Between my meeting with Tony on 18th September 2011, and the arrival of the first $125k checks around October 11th, I had already been hard at work trying to decide what NSFWCORP would actually be. The original pitch seemed so simple – the Economist with jokes. Because it was simple.
It’s faintly ridiculous, then, to look back at my notes for the months of October 2011 and April 2010 and recall how many times I pivoted and re-pivoted the idea before arriving back where I’d already started. Even now I feel terrible how many brainstorming sessions I forced Molly to ensure.
One thing I decided early is the publication would be tablet and e-reader only. No web edition and certainly no print. I’d been watching closely the progress of the Daily – News Corp’s attempt at a tabloid newspaper – and decided that, while their execution was shockingly bad, the idea of a tablet-only publication had merit.
On October 14th I wrote a post on my personal blog, explaining all the other things I’d decided…
In a nut, Not Safe For Work Corporation is a publishing company. In a slightly bigger nut, it’s a magazine publishing company. And in a nut that’s even bigger still, it’s a magazine publishing company specializing in creating wonderful publications for the Kindle, iPad and other tablets and e-reader devices.
A couple of months back, I wrote a post on TechCrunch entitled “Now Can We All Agree That The “High Quality Web Content” Experiment Has Failed?” In it, I talked about the numerous ways in which ad-supported, free-to-access online content has failed readers by elevating PR-driven SEO garbage high above real honest-to-goodness journalism.
But now, thanks to the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook et al, there is another way. Readers on those devices have proved themselves ready, willing and able to pay to read high quality writing. They pay to read the New Yorker on their iPad, they pay to read Byliner‘s long-form journalism on their Kindles. Partly this willingness comes from the fact that tablets and e-readers make reading enjoyable again, but an equal part of the economic viability of those platforms is the fact that there has never been an assumption that content on them would be free. And when writers and publishers are being paid, they do their best work.
But still, for all the potential that e-readers and tablets offer, what we’ve seen is a succession of existing media brands – Wired, Vanity Fair, the Economist – translating their print product on to tablets often with only a few DVD extras to differentiate them from their dead tree parents. The apps themselves are wonderful, but there’s nothing original or fresh about their content. The only significant publication designed from the ground up for tablets is Rupert Murdoch’s ‘The Daily’. But again, the lack of originality is remarkable, and sad — especially given how many talented writers and editors are involved. The Daily is a naked attempt to ensure the future of the traditional newspaper format by creating an iPad newspaper that reads just like any one of Newscorp’s countless print newspapers. Hell, the Daily even tries to break news. (Sorry Rupert, but the future of breaking news remains on free sites, on the Internet.)
For months I’ve been watching the baby steps of tablet-based magazine publishing and imagining what it would look like if a true start-up came along and decided to invent a brand new publication, entirely from scratch. What would that publication cover? Who would its audience be? What form would it take? What frequency? What price? And once all of those questions have been answered, what would the startup’s second title be? And the third?
Not Safe For Work Corporation answers those questions.
Our first publication, launching in January 2012 will be ‘The New Gambit’, a weekly news magazine that’s maybe best described as “the Economist as written by the Daily Show”. In other words, it’ll tell you everything you need to know (and maybe even think) about the week’s events, but it’ll make you laugh your ass off while it’s doing it.
It’ll be available on Kindle, iPad, Nook and every other ereader/tablet device we can publish on. None of the content will be published on the web — to read it, you’ll need to subscribe. It’ll cost 99c an issue, or around $50 per year. Subscribers will also get a bunch of other cool stuff that I’m not ready to talk about quite yet. And if you don’t laugh out loud at least once in every issue, we’ll give you your money back.
So, that’s the skeleton of the idea. But we’ve already started to put meat on those bones. For one thing, as a former struggling freelancer, I’m determined that we’ll respect professional writing, and worship professional writers. Our team will be a mix or staff writers and full time, but even one-off contributors will be paid well, and paid promptly.
