hi there and welcome to Scale, podcast for Modern Media. My name is Stewart Ritchie. I am the founder and lead developer at Powered by Coffee. Powered by Coffee is a specialist web and software developer for publishers. working with Open Source Scale is a podcast about media and technology, how technology impacts media, and how media’s impacted by technology in return. our guest today is Steve Burge, the founder, of PublishPress, a WordPress plugin business focused on tools and, solutions for publishers. Steve, I’m gonna hand over to you and tell us more, more about yourself and, and more about PublishPress.
Hey, thanks, Stewart. Yeah, we run and publishPress. It’s an amalgamation of publishing and WordPress. we figure that, WordPress is probably the most popular publishing platform out there, and so we build tools to help publishers, whether that’s. An old-fashioned newspaper, whether it’s a new journalism startup or, often companies, universities are big users too.
They have to publish a lot of content. Anyone that wants to do more than just hit the publish button. People that need to collaborate, have teams, have, workflow processes for their content. So we’re very WordPress focused and we’re very focused on publishers.
Great. I mean, tell me more, more about your background. How did you end up doing this kinda work?
I, I’m, I’m British. I moved to the US maybe 20 years or so ago, and, worked as, a teacher for a little bit and then, When my kids came along, I, I wasn’t able to make enough money as a teacher, and so looked around for an alternative career and kind of ended up paring my teaching skills into the open source world, which I’d been dabbling in.
And ended up building a kind of teaching and training company on open source. It was called open source training and we published a lot of content. We ended up as a building, a little publisher of books. We have, oh, I think 15, 16 different self-published books. In the end,
we, we kinda learned our trade working with, Pearson.
The, multinational. Famous publisher that everyone knows, but, it was onerous and difficult to work with them and we had a lot more success when we ended up writing them a check, but we probably wrote them a bigger check than they ever wrote us. and buying our books back and going the self-publishing route.
And so, that kind of. Was our first foray into the publishing world. we did some local journalism where we were based just north of Atlanta in Georgia. and we ended up kind of using WordPress not, not to write our books and also for our local journalism sites. Yeah, for the whole kind of the publishing business we’re building, we started to see some of the flaws and missing pieces in WordPress and worked with a couple of developers to build software to fill those missing pieces.
And our business has kind of evolved on the back of those. So having been a publisher, we ended up selling off the publishing business and focusing on the actual publishing software full-time.
Wow. Okay. So it came from, noticing own your kind of problems and kind of things that were, were coming up and going, kind of going out of your way, to fix them for yourself. Always, always the best way You know what, what the issue is there to, to get in and fix it, I feel.
Yeah, we were scratching our niche and also. Some of the training customers,
we ended up doing a lot of training work for universities. They would. They would bring us in to train their staff and we would see a lot of their problems. If they would have a big, a big WordPress site that was publishing a ton of content, they would end up with confusion among staff members.
The wrong thing would get published at the wrong time. And, we saw a lot of, a lot of ways in which WordPress could be better. So many people are relying on WordPress for their publishing. there are in ways, ways in which it can’t be made better.
Absolutely. which causes public trust to have like a huge stable of plug-ins. So, which is kind of like, would you say is kind of the most, I suppose the most popular, not because this is where our overall topic is, but I’m just interested in being a WordPress guy. but also which one is the most useful for kind of, for most people, if they wanted to go and check, check them out to get started.
Are are two most popular ones? One called, future, which we, gave a, a kind of a back to the Future logo to, if you go to the WordPress directory to find it, you’ll find like a, a kind of a homage to, to back to the future of Flying Car and, and so on. and it fills. A super basic need that’s always been missing in WordPress.
In fact, what PublishPress Future does is so basic that I often will wake up in a cold sweat and think the WordPress core is going to do this.
It simply allows you to set a unpublish date for content in the future. So I. If, if your content is Christmas or New Year specific, you can set an unpublish date the day after Christmas or the day after the new year, and it does some more sophisticated things than that. Now, for example, you can set it to add or remove a category or change the publishing status, but at its core, it just allows you to unpublish content on a future date. so that’s probably our most popular plugin. And, and the other one is a plugin called Capabilities that allows you to lock down the admin area and say, this person can edit posts. This person cannot edit published posts and, and do another kind of fairly standard user configuration, lockdown settings.
Okay, cool. And I imagine that’s kind of built on top of like the internal WordPress capability system to Yeah. cool. Those are both interesting. We’ve built, future unpublish as a feature, ourselves kind of into sites. it’s one of those where I’m like, yeah, why isn’t this in core?
