Politics

08.09.13

Journalism’s Least Safe and Most Intriguing Site: NSFWCorp.com

The Weiner scandal roped in a closely watched experiment in new media. Winston Ross on Paul Carr’s Not Safe For Work, home of the ex-intern who launched a thousand expletives.

Remember that time the manager for New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner called former intern Olivia Nuzzi a “slutbag” and a fame-hungry “bitch” after she wrote a few articles describing dysfunction inside the campaign of a man who can’t seem to keep his camera phone away from his genitals?

You probably do. But while most of the world reacted with the appropriate horror to the remarks, a British-born journalist who spent years living out of luxury hotels and soaking his liver in booze had this to say, in a text message he sent Nuzzi the moment they learned of the jaw-dropping rant:

“It’s fucking Christmas.”

Paul Carr reacted that way because even though it was July, he’s Nuzzi’s boss, at a fascinating experiment in journalism called Not Safe For Work. He knew that this colossally bad news for Weiner flak Barbara Morgan and her boss would be wonderful news for his website and iPad magazine, and maybe the new print edition, too.

Carr was right. Once “Weintern”-hungry webizens went looking to figure out just who this Olivia Nuzzi was and how it happened that her Twitter photo wound up on the cover of the New York Daily News, all that valuable traffic landed squarely at the doorstep of NSFWcorp.com. His clicks-per-day jumped to 5,000 times their normal levels. It was fucking Christmas.

The decision to hire Nuzzi even before she graduates from college had proved prescient, even as Carr insists he didn’t offer her a job only because she’d worked for Weiner. No, he says, he was already well on his way to adding Nuzzi’s byline to a stable of offbeat and talented journos, because she spotted a tweet of his, in search of a writer who wants a job in a future of “journalism with jokes.” “Sounds like me,” Nuzzi tweeted back, so Carr Googled her and talked to her. She had good story ideas.  She wanted to write a profile of a guy hoping to fill the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat in New Jersey: Rush Holt, even though he was polling in third place.

Carr found “funny stuff” she’d written for Alternet, and he also scrolled through her Twitter photos and spotted one taken at a Weiner event, he told The Daily Beast. He asked her about it, she reluctantly admitted she’d worked on the campaign and, anticipating an editor’s next obvious question, said she didn’t want to write about it. At least not any time soon. She wanted to do this Holt piece. Then came the new round of sexting revelations. Nuzzi changed her mind and the rest is history.

“He doesn’t chase the same stories as everyone else does, and as a result you get some really interesting pieces.”

“He called you Monica, for Christ’s sake,” Carr told Nuzzi. “If nothing else, it’s fucking funny.”

The scandal’s traffic to Not Safe for Work didn’t last long. Most people skipped over to his site, read Nuzzi’s original posts, and moved on. Carr insists that’s OK, that he knows the future of his fledgling media outlet would never have lived or died on a single booming story or an incredibly lucky hire. He realizes that the only way he’ll succeed is by building a loyal flock of paid subscribers to the website, iPad edition, and/or print product—that’s right, he launched a print-journalism product, in 2012. He’s now at about 5,000 takers, who spend between $3 and $7 a month to read pieces on banking or meat ticks or serial child molesters. To stay afloat, he needs to double that figure, ideally by the end of the year. For the whole experiment to be a viable one, he needs to get to 30,000 subscribers. At 50,000, he says, “we never have to do anything for the rest of our lives.”

The “Weintern” only brought in maybe 100 new subscribers, Carr told The Daily Beast in a fast-talking interview littered with F-bombs and interrupted only by sips from a Diet Coke (he’s off the sauce). To succeed, he has to do great journalism that no one else is doing, at least not in the same way. And people have to find out about it, and like it so much that they’re willing to add one more monthly bill to their Pandora subscriptions and gym memberships and alimony payments.

Subscriptions are critical because Not Safe For Work doesn’t sell advertisements. If he sold ads, they’d only be profitable if the site generated bigger and bigger traffic, which would force him to “troll,” to chase the same search-engine-optimized stories that every other journo on the Web is searching for. He wants liberation from that yoke, a return to the heyday of journalism where editors told you what was interesting and because you trusted them and you were signed up to buy their product every day, they could count on a paycheck.

