Crosscut turns 5. About time to become an annual Member?

Crosscut's Spring Membership drive comes amid this birthday. Plus: a look at Crosscut's birth, its original staffers, and its founding "heresies."

Crosscut archive image.

Publisher David Brewster greets Crosscut members at an earlier member party.

Crosscut's Spring Membership drive comes amid this birthday. Plus: a look at Crosscut's birth, its original staffers, and its founding "heresies."

Five years ago this week, on April 2, 2007 to be exact, published its first daily edition. I know, compared to such legacy media as The Seattle Times, which began in 1891, that's small frites. But in the "next media" universe, it's a real achievement. Thanks, hearty thanks, to those who got it started and who sustain it today. I hope you too will give us a boost by becoming an Annual Member.

Below, some of that early history. But first, we are in the second week of a very important Spring Membership drive, and I hope you'll get some of the birthday spirit and join as an Annual Member. Public contributions make all the difference in this kind of non-commercial, public-good media. We provide this in-depth, thoughtful journalism free for all to read, but it can't be done if all are free-riders. If you value what we do, and what it means for the civic life of this region, please consider joining or renewing your Membership, which start at $35. It's easy to donate online, and you can structure your tax-exempt donation in monthly automatic installments if you wish.

Each day in this campaign we hold drawings for prizes. If you donate today, you will be entered to win two VIP passes for the Seattle Art Museum, valid from May 2-September 2, and good for special exhibitions such as the Gauguin show closing April 29.  Yesterday's donors who won four tickets each to the Seattle Opera Young Artists' production of Donizetti's comic opera, Don Pasquale at Meany Theatre this Sunday (April 6) are Molly McCarthy of Seattle and Gary and Susan O'Callaghan of Bothell (good day for the Irish, apparently).

The grand prize is an Xbox Kinect. Thanks to recent donors of $75 or more, who have triggered the $1,000 match from a generous donor, doubling those Membership amounts. We also encourage you to become an Evergreen Member, making a monthly donation of your choice for as long as you care to. Evergreen Members earn a snazzy aluminum water bottle as a premium.

Crosscut is a nonprofit entity, so your donations are tax-deductible. Members participate in many other benefits, such as free-for-Members parties and forums, discounted tickets, and chances to meet writers and newsmakers and fellow Members. We have a Meet-the-Writers reception this Thursday night (April 5) in our offices in Pioneer Square, for Members only. You could come and join at the door if you are not yet an Annual Member. More about all these benefits on the Membership page.

Back to the birthday. That first issue was topped by a story by Bill Richards, a media reporter, about how the Seattle Times was trying to undermine the deeply troubled P-I. (As it happened, the P-I ceased its print edition two years later.) The other early writers in that first edition were Knute Berger, already dubbed Mossback; Casey Corr, whose column was called Mudville; our writers in Portland (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett) and Olympia (Austin Jenkins); and Mike Henderson on sports. The billboard ad was from Town Hall (rah!) and another was from Third Place Books, in whose Ravenna pub we celebrated the launch.

Our first staff was very talented. Chuck Taylor (now at the Everett Herald) was the editor, having worked at the Times and Seattle Weekly before; he was also an ace in new media, so the good structure of the website and its useful archives are owing to Chuck's careful planning. Yazmin Mehdi, who had worked for Mayor Paul Schell and later for the Library, was our super-sharp business leader and marketing person. Shawn Sutherland, coming over from Eileen Quigley's shop at Real Networks, was the webmaster and designer of the first content-management system. (Trevor Smith was to design the second one, in use today, with a significant upgrade about to come in a month.) Add me and a slew of fine freelance writers, and that was the crew.

A word about the name Crosscut. We had wanted a name that suggested new media, not mainstream terms like Tribune and Mirror. I wanted a subtle Northwest reference, and there is a lumber connotation to the name. I enlisted my friend Gordon Bowker, a professional namer who had invented Starbucks among others, to guide the process. He told us some principles. (One I remember is that the name, when pronounced, should be easy to spell.)

We had lots of names. One of the dumbest, which for some reason I pushed, was "The Spine." We showed Gordon a list of about 50, which he pondered briefly and then wrote one of them down on a piece of paper he folded and wouldn't show us. After endless debate we settled on Crosscut, whereupon Gordon unfolded the piece of paper with that word alone written on it. Fate had spoken. Only later did I see the underlying meaning of the word, and our mission: to cut across boundaries of ideology, geography, age, and interests.

We made several key decisions in launching Crosscut, most of which apply today and most of which cut against the grain of conventional wisdom about online journalism.

One was to run longer stories, violating the rule of thumb that Web readers will not read stories longer than about 600 words. Our feeling was that the Web, by freeing writers from the tyranny of limited space, due to newsprint economics, has a great advantage in allowing articles to be as long as they should be.

A second decision was to make Crosscut non-partisan, in the sense that the writers often produce interpretative, analytical, and opinion pieces (well argued and with evidence), but they differ among themselves and the site itself has no editorial page or "party line." Conventional wisdom is that readers look for sites that mirror back their interests or politics and have little patience for differing views. This strikes me as an insulting view of readers interested in public affairs, business, and culture. They like being guided into thinking about things in new ways; they like the democratic music of differing interpretations.

A third "heresy" was to be a general-interest website, meaning one that is not narrowly about, say, politics, or the environment, or sports, or technology. My principle of inclusion was that if the writer knew enough about a subject to be original and instructive, and could write well, I wanted them on Crosscut. Conventional wisdom says you do websites like radio stations: punch a button and out comes one kind of music (or talk or sports or religion) all the time. We have enough of that narrow-casting, I felt.

A last violation of taboos was to be broadly regional, not hyper or tightly local. Regional coverage was one of the first casualties as metropolitan dailies were forced to diet; the Post-Intelligencer used to be "the voice of the Northwest." The stories "out there" have a fine scenic quality, and often involve our common history and environment. The reductive view in publishing is that nobody in, say, Wallingford cares at all about Bellingham. Give them good writing and good stories, however, and they remember their brother went to school there, they have a weekend home near there, and that those coal trains to China may leave from Bellingham but they pass through Seattle. The New Yorker may come from Manhattan and have that kind of sensibility, but the best stories are from all over the nation. Hence our tagline, meant to evoke this sense of living in a small nation of Cascadia: "News of the Great Nearby."

I hope you agree with me that here was a venture nobly conceived and bravely launched. In lieu of cupcakes, I hope you'll send in your Membership!


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