the news frontier

New Media Goes Door to Door in the Deep South

After a year and a half, Birmingham news site Weld is cleared for launch
May 9, 2011

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.”

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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.

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.”

Back in September, I asked him what he would do in the event that they couldn’t raise the money.

“That’s something I’ve struggled with,” he said. “Knowing when I’ve done as much as I possibly could. At some point, I’ve got to have a real paycheck coming in. I can’t live off savings and family and friends anymore.

“So I think that if this doesn’t work, I’ll have to apply around. The shitty thing for me is that I’ve put my thumb in the Birmingham News’s eye so many times that it was eventually going to come back on me. So I’m not going to be able to go there and get a job.

“Even though I’m doing sort of the new media thing, I’m still a journalist, I’m still a newspaperman. Any other line of work would be an insufferable hell. And so I would go wherever the job is, but it’s probably not going to be Birmingham. And so all the sources I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing, all the knowledge about the community I’ve learned, I’m going to have to start all over again, and that’s really scary. But I sort of made my peace with it. If that’s what happens.

“When you go into one of these things, I don’t want to say that you have to be prepared to fail, but there have been a few times where you sort of have to look over the edge of the cliff. You do have to be prepared for that emotionally, because it might not work. But hopefully it won’t come to that.”

It didn’t come to that. He started work last Monday.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.