But then, yeah, and honestly I think you’re probably pretty safe that it won’t, cuz one of the things we find with it is that the question is not, How do you unpublish a thing? Because that’s like really straightforward. It’s what happens when you after you unpublish that thing. So any links that are in that content going to that piece, like what happens to them?
Do they 4 0 4, do they redirect to something? and I think every business and every publisher’s gonna have a different way of doing that. So I think it’s kind of one of those where it’s like, we’ll just leave it to people to make their own decisions.
Yeah, that’s part of the extra layer we put on top, but, that’s probably a good example of. The foundation of the PublishPress was that we saw quite a few of these little basic holes in, in, well, what does cause, it’s. WordPress is designed to be a fairly lightweight platform and we aim, to fill quite a few of those holes.
Another popular plugin we have is called, PublishPress Authors and it just allows you to have more than one author for a piece of content, cuz by default WordPress is pretty tightly configured for having one single author. so a lot of what we do is talking to publishers and they tell us it would be nice if WordPress had just x.
Basic feature and we build plugins to add those basic features.
Awesome. Well, Stepping aside from WordPress, cuz as much as I could talk about it all day, it’s not, we’re not a, a super gonna be a super technique podcast here, but what I thought was interesting from swimming conversations we’ve had recently is some of the local news, startups that you’ve kind of seen popping up in your neck of the words.
particularly as someone who, you know, from what you said earlier, has been running, a local publisher or a local, Community journalistic endeavour, kind of, there’s always so many different ways of describing these. So, I think there may be a different kind of in the US and, the UK and the rest of our audience about how local news is kinda handled.
So I’d love to know like what’s your, what’s your take on it? Like how do you define it? And about some of these companies you’ve sort of seen cropping up. Tell me about them.
Sure. So this is the early days. It feels it. It’s almost like I’m trying to. Talk about and bear some kind of a witness to something fragile, something that is still in the process of emerging. But we do talk with a lot of publishers. our software is designed to help publishers. And I’m also gonna talk very specifically about the US context, cuz I’m just not.
Our customer base is very US-centric. and a lot of these organizations that I’m gonna mention are US-specific. so apologies to people that might have experience of this in other countries, but we are seeing, despite all the doom and gloom about publishing in general, I mean, even now you see in the last month or so, We’ve seen, I think, vice Media about to file for bankruptcy.
We’ve seen Buzzfeed News close. I’m probably missing some other massive news closures and
those are the two that certainly are, making their rounds kind of in my sphere of interest like Buzzfeed News closing, and Vice, vice on its way to bankruptcy if it hasn’t already declared.
Yeah. and those are just kind of the ones in the last few weeks after, years. Kind of pessimism and, and decline in local news. you see some occasional success stories. I, I think after years of struggling, some organizations like the New York Times have, have leapt successfully. To being a mostly online journalism, organization.
But the general feeling is pessimism.
But what we’re seeing is a slow flowering of something new some I’m, I’m struggling to describe it often when people ask me about it, but small local startups are popping up around the US and I’d probably define them in with three specific elements.
One is that they are very, Community driven. They try to build a community around what they’re writing around the people who are engaged with them. This isn’t clickbait. These are organizations that are probably opposite from Vice and opposite from Buzzfeed. They’re running very hard in the opposite direction to say, we are going to lean into having.
A thousand true fans to get started. We are having a very specific audience that we are going to cultivate. And if we can get 10 bucks a month from those a thousand true fans, then we’re off the ground, and we’re moving. And in addition, or kind of complimenting this focus on community. A real focus on a particular topic that a lot of these organizations say, Hey, we are going to cover local government in the capital of Missouri, or we are going to cover politics in Florida with a real focus on what’s happening in the, the State House in Florida government.
Or they might be picking on, topics in, in Canada, perhaps, or or perhaps African-American, the African-American community in New Orleans or Chicago. So that clickbait, very broad topic, failures, I guess we can call them now like Buzzfeed or. Or vice, or, oh, courts. That was the other one that was on my mind.
As, a broad-interest publisher that is struggling these days,
these new startups are focusing very hard. A very clearly defined mission. So e even as opposed to local newspapers, the local newspaper in the old days would cover high school sports. They would cover, the obituaries.
They would cover the local government, they would cover the local schools, they would cover everything. these new startups are, are more tightly defined, so they’re not, a one-to-one replacement for the old newspapers.
So they’re very, they’re, they’re very focused on, on building a relationship with their readers.
