A self-addressed birthday card to Crosscut

A short history of the site, on the day we celebrate our ripe old new-media age of 3.
Crosscut archive image.
A short history of the site, on the day we celebrate our ripe old new-media age of 3.

Tonight (May 18) at Tilikum Place Cafe, members and special guests will join the staff of Crosscut.com in celebrating our third birthday. Actually, we're just a little over three years old, the first issue having been April 7, 2007. That's a whole lot of stories, writers, donors, with thousands more to come.

I thought I might tell a little of the gestation and birth of Crosscut, by way of thanking the begetters. The idea was put in our heads by my longtime friend Tom Alberg, who was an investor in Seattle Weekly, helped me to rescue Town Hall from the wrecking ball, and has been involved in all manner of local businesses and civic crusades. He's also a leading venture capitalist, adept at seeing around corners. So when he said that local journalism was declining, that the shift was rapidly to the Web, and we ought to figure out how to do something along those lines, I listened up.

At the time, 2005-06, I was making ready to leave Town Hall, which I had got launched in 1998, so I was interested in something new. And something old, since I had spent 21 years at Seattle Weekly and some years in local journalism before. We gathered a group of writers, editors, free-thinkers, and tech folks and met, almost weekly for a while, to cook up a new venture. The parameters were simple: online only, local only (though local meant the Northwest, not just Seattle), local owners, independent-minded, non-partisan, "writerly," covering lots of topics, and with an emphasis on analysis and interpretation by writers who know their subjects well and can get passionate about them.

In one sense, this was a reprise of Seattle Weekly and of Seattle Magazine (the KING Broadcasting periodical) of my misspent youth. It was also an echo of The New Pacific, a quarterly magazine that Tom and others (including me) had started to cover Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The editor of that fine and thoughtful journal, Eileen Quigley, also pitched in to do the early business planning for Crosscut. My friend Gordon Bowker, whom I met when we were writers for Stim Bullitt's Seattle Magazine, helped us find the name of Crosscut. Knute Berger, a fellow editor at Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek, signed on as our lead columnist. Knute's ace editor at the Weekly, Chuck Taylor, formerly with The Seattle Times, came aboard as our first editor and built the content management system for Crosscut. Yazmin Mehdi, our first marketing manager, had worked with me in the search for my successor at Town Hall. (Hats off to Town Hall for winning its preservation award last week, by the way!)

We had lots of experienced people, from mainstream and other local journalism, but we still had few maps. Only three or four other stand-alone, online-only local news sites were out there (more came along soon), so we cobbled together our strategy from past experience, good guesses, and national models (like Slate and Seattle-based ArtsJournal.com) we admired. And off we went: "build to learn," as they say. The budget was modest, because we knew we were searching for a workable business model (which turned out to be the nonprofit model, similar to public radio) and didn't want to blow through our start-up capital before we found it.

We almost didn't make it. We ran out of investment money before we managed to swim across the channel to the nonprofit model. For a good part of 2009, the staff was much reduced, and I had the harrowing experience of being a one-man band, aside from the critical help of Mike Crystal as associate publisher — Mike having been my main business partner in running Seattle Weekly — and the wonderful writers of Crosscut who all stuck with me on the life raft. Rescue came last August with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which enabled us to staff up again and pursue the new, member-supported model in earnest. The next rescue came from the 500 members who signed up in our first Annual Membership drive last October.

I hope you like what we've been able to do. I'm quite proud and more than a little amazed! We have big plans to make Crosscut a lot better, and to develop the sustainable forms of revenue to support these aspirations. I no longer feel alone, or mapless, and there are very smart colleagues in other cities working the same problems, each with distinct local differences. We've also got good competition locally, such as Publicola.net, covering city hall and Olympia and urban environmental topics; TechFlash.com, a technology website housed at the Puget Sound Business Journal; our nationally acclaimed neighborhood blogs; and two quite good websites by The Seattle Times and the P-I. Competition is good, of course, but also these and other sites promise an era of cooperation and networked collaboration.

Capping off my little history lesson, let me salute our excellent current staff and mention some of their roots in Seattle media. Jill Mogen, who runs the business side along with Mike Crystal, worked in advertising for Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek and was publisher of Seattle Homes & Lifestyles; Joe Copeland, stepping up this week to fulltime deputy editor, was on the P-I's editorial page for many years; Michele Matassa Flores, associate editor, was a reporter and editor at The Seattle Times; Marilyn Hoe, our office manager, worked with me in event planning at Town Hall; and Jon Sayer, our tech-guy, recently finished his training in journalism and computers at Western Washington University. Knute Berger and I are the only staffers from the birth of Crosscut, and we go back to 1980 of working together at the Weekly and Eastsideweek. Thanks, all.

Curious about tonight's party? You need to be a Crosscut Member to attend, and space is now quite limited. But you can take your chances and join at the door if you like or online. Tilikum Place Cafe is at 407 Cedar (north Belltown), and the festivities go from 5-8 pm tonight. I hope to see many of you there tonight.


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