We’re working to create a place — both physical and philosophical — where great writers can do their best work. Where reporters (and there will be plenty of real reporting) know that their editors have their back, and where funny people can finally get paid for doing what they’re good at. On a slightly more serious note, our advisory board includes world renowned experts in journalistic ethics who will help us build a new framework for the future of digital reporting. PR freebies and SEO have absolutely no place at NSFW. We’ll decide what’s fit to publish and we’ll pay our way. Our readers, not advertisers, are our customers.
There a limitless amount more to be said about all of this, and I’ll say more about it in due course here on the blog. But first and most pressingly, being out of stealth mode means I’m able to be a lot more open about the kind of people we’re hoping will join this exciting adventure.
First and foremost, if you’re blisteringly funny and able to write topical jokes to order, drop what you’re doing and email me. Likewise if you’re a brilliant but under-appreciated editor or a first rate publisher looking for a new challenge. We’re hiring at all points on the editorial and publishing chain.
Beyond that, consider this an open audition: if any of the above has caused a synapse to fire — if you have ideas for what you’d like to see in your dream ereader/tablet magazine, if you have strong feelings on the future of journalism, or if you just want to tell us what you think of the name ‘The New Gambit’ send me an email. I or someone one degree of separation from me will do my/their best to reply within 24 hours or so. But please be patient — things are more crazy even than this rapid-fire, under-edited post suggests.
One other thing: we are, as I explained here, based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many of the positions we’re hiring for — particularly the senior ones — will be based here. But if you’re unable to relocate, that need not be a deal breaker. If you’re the funniest man in Belgium, want to hear from you. If you’re the best damn publisher on the East Coast then I’ll fly to see you, or put you on a plane to Vegas for a chat. Again, send me an email and we’ll figure something out.
We’re aiming to have a pilot issue ready by the end of the year, and to begin a regular publishing schedule very early in 2012 so things are operating at top speed. I’m really excited by what we’re building here. Hopefully you are too. Without a hint of hyperbole, it’s going to be the best fucking thing ever.
I later explained the New Gambit name to Alexia Tsotsis at TechCrunch…
Carr says he chose the name The New Gambit because he wanted something that sounded sufficiently pompous, and was inspired by the Simpson’s episode where Homer reads an issue of the The Economist with a “Indonesia’s New Gambit” headline on the cover, asking Marge, “Did you know that Indonesia is in a state of turmoil?” Carr explains,”I’m a strong believer that jokes are even funnier in a grown-up setting … I mean, come on — the Economist and the Simpsons!”
Those posts caused an avalanche of emails. Unsurprisingly many of them came from freelance writers who believed that The New Gambit was the answer to their prayers, and they to ours. Also unsurprisingly many of those writers were in New York.
So in December of 2011 I got on a plane to New York (my first time using the NSFWCORP debit card) and booked into the Nolitan Hotel on Kenmare Street. From there I scurried around Manhattan meeting a half dozen of the more promising prospects, including Starlee Kine whose work had appeared on This American Life. Startlee introduced me to Stephen Sherill who had worked on Michael Moore’s TV nation. Sherill would later introduce me to Michael Jackson, the former head of Channel 4 in the UK.
I also began building an “advisory board” including my old pal (and soon to be Pando editor) Adam Penenberg, ex NY Times design director Khoi Vinh and Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash. To say these people provided valuable insight in the first months of NSFWCORP is a huge understatement.
But it was my meeting with Sherill, and subsequent re-reading of Michael Moore’s Adventure in a TV Nation – that triggered my first mental pivot as to what “The New Gambit” should be.
I’d first watched TV Nation back in – I guess – 1994, when (a TV first!) it was broadcast simultaneously in both the US and the UK. (During a family vacation in Florida I was once able to watch the episode in Channel 4 in the UK, fly to Florida and catch the US airing shortly after we landed.) What made the show especially exciting was how every episode was presented almost as a campaign – Love Night, Canada Night, War Night – with each segment clustered around that theme.
