SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — [UPDATE: After briefly ceasing operations in May 2012 due to “limited and inconsistent” ad revenue, Publicola was purchased in mid-June 2012 by SagaCity Media, owner of the Seattle Metropolitan magazine and other properties, for an undisclosed sum. The new web publication is called PubliCola at SeattleMet. Popular features like “Morning Fizz,” “Afternoon Jolt,” and and “ThinkTank” continue to be published, and Josh Feit, the site’s founder and co-editor, and Erica Barnett, the site’s co-editor and reporter, remain onboard.]
[Profile updated October 31, 2012]
Seattle-based online news source PubliCola is named for Publius Valerius Publicola. Publicola is an agnomen meaning “friend of the people,” and P.V. Publicola was one of four Roman aristocrats credited with establishing the first Roman Republic by helping to overthrow the Roman monarchy–the Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym “Publius” in his honor. As a news site, PubliCola serves up its own self-described “cola for the people,” offering “non-partisan, original daily reporting that prioritizes a balanced approach to news” for residents of the Evergreen State.
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PubliCola was launched in January of 2009 by Josh Feit, a former news editor at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. Feit had clocked in roughly ten years at the paper before leaving near the end 2008. As he remembers, “There was a lot of energy around the void that had been left by the shrinking of mainstream media and that was happening in Seattle as well–I thought there was a real opportunity to step in and cover the state legislature”.
In PubliCola’s first six months, Feit accomplished just that, becoming the first online-only news source to receive media credentials to cover the state capital in the Washington state history.
For its first six months, the site existed primarily as Feit blogging about the state legislature, and has since expanded to include freelance contributors as well as one other full-time employee. The coverage area has expanded, too, and now includes extensive reporting on Washington state’s delegation in Washington, D.C. Although PubliCola doesn’t have a reporter on the ground in the nation’s capital, Feit explains: “We’ll have someone working the phones, monitoring the wires, and talking to our delegation in D.C.”. The task is shared among a few of the site’s contributors.
Feit added another crucial piece when hiring former Stranger reporter Erica C. Barnett in mid-2009. Although the site did cover Seattle’s city hall previously, Feit says of Barnett: “She has the best rolodex in the city when it comes to city hall, so [hiring her] really added Seattle City Hall to the menu”. Sticking with the restaurant parlance, Feit sums up the site’s sphere of coverage: “So on the plate is the state legislature, city hall, our delegation in D.C., and we’re very focused on local elections and so there’s county coverage in there as well.”
Feit acknowledges that “our city coverage probably outweighs our state coverage. There’s lots of both, but I think the city coverage is very prominent.” City coverage is as diverse and varied as the political landscape of Seattle itself, including coverage of election issues, live tweeting of metro cuts hearings, and a story about a council member’s idea to regulate pot through zoning. The site is still faithful to it’s original vision of focusing on the state legislature. Feit mentions one example among many: “There was a debt limit issue in Olympia and that’s not specific to Seattle, but we cover that and how that’s being dealt with by legislatures that have nothing to do with Seattle directly.”
While Feit and Barnett remain the site’s only paid editorial staffers, the site will occasionally supplement coverage with freelancers such as Andrew Calkins, who assisted with legislative coverage on both the state and national level over the past year. Feit explains that freelancers he’s hired range “from people who were writing local blogs that we thought were doing a great job, to young reporters trying to get a start.” All freelancers are compensated for their work. The site is funded by direct sales of display advertising, the revenue from which has allowed the site to essentially break even according to Feit, though he declines to discuss specific revenue figures.
The site has received a large amount of help along the way from angel investors, a local green developer with an interest in local politics, and “a guy from the East Side Seattle suburbs who works for a tech company.” Feit declines to name the amounts these investors contributed, but says that both now own a stake in the company. “They’re both interested in local politics and excited about PubliCola, so we got involved with them,” he says. The site operates as a for-profit. “The idea is to sell ads,” Feit says. “Our site is read by political junkies, so with political advertisers, we have a good base to sell advertising”, a demographic that would include candidates as well as advocacy groups.
When asked to describe his motives in starting the site, Feit mentions that while covering the Washington state legislature was the immediate goal, his overall aims were a bit loftier. As he puts it, “There was a concern that online site’s would lower the standards of journalism, but my thinking is journalism can raise the standards of online sites by bringing traditional journalism chops to online reporting.” Given its expansive, up-to-the-minute daily political coverage, PubliCola has met Feit’s initial vision of bringing competent, robust reporting to online journalism. As he notes, “We’re one of the main political news sites in the city, we’re linked to all the time by the daily’s, we’re on the local radio, we’re on the local TV, we’re in the mix and part of [the] political landscape–in terms of access and readership, the response has been great.”
City: SeattleAlex Fekula is a contributor to CJR.