“The challenge is to have a consistent series of really great reporting,” Carr said. “It’s a gigantic fucking experiment.”

Not Safe For Work employs the kind of business model that only a tiny startup like his can dare attempt. He has enough seed money from investors like Zappos’ Tony Hsieh to pay his writers and illustrators at least through the end of the year, at which point his backers have made clear they want NSFWCorp to float on its own raft. Which is why Carr and his crew are applying boundless creativity to a trove of interesting ideas that those who watch the fishbowl of 21st-century journalism are monitoring pretty closely.

Kelly McBride studies new journalism for the Poynter Institue, the nonprofit publisher of the Tampa Bay Times. She’s had her eye on Carr since he published a critical piece about BuzzFeed last February, and finds herself stunned at the Brit’s seemingly endless supply of “bandwidth.”

“I don’t know if it’s because he’s in Las Vegas, or because he deliberately wants to do something that zigs when everyone else zags, but he doesn’t chase the same stories as everyone else does, and as a result you get some really interesting pieces,” she said. “But sometimes when I read it, I think ‘Why is this piece here now?’ The answer to that question is inevitably simply because it’s interesting, but I wonder if that’s enough.”

Carr wonders too, which is why he’s not just hunting down new subscribers and assigning interesting journalism and hiring 20-year-old college students with an inside line on the biggest sex scandal in America. He’s also created something called the Conflict Tower, a Kickstarter-like effort that allows people to buy increasingly expensive lifetime subscriptions, a thinly veiled pledge drive for those fans who want to back his grand experiment without requiring him to obtain nonprofit status.

Another creative idea: a “Conflict-A-Thon,” wherein contributors could chip in to expand the length of a radio show called NSFWLIFE, starring Carr and callers and guests. The show wound up being 26 hours long. There are also Conflict Tower Dinner Parties, where attendees pay $200 a pop to hang out with Carr and other smart socialites and rap about the news of the day. His paywall is “strict,” meaning you don’t get 10 free articles a month, but subscribers can “unlock” pieces they want to share and let friends read them for 48 hours.

Will any of this stuff work? Carr admits he hasn’t the foggiest bloody idea. Everything about what he’s doing is not only unproven but proven wrong, a la Rupert Murdoch’s failed tablet experiment The Daily. Andrew Sullivan, another ad-free journalism pioneer, has admitted an initial blast of support for his “leaky paywall” model has since waned.

Even Carr’s branding is a grand experiment. A news site called Not Safe For Work? McBride said she’s often slipped up and punched “nsfw.com” directly into her browser window, landing on a hard-core pornography site.

“Great, here I am with my children in the house,” McBride said. “I’m still waiting for the IT people to ask me what the hell I’m doing.”

Ever self-deprecating, Carr calls his brand “horrible,” but also says he was deliberate about the decision to name the site after a column he used to write for The Guardian. For one thing, he considers himself “not safe for work,” and his writers too: a “weird island of misfit toys.” Writers like Mark Ames, whose rogue expat newspaper in Russia, eXile, was shut down by the Kremlin, for example.  If Carr had chosen The Daily Review or something, he’d never know whether people actually had any idea that his approach to journalism was different. His business relies on customers who say “I want that.” Plus, a phone call from “NSFWCorp” is an unfailing conversation piece.

“No one doesn’t ask about the name,” Carr said. “What I like about Rolling Stone is when it first started, people had no idea what the name meant. There’s an airline called Virgin, for Christ’s sake.”

What it takes to launch a successful, advertising-free media company is to do what Carr is doing—diversify his revenue sources, McBride said. But the editor is also focused on the product: working with his writers and illustrators (NSFW doesn’t use photographs) and defending his staff when they come under fire.

This week, for example, The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote a piece that began with a sprawling attack on Nuzzi, based on the same assumption many had after Morgan’s tirade: that the intern was looking to cash in on her access to Weiner and make a name for herself.

Carr responded by calling Bruni “A lazy, misogynistic sack of dicks.” Not Safe For Work, indeed.