I decided to steal that idea outright. Rather than being a magazine in any dull traditional sense, the New Gambit would take that same form, with weekly issues built around a theme.
In late December 2011 Molly and I took a trip to London, to celebrate my 32nd birthday and eat Indian food. It was during the latter – in a restaurant in Brick Lane – that I explained to Molly how my meeting with Stephen had altered my thinking.
We spent the next few hours brainstorming what issue one might be. I can’t remember where the idea for “The Elect Dean Cain As President Issue” came from, but here’s the result of our curry house brainstorming…
A few days later, we flew back to Vegas just in time to see in the New Year (2012) – standing on the Ogden roof, watching fireworks on the Strip – and to make my first really big NSFWCORP purchase: An office. Or rather an apartment in the Ogden to that would serve double duty as an office and a place for me to sleep. Apartment 805…
Rent: Somewhere just shy of $3k a month.
I moved in the first week of January and immediately began the important work of setting up the wifi…
And buying a bear filled with cookies…
And assembling about three thousand dollars worth of furniture shipped in from a warehouse in California…
Setting up the office and the wifi, and buying a Penguin-shaped dehumidifier called ‘Eleanor Rigby” seemed to take most of January. Or at least the part of January that wasn’t spent filling more and more notebooks with ideas about what might go into the first issue of NSFWCORP and commissioning a revised version of Molly’s logo from Yiying Lu, aka the illustrator of Twitter’s Fail Whale…
In fact, January was a very video-heavy month. Sarah and I also launched a Skype-based video show for Pando – “Why Isn’t This News” – about our adventures building our respective companies. Episode one was published on January 18th 2012 and ends with Sarah complaining that the show is too long at 22 minutes. Ho ho ho.
My biggest brainwave from that same month was that we’d produce a weekly audio show – what would become NSFWLIVE – with each show divided into five parts to accompany each article in the pilot. Each segment would deal with a different story. (We would briefly consider having authors record audio versions of the actual article, before quickly realizing that would be a gigantic pain in the ass.)
Suddenly it was February and I was still very aware that I didn’t have any writers for the pilot issue, which I’d originally promised would be published in January. I also didn’t have anyone to build this miracle tablet magazine.
Enter Josh and Roger. Roger Tinch was a local designer who had worked with Alamo Drafthouse and immediately understood what NSFWCORP was all about. Which made one of us. I met Roger in the Beat coffee house next to our office and he agreed to design the pilot issue. He even introduced me to our first illustrator, PJ Perez.
Even then, I still planned to publish The New Gambit through Apple’s newsstand and the Kindle Store. This was, after all, how e-publications were published at that time. It was only after I’d spent weeks trying to figure out the ridiculous cost structure of those 3rd party platforms and the expensive layout software required to publish on them that I realized the error of my ways.
Enter Josh Ellis, a local writer and web developer, who joined NSFWCORP around the same time. I invited Josh to brunch at the V’dara (spare no expense) and almost immediately hired him to build NSFWCORP/The New Gambit as an HTML5 all.
(If ya care, I would later explain more about that HTML5 decision on Pando.)
I shared the exciting news of hiring Josh (who, apparently I was describing as our “CTO”) in the February 6th episode of Why Isn’t This News.
That same episode was the first time I really started to talk publicly about what I’d been up to with NSFWCORP, including our decision to move from tablet native to HTML5. Much of the episode was spent with me showing Sarah the three billion different tablets I had to buy for testing…
So now we had a designer and a developer, but absolutely no editorial content. A tech startup, in other words.
At least by mid February I had settled on a theme for the first issue: Missing, Presumed Dead. The idea (I think) being we would track down celebrities and other people who had vanished from the public eye and somehow build an issue around them. Or maybe it was an extension of the Dean Cain idea from London. These things tend to blur over time.
