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October 4, 2009
David Warsh, Proprietor


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In Which a Spear-Carrier Vents a Little

When Economic Principals moved to the Web from The Boston Globe nearly eight years ago, its inspirations were Esther Dyson and Edward Tufte. But its guide was Ira Stoll.

Dyson and I had worked down the hall from one another at Forbes in the mid-1970s. She was as fearless and indefatigable as any journalist I’ve ever known. Editor Jim Michaels blocked her path, so she quit the magazine and joined Wall Street securities analyst Ben Rosen. When he moved on to doing venture capital, she bought his electronics newsletter, renamed it Release 1.0, and began covering the emerging personal computer industry on a monthly basis. Delivered by postal mail in those days, Dyson’s letter looked a little like I.F. Stone’s weekly had in its heyday 25 years before. A subscription cost $400. Central to the business was an annual conference at which software magnates gathered to schmooze with one another.

Tufte had been the subject of one of the first Economic Principals columns I ever wrote for the Globe. His book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, had just appeared and begun attracting attention. For years afterwards I remembered the way he explained his decision to do the book himself, when no commercial publisher would consent to its extensive illustrations. “I’m a political scientist,” he said (his specialty was political business cycles). “Everything I write sells around 2,500 copies.” So he borrowed $100,000 against his house, priced the book to break even at $34.50, and is still dining out on the strength of its sales, now well over 100,000 copies. Three more books followed; the land around his house became a sculpture garden; once or twice a year he takes his one-day design lectures on the road. But Tufte’s greatest success was as consultant to the New York Times: the paper’s statistical graphics became the industry’s gold standard.

Stoll was a college sophomore when we met; it turned out we were both interested in “news.” He went into the business and became deputy to Seth Lipsky, a former Wall Street Journal editor who had started a weekly English-language version of the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. When in 2000, after a spat with the owners, the two men found themselves on the beach, Stoll started a website – today we might call it a blog. Smartertimes.com.was ostensibly a daily critique of The New York Times; instead, it turned out to be a way of trolling for potential subscribers to The New York Sun, a competitive daily newspaper in Manhattan that Lipsky and Stoll were quietly preparing to launch. The Sun shone brightly for six and a half years, from a few months after 9/11 until the September panic last year. Its biases were strong and sometimes repugnant to me, but it was a beautiful and lively paper that served its audience well.

Now Stoll is at it again, at FutureOfCapitalism.com. If you take a look at its How to Help page, you’ll get a sense of his plans for the future – grandiose, on their surface, until you remember that his last website grew into a newspaper with around a hundred employees.(As for Ira’s neoconservative tendencies, his news instincts are forever battling for the upper hand.) What’s encouraging is that an editor who in a short career has successfully managed three newspapers (if you count Stoll’s college daily) is beginning again with the Web, but this time perhaps intending mainly to remain there, with a plan reminiscent in many respects to that of editor Charles Sennott’s Global Post, which last month agreed to make its network of 70 correspondents in 50 countries available to CBS News.

It was Stoll who taught me about the possibilities of publishing on the Web. EP hired his designer, assembled a mailing list from those who wrote to express regret that the Globe had discontinued the column, fumbled with the mechanics of Dreamweaver development software, opened for business with no more of a business plan than that a well-established economics column was too valuable to waste. It took two years to hit on the model that now seems to work fairly well – reader-supported journalism, modeled on public broadcasting. A relative handful of subscribers pay $50 a year to receive, late Saturday, a bulldog edition of the weekly. Eighteen hours later, it goes online, where it is read by more than 30,000 readers interested in economics in 120 countries around the world – for free.

Having survived identification with the rise of a vast army of bloggers who have materialized in the years since its online incarnation began, EP thus finds itself a spear-carrier in the vanguard of online journalism. This is my day job now. I joined the Online Journalism Association. EP doesn’t aspire to a Washington bureau, doesn’t want to stage subscriber meetings in hotels, won’t offer bow ties as subscription premiums, and doesn’t accept advertising. But it does intend to keep doing what it’s been doing, to find more time to ask more questions and report more developments, to demonstrate that the Web is a viable platform for traditional journalism. The 300 or so subscribers who support this operation (renewal rates are always a little bit uncertain) should feel that they are part of a very interesting evolution in the news business.

To be sure, it’s not ProPublica, the glamorous not-for-profit news organization with its $14 million in foundation backing, its six-figure salaries for reporters, and its astonishing $570,000 salary for editor-in-chief Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. But little start-ups – Dyson’s, Tufte’s, Lipsky’s, Stoll’s, Sennott’s, mine – may be more indicative of the possibilities for a new kind of journalism on the Web, perhaps even more durable in the end.

(Adapted from a recent quarterly Report to Subscribers.)

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