They’re very tightly focused. I think for people that haven’t seen any of these, comparing them to s comparing them cks is not,
is not entirely unreasonable cuz your average CK is written by. Often one or two people are on.
And for just about every subset you can probably say, this is their topic, this is what they write about.
And they’re very newsletter driven because newsletters are a good way to build community. a lot of these startups are very newsletter driven as well. the way that they. They differ in some ways from cks, in that perhaps, they will tend to have a few more employees and maybe they will have a slightly broader range of revenue.
They will go for subscription revenue. But they will mix it in often with advertising, selling merchandise, and then they’re not afraid to ask for, donations as well from some of the big foundations out there that are supporting news.
so, very community-driven, very tightly focused and very scrappy in terms of looking for revenue.
So they’re not. Entirely aen driven, or not entirely often subscription driven because maybe the subscription base isn’t big enough yet.
and it’s working. there are, there’s a good number of these startups that we see in every state that is emerging in the last two years probably, which is why it’s kind of hard to describe this. Because a lot of these are getting off the ground and have only launched in the last two or three years.
Yeah, so there’s, I suppose then it’s a really interesting space cuz I’m from like a general business perspective, I like people who work with niches. So they’re like, we don’t do everything for everyone who’s like, we do one really specific thing for one really specific group of people and they’ve almost double niched.
They’re like, we work in this particular area of interest for this particular geography. So, I suppose like I. One-off the top of my head might be Foodies in Georgia or Foodies in Atlanta, and you might have multiple versions of that. People running it, on their own. sorry, what are the words?
I’m looking for their versions of that for multiple, multiple different locations just because of their geography and whom they can serve and whom they can write authentic content. For inside of, inside of their geography. I think it’s really interesting, honestly. and then I imagine too, because they are so specialized, That whenever they do go like kind of beyond their normal like direct relationship for finance and revenue, they’re like, yeah, here are, six or seven funding bodies that are interested in the problem you are solving in your area.
Have at it, or the content itself is so valuable to the readers that it makes like it’s, no, it’s a no-brainer too, to pick up that subscription and support it to keep it, keep it going. Is that about sum up, how they do?
Yes, it is the. The ones that we come across are maybe in, in our work a little more serious. They tend to be more politically, culturally, and environmentally driven. But I know people in say, the food space, there’s an agency that we do work with who have hoovered up hundreds of food blogs, and these people are making a. A very good living for often two or three people doing exactly what you describe aiming at, say, food lovers in Georgia, food lovers in Atlanta, and food lovers in la. it’s, it’s a, it’s a viable niche if you can get, a few thousand people who love the content you’re putting out.
Absolutely. I want, yeah, I just used to it as kind of, a CF example there, but I can think of a few, I’m gonna say similar publications in, in the UK. So maybe it’s not as different as we thought, but, Certainly more kind of your, your left-leaning publications that are like two or three groups covering politics in their local area.
Scrappy, really trying to work hard to get out there and get, get their audience. but I wonder, I mean particularly within, political and social, social justice and kind of social issues, coverage. That’s like an incredibly difficult area to work within, I feel, cuz you are beholden.
and we did an episode a couple of months back with, the Independent Media Association. And this was a lot of their kind of concern is like, we, they don’t feel like they have a fair shake because the platforms were optimizing for outrage. So they can’t, they struggle to get their content out there because they’ve been told, I have to do everything through Facebook.
It’s where the people are. I have to do everything through. Twitter, you have to do everything through Instagram to meet your audience where they are, but can get no traction because they’re trying to report honestly, rather than trying to generate fear. and have, do you have any kind of tech on that?
Are you seeing them kind of do anything interesting? How are they building, building, those small audiences to get to their thousand true fans?
They, they publish a lot less. you’re looking at organizations that publish maybe two, maybe three times a day. They try to publish, real value. Rather than chasing that traffic. I mean, the, there’s not, as a WordPress publisher, that’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people, 100% going after that traffic still.
They’re just not interesting to me personally as a, as someone that tries to care about making an impact, that those people are chasing the, the Facebook traffic chasing the outrage cycle. some people are, I mean, the, almost every week you’ll come across a, often a WordPress Powered network of. Blogs and fake news sites doing, doing astroturfing. there was one that was discovered in, in Florida like two, three weeks ago where,
it was a bunch of fake news websites that were financed by the local power company. And they were, they were surreptitiously money. these were kind of political slash news fake websites that were trying to push the power company’s agenda in the local and state government.
and there’s always those, you, you just have to. trying to push past them and try and help the organizations that are trying, to add more value to contribute to their communities. And they do it by, I think often being kind of newsletter driven, that if they can put one or two really valuable items in your inbox every day, it’s a slower news cycle, but people are going to want to pay for that.