Fortunately it was at this point that Jason Heller, whose book Taft 2012 had just been published to great acclaim, fell from the sky. His book (which you should buy immediately) told the (satirical) story of what happened when William Howard Taft suddenly reappeared in 2012. I bought a copy at SFO during my trip to San Francisco for the first ever PandoMonthly event.
Then I emailed the Jason. He still has that email, and kindly sent it back to me to include here…
On Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 12:47 AM, Paul Carr wrote:
First up, just finished reading Taft 2012. A spontaneous airport purchase, and a winning one. Great concept, brilliantly executed.
I’ve been slightly fascinated by WH Taft since Christopher Buckley made a joke about him which prompted me to visit the former’s Wikipedia page. (As a British ex-pat now living in the US, wikipedia is how I learn all of my American history.) And now, thanks to you, I feel like I’m an expert on both the fictionalized and non-fictionalized Taft.
Anyway. I’m writing less as a new fan and more as a prospective editor. I’m getting ready to launch a new tablet-and-ereader-based publication which we’re lazily describing as ‘the Economist, as written by the Daily Show’. We’ve raised money from some Silicon Valley folks and our advisory board includes people like Adam Penenberg from NYU (and played by Steve Zahn in the movie Shattered Glass), Khoi Vinh — former design director at the NYT and Richard Nash of Soft Scull [sic] press. We’re reasonably legit, in other words.
And here’s a meaningless holding page for the publication:
I assume you’re utterly swamped with work off the back of Taft but I wondered whether you might be interested in writing something for our pilot issue, which will be on the theme of ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’. Obviously that theme chimes neatly with the theme of the book so there’s a natural lead in to a piece from you. I was thinking maybe something on what today’s republican candidates should learn from WHT. Or something on how the disappearance of spats is directly linked to the downfall of society. Either-or.
If you’re interested, in principle, in writing something then let’s talk further. We’re paying $1.50 a word for the pilot and obviously we’d plug the book at the end etc etc.
A couple of things you’ll note from that email:
First, in February 2012 we were planning to pay $1.50 a word for the pilot. I meant what I said that NSFWCORP was going to be a writer’s magazine. We’d pay a good word rate and also – in something that I think was an innovation – we’d pay magazine writers in the same way book publishers pay their authors: Half on contract, half on delivery. That way, writers wouldn’t have to spend weeks working on a piece with no money in the bank.
Second, by now I was using The New Gambit name less and less. I didn’t even mention it in my email to Jason. A few weeks earlier, we’d received a shitty letter from a New Orleans based magazine called The Gambit (or something similar) threatening to sue us for trademark violation. Also NSFWCORP is just a better name. But, as you’ll see, the Gambit name stuck around a while longer.
Here’s Jason’s response…
On Monday, February 20, 2012 at 6:50 AM, Jason Heller wrote:
Great to hear from you on, and thanks for the generous words about Taft 2012. He is indeed a pretty remarkable character (in both the historical and fictional sense). And zeitgeist-ly enough, he seems to be popping up in the opinion pages an awful lot lately. Of course, that phenomenon could probably be contributed to the relentless turnover of our 100-year news cycle…
But anyway, to answer your question: Yes, I’d love to contribute something to NSFW’s pilot. What length did you have in mind? Let me know, and I’d be happy to draft you up a pitch/outline. There’s so much “Taft vs. Today” that I didn’t get to capitalize on in the book, seeing as how it was completed before the 2012 campaign was launched in earnest…
Another sidenote from around this time: While NSFWCORP/The New Gambit was always going to be our first publication, I still wasn’t sure if it’d be our only publication. An alternative idea, sketched out in my notebooks from the time, was to act more like a contract publishing house – building magazines for other people on our shiny new HTML platform, while using NSFWCORP/TNG as our flagship/showroom product.
