Capital New York Plies Tough Market With Earnest Journalism

Can a Smart New Start-up Survive in Era of Page-View Media?

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NEW YORK ( -- Capital New York, the sincere original-news site introduced in June by former New York Observer editors Tom McGeveran and Josh Benson, sits on the second floor of a squat SoHo tenement. The door to the street entrance is lacquered in dark green paint and marked up with graffiti; the buzzer to the office is curiously labeled "PdF."

As it turns out, that's the Personal Democracy Forum, a conference founded by Andrew Rasiej, one of the site's investors. The PdF conference is now providing the office space for Capital New York. "We feel lucky to be here," Mr. Benson said of the office and its surroundings. "Actually, it's more than we deserve."

Mr. Benson's statement evokes, however incidentally, questions about luck, merit and the prospects for local-news start-ups that surround Capital's arrival. In an age of page-view media and pro-am reporting, when rapid-fire blogs like Gawker and Business Insider grow every day, can an earnest editorial effort like Capital catch on? Even thrive?

"We're not sentimental about newspapers, really," Mr. McGeveran said over a lunch of falafel and soda at a restaurant near the office. "It's just it can feel sometimes that the economics of the web have provided the obvious base for people to do the stuff that we want to do. And we know tons of people who'd like to read the stuff we're interested in talking about."

How the web works?
Capital's tagline is "This Is How New York Works," a grand declaration that is at once newspaper-serious and blog-sarcastic, a hybrid attitude that carries over into the content and form of the site itself. Like a traditional newsweekly, there are well-reported pieces, both long and short, all with a knowing tone. But unlike traditional news plays, Capital appears to connect the dots between its stories, however varied or disparate. To wit: A feature on Lady Gaga's prep-school beginnings abuts a review of an experimental dance-theater piece; a story on the concept of the New York Girl as defined by the author Candace Bushnell shares screen space with a report on potential layoffs at the M.T.A.

Tom McGeveran
Tom McGeveran
It's unusual for new websites, not to mention the blogs that have already reshaped the media business, to provide the level of reporting seen in Capital's posts. But Capital also wants the sometimes social, sometimes viral, constantly updated relationship with readers that good blogs generate.

"We're trying to make a different kind of connection with an audience around a topic that's viral and fascinating and moving quickly," Mr. McGeveran said.

"Yeah, now we just have to figure out a way to make that a good business proposition," Mr. Benson said. "Lots of people have shown how to make something good on the web, and lots of people have shown how to make something successful on the web, and we wanted to test the idea that it might be possible to do something good that is a going proposition."

Big ambitions on a limited means
Unlike the mega-media start-ups like The Huffington Post in 2005, Capital is a micro-enterprise, financed in the few-hundred-thousand-dollar range, though neither Mr. Benson nor Mr. McGeveran would discuss exact figures. It has a full-time staff of five editors, including the two founders.

At the same time, the fees it pays contributors -- $100 to $300 per article, according to people familiar with its rates -- are considered either a princely sum or meager commission, contingent on the observer's age and station in the editorial world.

"I can't believe they're paying people so much," one web publisher said of Capital's freelance rates. "It's crazy."

Both Mr. McGeveran and Mr. Benson are in their late 30s and have deep experience in Manhattan media, which may explain their almost apologetic tone about those same rates. "We can't say how much we're paying," Mr. Benson said, "but we are paying, and we're doing the best we can."

Not just banner ads
"A very important component of the future of journalism is entrepreneurial journalism," said Merrill Brown, who was the first editor in chief of and is now another investor in Capital. He's also building a separate company around local-news sites called Prism, though he declined to be more specific about the enterprise because it is still being formed.

"I became quite enamored of their idea, so I worked with them on building a revenue model," Mr. Brown said. "We're keeping costs down and developing a variety of sponsorships and partnerships with institutions in New York. Not just putting up banners."

The site's home page includes a box-shaped ad for an online series from Thirteen, the New York public media company, as well as a box and a vertical ad for the 92nd Street Y, a New York culture center that fits into the strategic partnerships Mr. Brown mentioned. As with many publications these days, Capital aims to develop events as part of its revenue stream, an area in which the 92nd Street Y excels.

"It's another way we can profit by being a website with a local point of view," Mr. McGeveran said. "New York is all about having the relationship be totally circular between in-real-life and on-the-web, and also in going from the web back to real life. That's what things like Foursquare are about. That's what things like Groupon are about."

