Q&A: Nicholas Jackson, founder of The First Bound

New website provides an "off the record" style chat about media with writers and editors

As a young writer Pacific Standard digital director Nicholas Jackson built his career through a time-honored tradition: cold-emailing editors. “I would guess as to what their email address would be and, after having Gmail send back five or six or seven failed attempts, finally get through,” says Jackson. “If you can get into their personal inbox, you’re harder to ignore.”

His new side project, The First Bound, is gunning to take some of the guesswork out of navigating the media landscape by getting experienced writers from his healthy rolodex to dish about their journalistic backstories. Recent coverage has dubbed the site, an “alternative to MediaBistro,” but Jackson views the startup as more of an open notebook, a place for journalists to share tips and industry news and for Jackson to share the best tidbits curated from his massive reading list. He had been plotting the site (and had registered several domain names) when news of layoffs at CJR hastened his pace. “There was a bit of a panic moment. Like, Oh no, we can’t lose—or dial back—the sites that cover media well. We need more, not less.” Jackson launched his site last week. The multitasking editor answered a few questions by email.

What prompted you to create the site on top of the rest of your—quite considerable—workload?

I’ve been kicking the idea for the site around in my head for years, actually. There are a lot of different resources out there that I’ve pieced together over the years (I can feel the strain of my Digg Reader, which is currently pulling in more than 1,000 site feed, with those I’ve tagged as ‘Media News’ making up, by far, the largest collection), but I still don’t have one go-to place. I’m hoping this can grow into that.

Media has always been an interest of mine — since long before I decided to also make it my profession — so I’m just having fun.

What niche does The First Bound fill within the market of “how to do journalism” websites? What things does it offer that you felt were important, but not being created?

That’s the thing I want to stress most about The First Bound. A lot of people are asking questions about my funding goals and what role the site fills, etc., and those questions make sense, obviously, but they don’t apply in the same way they would with, say, a more structured, professional launch. More than anything else, The First Bound is like me opening up my notebooks and my email archives and sharing them with others in the industry — these are the sorts of things I obsessively collect and track and am interested in. And if they’re interested, that’s awesome. Write! Contribute! Share! Let’s talk about media. But if they’re not interested, that’s fine too.

You’ve got a great masthead; what kind of people did you try to recruit to work with you?

Sort of. I’m the only person running the operation. The list of contributors on the masthead is made up of people who have — and will probably only — contribute once, like Paul Carr, who put together a great Pitching Guide for NSFWCORP, and people who will be a more regular presence, like Jeff Jarvis, who isn’t doing anything special for the site but has allowed me to cross-post his thoughts from BuzzMachine, his personal blog. I decided to list them all there, though, with relatively lengthy professional biographies— more than the one-sentence bio you might find, for example, at the end of any other article — because the people who might be interested in this site are also the people who want to know where these professionals got their start. I was talking about it a bit with Megan Greenwell, who wrote a beautiful essay about Marjorie Williams’s great profile of Barbara Bush for Vanity Fair. She said: “I’m glad you’re doing more descriptive bios, because I’m always so curious about how people got to where they are!”

What’s your favorite piece/feature that the site publishes?

Oh, this is an easy one. By far my favorite feature is My First Favorite. One thing a lot of media sites could do more of is celebrate writers and writing, which is what this is all about — but it does that while providing a syllabus, basically, for a self-taught course in the great magazine classics. And almost everyone, I think, has an immediate answer when you ask what their first favorite magazine piece was, or the early story they remember reading that made them think, ‘Wow, I want to get into the magazine business.’ Mine is Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlon’s Monthly. What’s yours? [“Up And Then Down,” Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker piece about a guy getting trapped in an elevator for 41 hours. It’s riveting.]

So far we’ve had the aforementioned Megan Greenwell on Marjorie Williams, Cincinnati Magazine’s Justin Williams on John H. Richardson’s Abortion Doctor piece for Esquire, Outside Editorial Director Alex Heard on a Garrison Keillor short story for The New Yorker (in a beautiful piece that also covers a lot of what Alex faced as a struggling wanna-be writer in the early ’80s), and Wired’s Brendan I. Koerner on Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of Suge Knight. I love every one of them. We have several more in the works, and I encourage others to consider what their first favorite was.

What’s your funding structure? And, what’s the end goal: profitability? Hoards of grateful young freelancers? Selflessness?

The goal is to just bring in enough to keep the lights on, to cover the costs of domain name renewals, hosting, etc. That doesn’t take much, and I think we’ll be able to make it up with the cheap network display ads we’re running on the site, referral fees for magazine subscriptions (we’ll be offering some at a discount to First Bound readers in an upcoming feature), and posting on the jobs board ($10 for a 30-day posting), so that we can keep it free and open for everyone.

How long did it take you to get it up and running? How much do you plan on updating it?

I actually bought the domain name about two years ago and then sat on it. I’ll get to that someday, I would tell myself. But my professional life was busy: I launched a couple of new things at The Atlantic, then went to Outside and built up their digital team, then transitioned to Pacific Standard. I couldn’t find the time. I eventually made it Twitter- and Facebook-public so I would feel obligated to hit a deadline and, when hundreds of journalists signed up for a newsletter I hadn’t yet created, I thought I better follow through.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,