America's next top media mogul?

Entrepreneur and enfant terrible Paul Carr is neck-deep in his most ambitious effort yet: save journalism.
Written by Kirsten Korosec, Contributor

Editorial note: See update on Paul Carr's startup below.

UPDATE: Paul Carr's digital and print media startup Not Safe For Work Corp, which put its satirical, long-form articles behind a paywall, was bought out by tech news site PandoDaily in November 2013. Under the deal, the NSFWCorp brand, voice and site disappeared. It's subscriber-only print edition will not, although it's undergoing a makeover and a pivot. The monthly magazine, which usually featured two long stories as well as illustrations, will now be a quarterly publication called PandoQuarterly. 

Cell phone in hand and deep in conversation, Paul Carr pads across an empty room in his Dodger-blue, yellow-polka-dotted socks, past the large picture window overlooking a swimming pool, to a blank wall.

A ladder at the ready and a butter knife in hand, Carr pops up a step and neatly scrapes off an abandoned piece of putty before he sets off again like a pinball, to the kitchen, an office and finally back to his starting point at the center of his company's new headquarters: a rambling 1960s Spanish colonial ranch house in Las Vegas.

It's supposed to be moving day for Not Safe For Work Corp, the digital and print journalism startup founded by Carr nearly two years ago. But plans have changed -- as they're inclined to do with a startup company -- and the staff, a passionate, talented and unconventional lot who had prepared to heave boxes and furniture for a few hours, have returned to their posts in the home office, in which at least three of them live for free. It's one of the benefits of moving the company's headquarters from a tower in downtown Las Vegas to a home, which has more space and is more affordable, Carr said. That and the pool.

With the freight elevator at NSFWCorp's old headquarters on the fritz, moving day has been put on hold. Carr quickly moves past the morning's setback. There are bigger, thornier issues to tackle. There are meetings with staff, a torrent of phone calls, texts and e-mails to respond to, subscribers and investors to cajole and a battle on Twitter over Gawker's latest Carr-takedown piece to attend to. And that's all before 3 p.m.

Carr -- fueled by a steady stream of Diet Cokes -- attacks these tasks with the gusto and focus of someone who understands they're sitting at the high-stakes table.

Carr is trying to drag journalism from the dredges of cat slideshows and click-bait headlines with an Economist-meets-the-Daily-Show magazine that generates enough revenue to be self-sustaining without the aid of advertisers.  It's "the future of journalism (with jokes)," NSFWCorp's ironic tagline reads.

What that means is slightly different depending on who you talk to at NSFWCorp, a name that stems from Carr's "Not Safe For Work" column at The Guardian. For senior editor Mark Ames, the founding editor of defunct Moscow-based satirical biweekly The eXile, which was shut down by the Russian government, NSFWCorp is an outlet that's not afraid of "fucking with power."

And it's not. NSFWCorp reporters have written about the politically influential Koch brothers, the U.S. government's history of non-disclosure agreements, Edward Snowden and the N.S.A., Newark mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and disgraced former Congressman and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, whose press secretary Barbara Morgan called NSFWCorp 20-year-old staff writer Olivia Nuzzi a "slutbag," among other things, after she wrote a piece describing her internship on his campaign. Morgan's comments, which she told to a reporter at Talking Points Memo, led to a flurry of media coverage on Nuzzi, and later, Carr's own takedown piece of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Even Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, whose Vegas Tech Fund is the company's largest investor, hasn't escaped. Hsieh's Downtown Project, an ambitious plan to revitalize the area around East Fremont Street in Las Vegas, found itself in NSFWCorp's digital pages this summer over its "downtown rangers," a safety program created to patrol the streets and even escort women to their cars after dark. The article, written by Carr, dug into the past of the man in charge of training the rangers, a retired police sergeant who co-wrote a book on how to pick up women.

Despite the bad press, the Vegas Tech Fund's partners said they standby NSFWCorp. "For every one NSFW story about Downtown Project, there are dozens of NSFW stories about broader topics and issues around the world," said Zach Ware, a general partner at Vegas Tech Fund. "And for every NSFW story about Downtown Project, there are dozens by other organizations with different perspectives. We're glad to be a part of creating a world where there is more than one source to consider and more than one perspective to read."

Leigh Cowart, the former ballet dancer-turned-scientist-turned NSFWCorp sex and science editor, says the company is about a return to investigative journalism that gives people something to read "that cannot be Googled."

Which is also true. NSFWCorp has featured stories providing new insight into the Russian model-ninja bodyguard who was killed during a carjacking in Moscow, the subprime mortgage desert suburb Victorville, meat ticks, Chechnya, alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and horsemeat.

For Carr, NSFW is a nod to the old days of journalism -- "paying real writers real money to do real reporting" -- that can exist in a modern media world, where ad-supported free content rules the day. "We are trying to put in place business models that will be sustainable and will allow journalism to thrive, which is to say the kind of journalism that is not '10 Things You Will Not Believe this Cat Did' or whatever the Buzzfeed thing is," said Carr, referring to the viral-content focused Web site. "The challenge is to figure out what combination of things works that doesn't make you into something you don't want to be associated with.

"I don't understand how anybody who works, at let's say Business Insider, can go to work in the morning and be proud, because you just kind of go, 'You write headlines that are designed to con people into clicking things,'" said Carr, who has publicly criticized the Web site numerous times. "Yeah, it works, but are you proud of what you do? What I'm trying to do is be able to sleep at night and pay everybody's salaries."

From alcoholic to mogul in training

This is not Carr's first startup rodeo, although it's certainly his most sober one and quite possibly his most ambitious.