Indeed, the founders are fluent in the latest digital plays, and solecisms like "social" and "platform" flow easily from them both. But they acknowledge these are buzzwords meant to wow potential investors. Their editorial ambitions are, in fact, deeply civic.

Traffic on the web and in Times Square
"I grew up in New York, and there was a real curiosity about the way the city actually works, that didn't used to be there," said Mr. McGeveran, who had the singular experience of having been raised on Roosevelt Island. Mr. Benson, a Long Island native, is now a longtime Queens resident. "And maybe it has something to do with the approaches of the Bloomberg administration," Mr. McGeveran continued, "where, for better or worse, ideas about what's the role of government in the life of the city are being re-examined."

He pointed to the way parts of Times Square were recently cordoned off into a pedestrian plaza. "People are like, 'Wait a minute, how will that affect traffic patterns?' I just can't imagine a lot of people wanting to read and talk on the web about traffic patterns versus like..."

"Fifteen years ago," Mr. Benson supplied.

"But they do it all the time now!" Mr. McGeveran said.

Josh Benson
Josh Benson
"That's one of the reasons that blogs are so successful," Mr. Benson said. "There's an audience for a review of every single show that goes up on Broadway, and sometimes you don't want it to be a capsule review in Time Out, sometimes you want more detail. You want more discussion."

Journalism untethered
Capital aims to own that discussion, according to Messrs. Benson and McGeveran, by exploiting the stream-like aspect of the best blogs while maintaining a firm footing in the traditions of reporting. It is a very media-forward plan, but there's a challenge there too. Those discussions have already become highly distributed around the web, making them difficult for any one player to own. Journalists have learned to market their articles beyond their publication's website, through Twitter or various aggregators like Mediagazer and Techmeme, which The New York Times recently noted have become must-reads for the media and tech industries. Content reaches far beyond the news organizations that publish it, repurposed as tweets, shared links, or pieces of scraped content by the continually proliferating web.

Messrs. Benson and McGeveran met as editors of The New York Observer, where Mr. Benson was the politics editor. He previously worked as a reporter for The New York Times. Mr. McGeveran started as a copy editor at The Observer in 2000, eventually rising to become the paper's interim editor when its longtime chief, Peter Kaplan, left in early 2009.

"They're a good Butch and Sundance for this kind of gig," said Mr. Kaplan, who was recently named editorial director for Women's Wear Daily publisher Fairchild Fashion Group. "Josh is a deep political expert, a tough Jewish kid from Long Island. Tom is a brilliant Catholic intellectual with a very powerful sense of New York City. They're good-hearted, hard-nosed city boys with a perspective on New York power that is distinct. And from a reader's point of view, I find it compelling and fascinating."

That the two founding editors came from The Observer, as well as editors Gillian Reagan and Katharine Jose and a host of contributors, would suggest to many that the two publications ostensibly compete.

Not the dirty business of chasing page views
"I'm friendly with the both of them," Observer editor Kyle Pope said of Capital's founders. "But we don't really feel they're breathing down our necks." Mr. Pope observed that Capital appears to compete more directly with The Awl, a blog co-founded by Choire Sicha, another Observer alumnus, who disagrees with Mr. Pope's assessment.

"Kyle Pope just doesn't have enough experience or wisdom to understand that the web is a real big place and that a rising tide lifts all boats," he wrote in an e-mail response. "Having great folks like those at Capital New York in our neighborhood -- and it's a very big and very fun neighborhood! -- is terrific for us."

Capital's founders have another take on the nature of news competition. "Before the web was a significant factor in New York, a lot of the publications leaned on each other," Mr. McGeveran said. "Ideas come out of parties and events and exhibits and then ultimately make their way into a newspaper. But those conversations are also happening online now. If these other publications and blogs didn't exist, we would not be as much fun to read."

Matt Haber, a freelance writer who has contributed to The Observer and Capital, framed it one more way. "When I think about those guys, I think about something I saw in the movie version of the Cormac McCarthy novel, 'The Road,'" he said. "I think about the speech the man gives to his son where he says we're the good guys because we keep the fire of humanity in our hearts. Tom and Josh, they're carrying that fire. They're not dumbing it down. They're not in the dirty business of chasing page views. They're the good guys."

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