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.
Weld would host a citizen blogging network of the kind pioneered by the Tribune Company with Chicago Now, and they hoped to cull from the best of that blogging network, put it through the editorial process, and publish it in the paper alongside the work that is produced in-house. Of course, they’d sell ads against the blogs and split the profits with the bloggers; businesses would pay to have their own blogs hosted on the network. Most importantly, Weld would provide a hard news alternative to the daily Birmingham News, something that had been absent since the Birmingham Post-Herald closed in 2005.
Whitmire was confident about the idea, and was the first to make the leap. He quit the Weekly in January 2010, and Brock followed soon thereafter. A local investment banker provided pro bono help putting together a business plan, and they began to make phone calls seeking investors.
“The first couple months were pretty slow,” Whitmire told me. “We would get an appointment [with an investor], then it would get canceled, and then we’d wait and maybe set up another one. We were getting maybe one appointment a week or something like that.”
Another problem that began to manifest almost immediately was that even the most enthusiastic supporters were unwilling to become lead investors—putting up the bulk of the money, appearing on the masthead, perhaps providing some sort of nominal business oversight, etc. A major investor would hugely accelerate the process, both by providing a large chunk of the capital all at once and also by giving confidence to other investors, but no one would bite.
Then, with less than half of the $400,000 or so they hoped to raise secured, summer came along—and, for the particular demographic that they were hitting up, that meant vacations out of state.
“We got about half way to where we needed to be before summer kicked in, and then it became nigh on impossible to get an appointment,” Whitmire told me. “It wasn’t that people didn’t want to hear from us, it’s just that they weren’t in town.”
Whitmire later told me that the darkest period in the whole process came around the time I talked to him at the end of that summer, when prospects for more talks were ramping up but the endeavor still had a real chance of failure. “It really came down to whether we were going to get a few people in or not,” he said. “And once that sort of happened we just kept pushing. I think every one of us at some point or another lost faith that this was going to happen. It was our luck that all of us didn’t lose faith at the same time.”
A couple weeks ago, I got a call from Whitmire saying that the Weld parners had reeled in just about all of the necessary start up capital, and were about to collect their final check. It had been more than six months since I had last talked to him, and something like fourteen months since he first left his job at Birmingham Weekly to begin assembling the business plan for Weld, which he said would launch at long last sometime in late summer of 2011.
“I wasn’t really prepared at the beginning of this for what life for the last year was going to be like,” he told me. “But I think that there’s people don’t give stubbornness enough credit, and sometimes it can be a very valuable trait.”