Michael: I guess I don’t feel qualified to answer yet—hopefully neither of us will be! Which brings us to the flip side: success. You posed a smart question when we were planning this debate. What does “success” even mean? What would it look like?
Barry: My immediate goal is to pay journalists to consider the cultural life of this place, the Portland and Oregon cultureshed. So if the experiment proves that my model works—that we can count on the people who are most invested and involved in creating that culture to pay for that journalism—then those journalists will be out there reporting on it, thinking about it, telling us about it, and creating ways for us to share, consider, and debate it. I guess I think of success in this way as the possibility of creative responses to the culture that I can’t even begin to imagine now. With effects that I can’t begin to imagine, even though I’m a willing fantasist!
How about you? What does success for Portland Afoot look like?
Michael: Sometimes I fantasize about getting my calls returned within twenty-four hours again. That would be nice. But seriously, I think I define success on two scales: One for me as a journalist, and one for PA as a publication.
In my own career, I’ll count this successful if it keeps me doing what I love: local policy journalism. It would break my heart if that can’t happen with Portland Afoot, but I have to admit that my personal goal could be met by learing from a failed business as well as creating a successful one.
For the startup itself, I’ve tried to avoid defining some target of revenue or expenditure, in order to give myself room to find the right business model. Whatever form the Portland Afoot brand might take in 2015, I’ll count it a success if almost every low-car family in town comes into contact with it at least once a year or so. I guess my goal is “mindshare,” if you’ll pardon the jargon.
When you say you’re setting out to “pay” your arts journalists, you mean real money: a living wage, right?
Barry: Absolutely. I don’t see any other way to make sure it keeps going at a useful level. Just like I don’t see any other way for the “real” transportation journalism you want to do to happen here in the long-term without Portland Afoot. And I believe, deep down, that the culture needs them both—and a lot more, too. I just think that we’re going to have to do a lot of creative (and destructive) thinking before we figure out how that’s going to work in the way we think is most responsible—meaning journalism that truly serves the public interest. I like “mindshare,” by the way. The term from the Scottish Enlightenment is “common sense”—a description or set of values or solution to problems that we understand and agree upon together. Of course, the national culture as it stands is short of all sorts of common senses, and so, for that matter, is the local culture.
Michael: Hmm. I’ll leave that one to the professionals. What are you working on this week?
Barry: Let’s see. I’ll try to enlist another arts organization or two in my scheme, and I’m working on another freelance project—it’s hard to “do” meetings this time of year, I’m learning. I’m also trying to assemble my official board of directors—I’ve been working with a casual group of advisers so far—so if you know anybody… How about you?
Michael: Among other things, I’m getting things rolling on the January issue. Hopefully by this time next week I’ll be able to tell you exactly where the heaters are located on each model of bus in the greater Portland area.
Barry: Glory be!
Barry Johnson has written about the arts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the now-defunct Seattle Sun. He has edited arts sections at Willamette Week and The Oregonian, and recently finished a twenty-six-year stint at the latter by writing a general arts and culture column. You can find his up-to-the-minute thoughts on the arts at http://artsdispatch.blogspot.com.