I first encountered Weld in September 2010, and it remains the only site I’m aware of that was given an award before it officially launched. Its “prototype,” a Birmingham politics and public affairs blog called Second Front, was named Birmingham’s Best Blog by a Birmingham Magazine reader’s poll just three months after it went live. Second Front was the work of newly unemployed political columnist Kyle Whitmire, and the reason he called it a prototype was that, although the site had a professional design and contained serious reporting, it was ultimately something much smaller than what he and his three partners hoped to build.
Second Front was a proof of concept for a larger journalistic entity, a small way for Whitmire to keep from getting rusty or going crazy as he cycled through his rolodex of prominent Birmingham citizens, hoping to find an investor interested in funding a for-profit new media publication that broke news on its website in real time and, later, polished and bundled the best of its stories into an alt-weekly style print publication at the end of every week. It was a bold but fundamentally solid plan, and Whitmire figured that he could go jobless for three months or so as he found a lead investor to get him on his way.
That fundraising process ended up taking nearly a year and a half, as Whitmire collected unemployment, strung together freelance jobs, and occasionally hit up family members to make rent. When I first spoke to him in late September of 2010—at what ultimately was only the halfway point of this process—he had been fundraising exhaustively for eight months and was nearly at the end of his rope. “I really have not been this frustrated since I was in a college and I would be a nickel or a dime away from a pack of cigarettes,” he told me at the time. “This has almost driven me back to smoking.”
Until January of last year, Whitmire wrote an award-winning Birmingham politics column called “War on Dumb” for alternative newspaper the Birmingham Weekly. Whitmire was something of a local celebrity, making frequent radio appearances and earning a national reputation for bylines in The New York Times covering now incarcerated (and thus former) Birmingham mayor Larry Langford’s corruption trial.
Whitmire and his editor at the Weekly, Glenny Brock, had both come to the Weekly shortly after college, and worried about entering their mid-thirties as the captains of what they saw as a sinking ship. Tired of shoestring budgets and professional uncertainty, they enlisted the help of Mark Kelly, an older and wiser author, former reporter, and long-time Birmingham resident, and Heather Milam, a former account exexutive for Network Communcations, Inc. The four met at a local bar and began to hammer out plans for a new publication that would allow them to implement years of stymied ideas, both commercial and journalistic.
“There’s this thought experiment where you’re supposed to ask yourself, ‘If my newspaper burned down tomorrow and I had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch with the insurance check, what would it look like and how would it work?’” Whitmire told me. “For us that became a lot more than a thought experiment. It became something real.”
Whitmire described what they began to call Weld as a “Frankenstein’s monster of other people’s good ideas,” and the description was at least as much a philosophy as it was a self-effacing laugh line. Not to extend the metaphor too far past the breaking point, but they did decide to call their project Weld, after all, and the team took to heart what seems to me to be the closest thing one can find to a “best practice” for a web startup, which is to just go ahead and acknowledge that there’s no clear path to success, piece together a bunch of disparate yet synergistic elements, and hope that their combined strength somehow manages to get your site up off the operating table and out tap dancing on stage with Gene Wilder.
In Weld’s case, a print publication (and thus print advertising rates) would be combined with the news-breaking and conversation-steering power of a website. They hoped that an immediate presence in Birmingham would be provided by the “bump into” circulation model of a free print publication sitting in bars and on street corners, and coupled with the more intimate (and ever-present) connection allowed by social media. The site would sell “real time” ads by highlighting the latest from a given sponsor’s Facebook wall or Twitter feed—finally giving some actual attention to those social media accounts which local businesses had started out of either obligation or fear.