Posted by Don MacPherson on November 9th, 2008
The comic-book news/commentary portal website — can it work as a viable business? The recent news that ComicMix.com is scaling back its operations — eliminating all of its columns and rethinking its print-on-demand experiment with its online comics. Speaking as someone who’s worked for two similar failed ventures in the past, I can’t say I’m surprised. The thing is, though, that ComicMix has a strong creative team behind made up of experienced and respected industry insiders. The question arises: if Mike Gold and Robert Greenberger can’t dominate the digital landscape of comics-related media, armed with an array of established industry talent, who can? Is the comics web portal as a viable business model a realistic possibility?
I don’t know what’s next for ComicMix or what plans are in place to invigorate the operation. ComicMix isn’t after an easy venture-capital investment, I assume. That business model had already been proven to be a dead end when the dot-com bubble burst. Believe me, I know.
I empathize with the ComicMix folks right now. I’ve been down this road myself — twice. In 1999, I was hired along with almost 20 others, to staff Psylum, an online media company that developed portal sites specifically dedicated to niche markets of gaming and comics. Randy Lander and I were the creative talent behind Psycomic.com, which launched in October 1999; we were joined shortly thereafter by Joe Doughrity, who also wrote and developed a sister site called Psymanga.com. Psylum boasted other sites as well and was perhaps best known for The Dojo, a web portal dedicated to Magic: the Gathering news and strategy.
Psylum was well-funded by a venture-capital group. Money flowed like crazy. The founders/chiefs of the company moved Randy from Texas and me from Canada to work in Manhattan. After a couple of months, we eventually moved into new office space and occupied the entire floor of a midtown office complex (we had too much office space, really). Everyone got new PCs, new servers, new toys. The company sent me and two Psylum employees on a coast-to-coast promotional tour to college campuses and specialty stores. Psylum dropped tens of thousands of dollars into ads in various DC Comics publications just to promote Psycomic.
It — and by that, I mean the first incarnation of the company and its websites — only lasted a little more than half a year. There were warning signs from the start, not the least of which was that Psylum’s founders seemed to have no coherent business plan. We weren’t selling anything, not products nor advertising. We charged nothing for our content. The only planned revenue stream (other than investment from the venture-capital people) seemed to be a vision that the packaged websites would be desirable to companies with even more money, companies that would want to buy the Psylum brand.
Other problems included a management style that seemed more focused on making sure we were all drunk together Friday after work (on the company’s dime). Oh, and we had an illegal alien working for us who was never OK’d for work in the United States despite repeated promises from the bosses that they had a big-time immigration lawyer (in Florida, not New York, go figure) who was working on the problem. I was that illegal alien, by the way.
I figured we had a year to play in New York. It turned out to be just shy of six months from the day my plane touched down in Newark. I packed up my meagre belongings and headed home to Canada a few days after we were told there were no more paychecks coming, leaving behind a couple of pieces of furniture and the remainder of a one-year lease I couldn’t possibly honor.
A resurrected incarnation of Psycomic returned later in 2000, funded by the Sci-Fi Channel and USA Networks, if memory serves. No one from Psylum called to inform Randy and me of the new source of revenue and that it could now live up to its contracts with us. New writers and an all-star array of columnists — including Kevin Smith and J. Michael Straczynski — provided content for the site. I don’t think it lasted a year either.
There’s a long list of other failed comics portal ventures. Michael Doran and Matt Brady recruited Randy and I in the wake of Psycomic 1.0’s collapse to join them at Fandom.com in the spring of 2000. Fandom.com was the new home of Comics Newsarama, along with a host of other fan sites. My association with Fandom/Comics Newsarama lasted a year. I wasn’t paid as much as I had been at Psylum. However, since I was able to work from my home in Atlantic Canada, the lower cost of living translated to a more comfortable lifestyle. The experience also afforded me my first trip to Comic-Con International San Diego.
Again, there were warning signs it wasn’t going to last. Though Fandom.com seemed to have an actual business plan — it sold comics and other hobby/collectible merchandise on its site — it boasted too large a staff. In the months leading up to the demise of the Fandom.com incarnation of Comics Newsarama, my monthly payment kept coming later and later. Instead of being wired on the first of every month, it would show up on the third, the sixth, the 10th. Fortunately, by the time the walls came crashing down in the spring of 2001, I happened upon the secure reporting gig I still hold today.
I know what the ComicMix people are going through, as I’ve been there myself. I suspect the downturn didn’t take its writers completely by surprise. Like I said, there are always warning signs.
Still, to get back to my original question — is a comics web portal viable as a business? There’s evidence to the contrary, and evidence to support it. It seems as though the model of a site with an extensive staff doesn’t work, but other kinds of sites have survived and even thrived.
Some sites have gone through their difficult times and demise but managed to claw back to a stable scenario. Michael Doran took the Newsarama brand from Usenet to AnotherUniverse.com, a website similar to Fandom.com in that content was used to support online sales of product. AnotherUniverse is gone. Doran and Matt Brady guided the brand under the Fandom.com banner. Gone. In its current incarnation, Newsarama has seen backers come and go. That it’s endured is a testament to Doran’s and Brady’s reputations and persistence, and to the brand they’ve built over 15 years or so. It may seem as though Newsarama now has an extensive writing staff, but if I’m not mistaken, the full-time, salaried staff is limited. It is paying other writers, but the bulk of its contributors aren’t earning their living through the site.
Jonah Weiland may have the biggest success story to tell. He has an array of top, respected columnists on ComicBookResources.com, but in terms of full-time staffers, information on the site points to a limited staff as well. Furthermore, Weiland operates a web hosting service — Boiling Point Internet — and there’s no shortage of business in that field these days. Comic Book Resources started out as a simple collection of comics-related links that Weiland established in his spare time. It’s grown naturally and gradually for years. It didn’t launch as a business; it simply evolved into one.
Today, those professional comics-website endeavors that seem to succeed and sustain themselves are the smaller operations, such as Tom Spurgeon’s ComicsReporter.com, which is essentially a one-man operation. Given the amount of information available on CR on a daily basis, I can only assume the site serves as Spurgeon’s full-time job. The notion that someone is putting together such a product in his spare time is unimaginable.
There are plenty of other portal sites that have remained on the online landscape for a few years — PopImage.com and PopCultureShock.com, just to cite a couple of examples — but they haven’t seemed to grab people’s attention on the same level as Newsarama and CBR. My impression of those sites is that they continue on thanks to the passion of contributors and founders, not thanks to revenue streams.
Of course, even Gareb Shamus’s Wizard Entertainment empire seems vulnerable these days. We’ve been hearing of cutbacks in its magazine and website divisions for a couple of years now, and rumors and speculation about troubles with its convention business have been rampant for years.
After the Fandom.com experience, Randy Lander and I pretty much knew earning our living as content producers for comics websites was at an end. But that didn’t mean we were going to stop writing. In 2001, we relaunched on our own with TheFourthRail.com; we didn’t make any money, nor were we trying to do so. But we had fun, and we ended up reinventing ourselves once again with separate sites: this one, and ComicPants.com, a collaborative blog Randy runs with friends in Austin, Texas.
No matter what happens, I know that ComicMix will survive in some form. Perhaps it will emerge as a viable business now that some cuts have been made. Commercial and creative success would obviously be the more preferable option. Alternatively, it costs next to nothing to run a site as a volunteer endeavor. Hosting costs are minimal these days. And even if the ComicMix.com domain were to disappear (which I sincerely hope it doesn’t), its various voices will no doubt be heard elsewhere online.