VIEWPOINT: Crime doesn't pay: APBnews' vault empty

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This one actually deserves to make it and, by the time this is printed, we may know whether it did or not.

Late last year, when I decided to return to news after an educational but unsatisfying stint in public relations, I knew online media operations were my best bet. The dot-coms were not only doing most of the hiring, but also catering to every industry, lifestyle, hobby and vice. I figured I could find one that would be a good match.

I wanted to work where the editorial content came first--where I could do more than wrap prose around the sales pitch for some gewgaw. I didn't want to work at a place where the whole exercise was about burning through precious capital just to get attention.

After investigating--and rejecting--several possibilities, I found APBnews.com before Christmas.

RAREST BIRD

An all-crime, all-the-time multimedia monster run by some of the best journalists in the U.S., APB was that rarest of dot-com birds: a relatively simple concept executed brilliantly. One look at its site and I knew where I wanted to be.

Part of me had always wanted to be a crime reporter. When I was a production editor and occasional feature writer at Advertising Age a decade ago, a group of us were avid crime buffs. We traded Ann Rule paperbacks, ate up every detail of the Jeffrey Dahmer case and idly talked of putting together a "syndicate" to purchase an original John Wayne Gacy clown painting.

At APB, if it bleeds, it doesn't just lead--it saturates.

Staff-written stories about serial killers, computer hackers, celebrity FBI files and boneheaded burglars jostle for space with in-depth investigative pieces on crime in the National Basketball Association and the personal finances of federal judges. Legendary former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, of "The Killing Fields" fame, is on staff.

NO GUARANTEES

I finally found an in via some college newspaper pals.

Once I had the introduction, I started pestering Executive Editor Hoag Levins relentlessly until he finally agreed in April to hire me three days a week. My first assignment: a series on art crime in America that covered everything from antiquities smuggling to forgery to great unsolved heists.

Nobody made any guarantees or offered me any stock options, but I didn't care. The day rate was adequate and there was time for the rest after I'd proven myself.

Just days after I turned in the series, however, I called in last Monday and got the bad news. APB was out of cash and 140-odd people, from full-time staffers down to contract free-lancers like me, were out of luck. A key round of financing had failed, and without new backers the site could soon go dark.

Shortly after I signed the APB contract, I was in New York for a few days and dropped by the office. They have a whole floor of a prime building just off Wall Street, and I was told they were busily rehabbing the one above for a new TV studio. The radio operation was already under way.

Although I wondered where all the money was coming from, I didn't worry much. The place was humming with the kind of energy that only a vibrant newsroom can generate. The talent pool was deep, the confidence infectious.

The blown-up news clips on the wall testified to APB's terrific buzz; the multiple awards spoke for themselves. Besides, I knew the place was full of experienced journalists with keen B.S. sensors. Most important, there wasn't a single postpubescent dot-con artist in sight.

My understanding of how APB was to make its money was hazy. It was pulling in some advertising dollars; paid syndication, book publishing and partnerships with other media companies also were to be part of the mix.

I have never met the money men at APB. I know little about them except that they think big and floated one of the most tremendously compelling news concepts I have ever seen. They pulled out all the stops to create the best possible product in the shortest possible time. If they are guilty of being overly optimistic, then I am, too. And so, I suppose, is Sydney Schanberg.

NO COMPLAINTS

Although I may end up out a modest amount of wages, I have small reason to complain. Most--maybe all--of the folks at APB could get hurt worse than me, and I couldn't be in better company. Besides, I would do it again in an instant.

As this goes to press, attempts to find new financing or a big-media buyer continue. Most staffers have received their final checks, but no one was scurrying away. Instead, they remain in the newsroom working for free. They are willing to stake their time and talent for the chance to keep APB alive in one incarnation or another. And so am I.

If that isn't value, what is?

Mr. Spain is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.

Copyright June 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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