Part of that thinking came from conversations with Sarah Lacy whose PandoDaily was already doing great guns. Did it make sense for us to merge Pando and NSFWCORP and run it as a single company? After all, we both had Michael Arrington and Tony Hsieh as investors, and we both wanted to fix journalism.
My notes from the time show me brainstorming (with myself) how such a deal might work. We never quite came to terms on a merger (at least not in 2012) but we did agree to collaborate on a NSFWCORP-published/Pando branded ebook about Facebook’s upcoming IPO.
Back at NSFWCORP, Jason Heller had been joined (virtually speaking) by New York based writer Patrick Sauer who wanted to write about Vegas’ own Heart Attack Grill. I’d also convinced the wonderful Molyl Crabapple to illustrate the header of the issue, and several other pieces.Two pilot pieces down, three to go!
We were now in mid-March and Josh and Roger were doing sterling work with the initial designs and coding of NSFWCORP, especially given my constant demands for fundamental changes to how the thing would look and feel. I’d also hired Rosalie Miletich, another Vegas local, as our first copy editor and office manager.
Early April – April 12th/13th to be more specific – saw the construction of the NSFWCORP audio studio. That task fell to Josh and I and we set off to spend even more of NSFWCORP’s dwindling funds at Sam Ash. An audio board, headphones, some software and a desk to hold it all were carted back to apartment 805. A trip to the Apple store furnished an iMac to run Ableton.
We set up the studio in an airless, windowless closet which, of course, was echo-y as all hell until Josh had the bright idea of bulk buying a car-load of mattress pads from Target and attaching them to the walls with picture hooks.
But, Christ, finding more writers was proving way harder than I expected. perhaps it’s because nobody in the US comedy writing world had a fucking clue who I was, or perhaps there just aren’t many people who can write funny journalism (I shall insist to my grave that it’s the latter.) Either way, by mid April, I was ready to give up on funny Americans and decide instead to email two of my favorite Brits – James Aylett and Sarah Bee, both of whom had worked with me on The Friday Thing and The Friday project.
Here’s the email I sent to James on April 16th 2012:
I realise — assume – you’re ridiculously busy with Art-related things but, ahead of 24HIA [our pre-existing plan to livestream the 2012 election], do you have any interest in contributing to The New Gambit?
I was trying to source the bulk of our freelance writers from this side of the Atlantic, but I keep running into a giant wall on to which someone has painted the words AMERICANS ARE REALLY BAD AT WRITING TOPICAL COMEDY.
Seriously – have you seen how bad the Onion has got since they moved to Chicago?
Anyway, yeah, any interest? We;d pay for words, obv. There’s 75c a word in the editorial spreadsheet at the moment, but flexible. Tone: not a million miles away from what TFT would probably be if it had kept maturing for another five years. And obviously more internationally (read: US-friendly) focused.
Be great to have you involved. Not really sure why I didn’t look back across the Atlantic sooner. I tried, you Yankee fuckers. I tried.
Oh, and we”re going to do a weekly (potentially even daily, but we’ll see) audio show (I refuse to use the word “podcast”) which would be great to have you involved with too. And might be an interesting pre-cursor to 24HIA. Immediate knee-jerk thoughts?
As you’ll notice from my email to James, by April, our per-word budget had dropped from $1.50 a word to 75c a word. By this point I was watching with mounting horror how quickly our seed $125k was flowing from the NSFWCORP account. And we were already at least three months late on publishing the pilot.
James – thank God – said he’d be happy to contribute (little did I know he’d end up as a writer, developer, product genius, NSFWLIVE host and 1,000 other things at NSFWCORP), as did Sarah.
Sarah even had an idea for the pilot. Which left only two slots left to fill.
That forth slot – and later a major editorial role – would filled thanks to Richard Nash who listened patiently as I despaired about the lack of funny, available, brilliant American writers. Then he said the five words that would set the tone for so much of what NSFWCORP became: “Do you know Mark Ames?”