Zonied Out

Adam Klawonn tried everything to make his journalism startup succeed. It wasn't enough.

In 2006, Adam Klawonn cashed out his newspaper job vacation pay to reinvent himself as a digital journalist. He bought a laptop and a camcorder, and trained himself how to create a blog, edit HTML code, shoot video and edit it in Final Cut Pro, edit photos, create graphics in Photoshop, and manage a Web site—specifically, “The Zonie Report,” an online regional news magazine about Arizona (tag line: “The rest of the Arizona story”) that he started on his own dime without any big funders or major journalism connections.

Last week, Klawonn announced that after nearly four years, and “not a penny to show for it,” The Zonie Report would shut down. He had hustled to promote the site: attending mixers and industry trade shows, relentlessly marketing online through social networking sites, and speaking at media-related events. He even showed up at local charity road races with The Zonie Report logo prominently displayed on his chest alongside his runner’s bib, wearing a sombrero just to draw attention. He had also worked to create a steady stable of contributors. He got local journalism students involved, hired some regular bloggers, signed freelancers to contracts and paid them—out of his own pocket—the shockingly competitive rate of forty to fifty cents per word. He freelanced on the side to keep himself afloat.

In the end, he had a total of five inquiries from advertisers over nearly four years, and lost all but $500 of the $20,000 he sank into the endeavor. At the height of his site’s traffic, his audience was 8,000 monthly visitors out of the six million Arizona citizens that he considered potential readers. “In hindsight, I stuck with this longer than I should have,” Klawonn said. “I should have quit two years earlier.”

It’s no big secret that deep pockets and name recognition will help any startup company, or that spreading out your risk by finding investors is a good idea. The Internet, though, is supposed to level the playing field somewhat for aspiring publishers, with no major elbow-rubbing efforts, marquee name-endorsements, VC backing, or Ivy League degree required to find success. Many old-media refugees have taken this idea to heart and founded their own one-man startups, only to learn that success can be more elusive than they think—see here and here. Like them, Klawonn found that having money and connections count just as much online as they do in the real world.

In the words of Thomas Levenson, a professor of science writing at MIT:

[Klawonn] tried a local, focused, partly free-labor news source model and failed. […] It remains the underlying fact that he is one of a number of folks finding it difficult to produce an alternative to oligopolistic mass media on one side and boutique or labor-of-love narrowly focused sources on the other.

“On the Internet, there’s something for everyone and if you want to start up a publication about something very specific, like healthcare for children with multiple sclerosis, for example, you can do that. It may not pay the bills, but nothing is stopping you,” Klawonn said. “But if your goal is to be the Voice of San Diego or MinnPost it certainly doesn’t hurt to have old media or old money connections.”

Klawonn, now thirty-one, had neither. He worked at The Arizona Republic for three years right out of college before reporting for the San Diego Union Tribune for two years. He left to create The Zonie Report in 2006, after he felt like he wasn’t learning the new media skills he’d need to stay competitive in a changing industry. He conceived of the project as a sort of master’s course in journalism, investing the money he had saved to pay for a graduate degree. He figured he had nothing to lose even if The Zonie Report didn’t make it.

“I was either going to go broke making this site a success and least re-train myself and have fun doing it, or it would be a huge success and I would laugh someday about how it started in my home office,” he said. “Either way, I’d either be really successful or back in the workforce as a totally reinvented journalist.”

The Zonie Report had an ambitious mandate—covering the entire state of Arizona—and featured magazine-length narrative pieces, blog posts, video, and aggregated links to other Arizona news outlets’ stories. Klawonn is proudest of the online magazine’s environmental reporting, including an exclusive on a manganese-polluted town along the Colorado River that came from a tipster in the state environmental office; a story on a planned copper mine opposed by its neighbors, written by a contributor who went on to write for The New York Times’s Green Inc. blog; and a piece about the affordable housing gap in rapidly gentrifying Sedona. In 2008, the Arizona Press Club gave him a runner-up award as Community Journalist of the Year.

But by the end, Klawonn, a one-man band, was so busy managing the site and hustling to build its audience that the journalism was no longer his sole focus. As he wrote in response to a Center for Future Civic Media blog post about The Zonie Report: “The Zonie Report failed because I couldn’t drive enough interest/traffic to it to make it economically feasible to continue my Herculean efforts to sustain it. I really enjoyed the work, but one has to eat.”

It turns out, he did have something to lose—his idealism—and it’s not difficult to detect a hint of bitterness in Klawonn’s announcement that The Zonie Report would close:

I learned some hard lessons in my idealistic crusade to bring better, more innovative journalism to the expectant masses. I’m leaving a lot out, but I’d like to share of them with you now and hear more about your own observations. Feel free to share.

First, the Internet audience is incredibly fickle, so the expectant Zonie Report masses weren’t there. (It turns out there were only about 8,000 of them in a state of 6 million-plus residents.)

Second, the way we consume media online does not lend itself to a deep-reading format, so short stories and truncated video (from car accidents to Britney Spears sightings to bar fights in Scottsdale) proliferate. This says something about the format, about us and about news outlets in general.

Third, it’s tough to sell ads using today’s metrics (i.e., impressions, etc.). Online advertising prices continue to head toward the floor and may never recover.

Finally, people are generally more interested in what everybody around them is doing than what’s really going on in the world. There are some exceptions, but this is perhaps the harshest and saddest lesson of all. Who knows if/when this will change.

On Thursday, he amended his original laments in a post on PBS’s MediaShift Idea Lab to include a more self-critical look at his missteps and at how other online journalists could learn from them.

Even though The Zonie Report couldn’t sustain itself, it opened a few doors for its founder. As a self-taught, new media-savvy journalist, Klawonn landed a job teaching an “Intro to Online Media” lab course at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. He’s working as the managing editor of PHOENIX magazine. And last year he won $95,000 from the Knight News Challenge for a social networking Web site and mobile service called CityCircles, centered around news and events affecting commuters on Phoenix’s downtown light rail line.

But the “if you build it, they will come” spirit that led him to found The Zonie Report is gone. He founded it under the (perhaps naïve) assumption that good writers should be paid a decent wage for their work, that people would care about issues affecting their community, that their eyeballs would find good journalism about those communities, and the ads would find the eyeballs. He was putting his money where his journalistic ideals were; now, after seeing those ideals fail, he’s no longer willing to put his own money and reputation on the line.

That said, Klawonn hasn’t given up entirely on his original labor of love. “I should have found those big names willing to go to bat for this—funders who also believe that this is a complex state with a lot of issues and that it would be great to have something that goes beyond the daily minutiae to crystallize it on a regional level,” he said. “But if you don’t have that kind of person, it’s a long road to hoe. And if that person appears, I would gladly flip the switch and give it another shot.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.