Enter Austin Post

New online venture seeks to create a 'conversational democracy'

Lyssa Myska Allen and Scott Brighton of Austin Post
Lyssa Myska Allen and Scott Brighton of Austin Post (Photo by John Anderson)

When veteran local writer Spike Gillespie realized that Austin Post was yet another new website offering her "exposure" for her work instead of actual pay, she vented in the only forum available – her personal blog. "If I want exposure, I'll hop up on the bar and take my shirt off, thank you very much," wrote Gillespie, the author of several books and a columnist with national credentials. "And how soon will the promised exposure net me invitations from still more websites willing to not pay me for my writing in exchange for still more exposure?"

Gillespie's anger is understandable. At a time when an unprecedented number of professional writers are unemployed, a wave of new sites like Austin Post are flipping them the bird, building business models based on not paying writers. From The Huffington Post to Austinist.com, the focus is on promoting amateurs and "citizen journalists" while ignoring the value of writers who have spent years honing their craft and may actually know something about their topics.

Austin Post, which can be found in its "alpha" version at www.austinpost.org, is backed by the Trilogy Employee Foundation, the nonprofit arm of local tech company Trilogy Enterprises. It aspires to create a new form of community forum, with content produced by dozens of local bloggers and volunteer writers. Readers will vote on stories, creating a site "of the people, by the people, for the people," says Trilogy President Scott Brighton, who compares Austin Post to SeekingAlpha.com, the business-focused blog aggregate.

Trilogy has hired five people, including an editor, to launch the enterprise, which is not short on ambition. "We want to foster a living conversation about issues of particular relevance to the people of Austin," the site proclaims. "We are conversational democracy, not aristocratic rhetoric."

And what kind of fascist numb-nut wouldn't support a "conversational democracy"? But Austin Post's proletariat rhetoric goes a step further. Instead of simply running a bunch of free copy from bloggers, the site expects to play a role in the changing face of journalism, billing itself as a "new kind of newspaper" and "Newspaper 2.0."

"We will have more journalists on the ground than any newspaper could ever staff," said Editor-in-Chief Lyssa Myska Allen, whose previous experience primarily focused on writing about fashion and design for the likes of Austin Woman, Texas Home & Living, and Houston Modern Luxury.

One of the site's enthusiastic supporters is Matt Glazer, editor of must-read political blog Burnt Orange Report. He finds the idea "empowering" for writers looking for a wider audience. "A bunch of sites are never seen or read, and the good ones are going to shine on Austin Post," said Glazer, who is serving on the site's advisory board (and is not paid for his work on Burnt Orange).

But not all local bloggers are thrilled about the concept. "It sounded like a great opportunity until I realized I wasn't going to get paid," said Jette Kernion, editor of Slackerwood, a local film industry blog. She was put off by the Post's rhetoric. "I didn't want to hear about the newspaper model when contributors aren't getting paid," she said.

Beyond the lack of pay, experienced writers may find several aspects of Austin Post annoying. Unlike a "meta-blog" like Austin Bloggers, which simply collects headlines of local blogs, Austin Post will not directly drive traffic to a blogger's site, beyond a generic link in the writer's profile. Austin Post will keep the readers and the "conversations" at Austin Post, which may not help bloggers trying to build audiences for their own sites.

And unlike open forums, there is a filter to the site – posts will have to be approved by an editor. Allen says the primary criteria will be legal issues, not content, although she will keep an eye on readability. She will also watch for blatantly promotional posts. But that will be tough, since by definition the "exposure" model primarily appeals to writers with an ulterior motive, something to gain. "The community will find which ones are best and most trusted," Allen said.

The "community" will also be responsible for fact-checking posts, as well as analyzing the writer's "point of view and the clarity of their argument." By September, Trilogy expects to add more features to facilitate reader interactivity and mobility. "It's less about the articles and more about the conversation," Brighton said.

While giving the average Joe an outlet is certainly a worthy goal, these days the Web is overflowing with means for free expression. If Trilogy, which is operating Austin Post as a "not for profit," wants to support media and reinvent the newspaper, why not back the side of the business that really needs help – professional journalism? "We don't have a good answer on how to solve that problem yet," Brighton said. "Revenue is falling off a cliff. If you're going to be a sustainable entity, you have to have revenue."

Brighton says it's possible they will hire writers in the future, if the site can generate revenue to support it. Trilogy is spending "very little" – somewhere in five figures – to launch the site, Brighton said. "What we're starting with is good content that is already out there," he said. "It's really about aggregating the content and exposing it to a larger audience."

But you get what you pay for, even on the Web. The quality and value of blog content is, to put it tactfully, all over the map. For every site – like Burnt Orange Report or Doug Freeman's Austin Sound (full disclosure: Doug Freeman is a frequent contributing writer to the Chronicle's Music section) – manned by passionate writers committed to covering a beat, there are dozens of amateur hacks and wackos offering little more than vitriol and misguided rumor mongering. Brighton emphasizes that the site will continue to evolve. Last week they announced plans to give writers advertising space to sell or promote their own sites.

After meeting with Brighton, Gillespie says her views about the site have softened – a bit. But she still opposes the fundamental concept. "They're calling themselves 'Newspaper 2.0,' but it's not a news organization," Gillespie said. "It's an aggregator of sloppy bloggers." And she brands the site's flippant comments about getting the "best writers" to work for free as "tasteless."

"They're not taking into account the deep grief journalists are feeling right now," Gilles­pie said. "It's not just the recession; a way of making a living is going away."

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Austin Post, Burnt Orange Report, Trilogy Enterprises, Spike Gillespie, Scott Brighton

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