"I don't want to be this discouraging fable for folks," says Josh Feit, former Stranger news editor and founder of the for-profit, but now deceased, local politics website PubliCola.
It's hard not to see a warning in the arc of Feit's experiment, though.
PubliCola lived for three and a half years, had a relatively devoted wonk following, unearthed some interesting scoops, and in good months drew 400,000 page views. But then it died on May 9, after months of rumors that the angel investors who were making the whole operation go had closed their checkbooks.
Like the local online news site Crosscut before it, PubliCola found that the harsh math of online advertising simply made it impossible to survive long-term as a for-profit.
In 2009, Crosscut gave up trying to be profitable, went nonprofit, and now lives on a mix of donations, subscriptions, and advertising revenue. Its founder, David Brewster, sees it partly as a "lifeboat" for struggling journalists and—somewhat ironically—he's now floating Feit (as well as PubliCola's other employee, former Stranger news editor Erica C. Barnett) with freelance work.
If Brewster can get enough new donations, that could turn into full-time Crosscut employment for them both. "We need younger readers," Brewster explains. "We need more readers on the left, and we need more breaking news. So that's a very natural thing to take in there."
"But," Feit says, "it's not a done deal. It's not guaranteed."
That still leaves the potentially "discouraging fable" of PubliCola to deal with.
Feit wouldn't divulge revenue figures for his site, but a business like the one he created is likely to bring in somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a year in ad revenue—and that's using generous estimates.
"The inherent problems with the model," Brewster says of the for-profit approach, "are (a) you have to have a whole lot of people selling ads... and (b) it's very hard to get the ad rates to go up."
At the end, PubliCola had two people writing full time and zero full-time people selling ads (though Feit says there was a non-full-time contract ad salesperson until the end). One of the site's last big revenue pushes was a pledge drive that netted about $10,000.
"I actually think, given our experience, and what we got done editorially, there is a way to translate that into a business success," Feit says. "We just weren't able to dedicate the same consistent attention to the business side as we were to the editorial side."
One local online-only operation that bucks the trend: West Seattle Blog, run by Tracy Record and her husband. They bring in six figures, and it's worked for them for five years. But, she adds: "We never stop. We don't take the weekends off, we don't take the nights off."
Of PubliCola, Record says: "I noticed that it kind of had a nine-to-five schedule."
This article has been updated since its original publication.