The 33-year-old British author, columnist, serial entrepreneur and enfant terrible has been summarily sacked from practically every outfit he's worked for, including companies he started. His greatest successes are ironically two of his books, Bringing Nothing to the Party: Confessions of a New Media Whore and Upgrade: A Cautionary Tale of a Life Without Reservations, which describe in glorious detail his propensity for alcohol and failure.

"An alcoholic can do a startup. A 22-year-old can do a startup," Carr said. "But a 22-year-old alcoholic is just the worst human being on the face of the earth because I thought I knew everything, and I could barely string a sentence together."

Carr has been sober for four years now -- an achievement he chronicles in his latest ebook Sober Is My New Drunk -- and is older. And so far, the combination has helped keep the lights on at NSFWCorp. The company has even expanded in size and scope.

NSFWCorp started out as a subscription-based digital-only weekly news magazine (that was originally going to be called The New Gambit) with a handful of reporters and cartoonists -- a media experiment funded with $640,000 from Hsieh's Vegas Tech Fund, early-stage venture capital firm CrunchFund and Judith Clegg, a friend and founder of Takeout & The Glasshouse.

The idea of a satirical news magazine -- a modern day equivalent to Spy or the U.K.'s Private Eye --had floated in Carr's head for years. But Carr, his previous startup failures still fresh in his mind, had decided to focus on what he was good at: writing.

That all changed one night sitting with Hsieh at the bar in the Downtown Cocktail Room -- within days of resigning from TechCrunch. Hsieh, who is keen to attract startup companies and talent, offered to invest in Carr's idea if he stayed in Las Vegas.

"This is all over drinks at the bar," Carr said. "I've got my Diet Coke and he's got whatever he's drinking, probably Fernet. I'm like, 'This sounds ridiculous, but all right, fine. It's not gonna happen. He's not going to actually give me money, that's insane.'"

"The next day, he's like, 'So, when am I giving you a check?'"

Still, Carr said he wasn't sure he should take money from Hsieh. He talked to friends and colleagues. They all said the same thing: do it. "At least three people said to me 'What is wrong with you? What kind of fucking asshole are you that you want to do something good and people are giving you money and you're like, 'I'm above your money?'" Carr said. "People were really mad that I would consider turning it down."

NSFWCorp's total haul is now closing in on $1 million thanks to a number of smaller donors, a $250,000 investment from Erik Moore of Base Ventures and money raised through the company's so-called Conflictathon fundraising events, which seek pledges from readers and other supporters. The company, in its pursuit of transparency, maintains a "Conflict Tower" listing all of its major donors.

Changing the media funding structure

Today, the company has more than 5,000 subscribers, a dozen full-time employees, a monthly print magazine, a digital site updated regularly with short dispatches and editorial discussions and a radio show, which is broadcast weeknights from the walk-in closet-turned-studio in one of several bedrooms at NSFWCorp's headquarters.

NSFWCorp needs 10,000 subscribers to survive and 20,000 to be sustainable over the long term, Carr said.

"If we don't, we will continue to run out of the money we raised," Carr said. "We're doing expensive things. And the only way we sustain it is by getting enough subscribers -- that's the only thing that matters."

Unlike most mainstream media, NSFWCorp does not have any advertisers. Instead, it relies on subscribers who pay $3 a month for access to NSFW's digital content or $7 a month for the digital and monthly print magazine, which includes free access to ebook downloads of all print reports.  Subscribers are able to unlock and share the digital content with others.

Carr says the open-sharing paywall works and the digital and print magazine has steadily gained subscribers.

"I get maybe one e-mail a month from someone furious at being asked to pay," Carr said in an e-mail. He said it's impossible to know how hard of a sell it is, but added there seems to be a growing understanding and appreciation that if you want great journalism, there's likely to be a price attached.

"I mean, we're months away from going out of business," Carr said. "I don't sleep very well at the moment because I know every day is a day we'll be closer to not having any money left."

Carr's latest newsletter to subscribers, titled "Can You Help?", lifted the veil on just how close the company is to going out of business.

"Yes, we've raising a decent chunk of cash from investors, but without you, and the other 4,999 people like you, we would be out of business in a week," Carr wrote.

But Carr says he wouldn't have it any other way. "Everyone who takes advertising dollars is crippled by the need to apologize every time they write something," Carr said. "When I first met with Mark [Ames], we agreed there should be a place where writers can come and the only question is, is this your best work and are you right?"

The threat of running out of funds before hitting the golden 10,000-subscriber number also hasn't stopped Carr from charting out the company's next expansion. In August, NSFWCorp launched a crowdsourcing campaign on Tugboat to fund an international branch of reporters.

The company also has launched a publishing arm headed by independent publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash. The unit's first published book will be a novel by Jason Heller, author of Taft 2012.

In the last two years, even as daily newspapers continued to fold, other media companies focused on long-form journalism have popped up. Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis launched Epic Magazine, a new site that will commission and publish non-fiction narrative that might also appeal to movie studios. Independent non-profit news organization ProPublica introduced a digital magazine in June and hired several new investigative reporters. Beacon, The Big Roundtable, Matter, Medium and PostDesk are all companies focused, in some way, on long-form journalism. Established news outlets like Politico also have hired a number of veteran writers in an effort to beef up in-depth reporting in its magazine.

"Doing real journalism can't just be the New York Times and the Washington Post," Carr said. "It has to be small publications that figure out how to make money from this."

In the meantime, Carr said any misgivings he once had about asking for money to keep NSFWCorp afloat while it pursues subscribers have long since faded away.

"Once you start employing people and you're responsible for those people, suddenly you feel a lot less British about asking for money," Carr said. "It's really incredible about how quickly that goes away.

"You'll basically go into a meeting and say, 'I need $300,000 from you. I will clean your fucking shoes, but I need $300,000.' The only thing I will not do is have any conversation about editorial or what we publish."

Photo: NSFWCorp

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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