the site is squarely taking aim at the op-ed pages of Canada’s major newspapers. One in particular seems to be in their crosshairs: Rahnema alone mentions The Globe and Mail at least five times in our conversation.

As Rahnema tells it, the Globe turns away 90 per cent of op-ed submissions — and he’s in a position to know; he was a senior (non-editorial) executive at the Globe for six years. Even if 60 per cent of those people are “crazy kooks sending you useless stuff,” he says, that leaves 30 to 40 good ideas on any given day that don’t get published. Sure, many of the contributors have their own blogs and can — and do — publish their content there. But a successful blog garners only about 1,000 to 1,200 unique visitors each day, by his reckoning, and The Mark can do better than that.

“Here’s how it works,” says Anders. “We approach credible, intelligent people with a connection to Canada. We say, once invited, you are given the keys to the kingdom. Write whatever you want, whenever you want, with editing support from us. So don’t polish everything and spend a lot of time to make it perfect.”

The contributor maintains copyright on their work but The Mark gets the right to redistribute it. The Mark founders say they do more than that — generating custom publicity and exposure for each article.

“The old media model is all about ‘pick up a copy, tune into this station, type in this URL and you will find stuff that you are interested in,” Rahnema says. “They don’t really push things out to me that might be of interest to me.”

Rahnema says The Mark is building up a network of researchers and academics who are likely to be interested in their content. They then forward pieces to select ones in a given sector.

“We do this systematically. So if we have a piece on Burma, we’ll send it to the NGOs that work on Burma. That allows for the content to get sent to people who are interested in that subject. That’s the distinction. I can sign up for alerts on the Globe [site] but there’s only so specific that it can get. I still get a lot of things that I don’t want to see on a daily basis.”

This, in fact, may be the important aspect to what Anders calls The Mark‘s “unproven” business model: generating a stream of opinion and filtering it for individuals who use it in their work.

Anders is tight-lipped as to how the site plans to make money, remarking only that, “Nobody here is making a lot of money right now.” The business has 20 full-time and part-time staff, many under 25 and earning only an honorarium.

The site is currently generating revenue from a mixture of advertising and sponsorships. Anders is working on finding media partners — but none of these relationships is generating revenues at present.

He won’t disclose the site’s traffic or the amount of money he’s attracted to the venture. He will point out, however, that the site’s investors include Jordan Banks, who helped launch eBay Canada and entrepreneur-spotter Arlene Dickinson from CBC-TV’s The Dragon’s Den.

And the issue of not paying contributors? Rahnema says the only people who bring it up are journalists.

“[The contributors] are in the business of getting their ideas out there. We provide the platform for them to do that. So far, it’s proven to be far more valuable to them than the $50, $100 they would get from publishing it in another platform.”

Shauna Sylvester, one of The Mark‘s contributors, has written four pieces, mainly on democracy issues. Sylvester, director of Vancouver-based Canada’s World, and a fellow at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, says she has been surprised by the audience she’s gained since June.

“I’ve been getting a bit of a following of younger people, the Engineers Without Borders-types,” she says. “I’ll get an e-mail or a Facebook posting: ‘When are you writing again?’ That, I find fascinating. Because I don’t think of myself a writer and I don’t think of myself as having an audience.”

She says the value of The Mark is its diversity and its inclusive attitude.

“I think it’s very hard to penetrate mainstream media right now,” she says. “[The Mark] is an invitation in, rather than having to earn your place on the commentary pages.”

John Baglow, a blogger and consultant in the field of social and public policy who has contributed eight articles already, says the lack of payment doesn’t concern him.

“This kind of commentary doesn’t generate a lot of cash, so I don’t expect it.”

He says he enjoys the feedback and he sees traffic to his own blog as a result, given that “there don’t seem to be a lot of comments left there [on The Mark site],” he says.

A notable feature of The Mark‘s comments section is that all of the commenters appear to use their real names — a feature Anders says is an actual requirement on the site in order to “create real debate” and fit with the site’s philosophy of “enhancing one’s professional credibility.”

The Mark is something we haven’t seen in Canada. If it takes off, it’ll be one more business that has nibbled away at content that once drew readers to traditional newspapers.

But that’s a big IF. Revenues from online advertising are still weak for news sites and the online market for opinion, in Canada at least, is new territory. And, of course, anyone aiming to out-Google Google in the content distribution game is in for a tough fight.

Still, harnessing and monetizing original content on the web is the holy grail at present and The Mark‘s success will be determined by how many competitors rise up to snatch this new business of theirs.

Tim Currie is an assistant professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He teaches online journalism.