Absolutely. And is that how you’re kind of seeing people mostly interact with these groups? Is e-newsletter driven?
Yeah, very much so. I mean, we’ve talked very generally, I, I’ll try and pick, a couple of examples. Oh, that’d be great.
there’s one, there’s one up in Canada that, I always admire the output they put out. It’s called, the Nael after, the unicorn of the Sea. They got the, I’ve got two daughters and them when they were babies, they loved Naws.
So it’s the nawar ca and they focus on environmental journalism in, in Canada, and I think their membership base is in, in the single thousands. And once or twice a week, they will put out a newsletter with an incredible. Detailed story with a real point of view trying to, trying to move the ball forward on protecting an aspect of life in Canada.
Often they’ll, that have gone out on a reporting mission into one of them, the lands, I think are the First Nations in Canada. They come back with these long, detailed reports, and beautiful photos. Their WordPress site is a work of art. And once or twice a week, these stories drop in the newsletter, and that’s more than enough for people to contribute and buy their merchandise and find their work valuable.
They’re not chasing that Facebook traffic. they’re chasing a more, a slower cycle, a more organic word of mouth. Hey, I got the newsletter. This is something you should read, that’s share the newsletter. get other people on board. yeah. I just took the chance to look at it, look it up while you were talking about it, and you know everything you said. Right. It’s a very, very beautiful, very thoughtful, site. I like it a lot. You can see that they’re focusing on that newsletter. it wasn’t long after this had loaded, I’d had a.
A model CTA call up to, to get me in into that. but yeah, I can see, see what, what they’re up to. and like you say, really low, low publishing volume. I can see kind of two or three posts a day. most, but most days are, are just one. but it’s awesome to see such, explicitly mission-driven.
publishing out there with a real point of view beyond, beyond outrage. I like it. How much is a membership to, the Nawa
what do you like from 15 bucks a month? That’s awesome.
it’s one of those situations where the more you donate, the more they’ll send you, a free hat or a free bag or something like that. there’s a, a, I, I’d say a lot of the. The reason that, like this have been able to grow over the last couple of years is that a lot of the basic infrastructure that’s needed has started to come into place.
For example, there’s a, a couple of states over from us in Louisiana. There’s a network of sites,verte. Mississippi today, I think, that are doing really good local news work in Louisiana and they’ve been relying on news pack, from automatic, kind of the,
the big company that drives a lot of what happens in WordPress and a lot of these startups. A lot of these, actually a lot of, quite a lot of these have been around 40, 50 years. The, they’re, existing newspapers trying to make the jump to the online world. A lot of them don’t have the technical savvy, they don’t have the developers on staff. They don’t have technical shops. But, companies like Pac.
Have been providing that for them. They say, Hey, you have a legacy cms. It’s hampering your work. It’s making it difficult for you to publish content regularly and turn it into newsletters.
They migrated it over to WordPress. They put it on good hosting with good support. It’s, a few hundred, maybe a couple of thousand dollars a month for, the hosting and support, and suddenly, the technical side is taken away as a challenge, and these organizations can focus on growing.
And, also in terms of grouping together, we’ve seen a bunch of organizations. A big one is the Institute for, nonprofit News, I n n, which has, it’s been building a reality. Quite a successful network, of local news sites, and local news startups. I think Canada has one whose name I forget, that tries to bring all of these startups together to network and learn from each other.
There’s more, there’s more funding. There’s an organization called State House News, which is trying to put. WordPress-based, I think maybe one is on Squarespace, but 99% of WordPress trying to put publishers into all 50, state government capitals in the US to have reporters on the ground.
Cuz some of them, of these smaller states, had really. Lost all their local news. So no one was reporting on what was going on in say, the capital of, North Dakota or, or the, the capital of Kentucky. those, those places, where a lot of important legislation happens and we’re, to be honest, quite often a lot of corruption happens too.
So. Between solutions popping up to solve the technical side of things, and then also organizations popping up to link these startups together. We’re starting to see that a lot of the foundational problems are being taken away, and these organizations are free to try and refine their business model, find their audience, to grow.
And, two years ago, none of that was happening. I n n the Institute for News for Non-Profit News was much smaller. NPAC from Automatic was just getting started. Only a handful of u of users. so the kind of successes I’m, I’m seeing are, are very new and they, they do feel very fragile cuz a lot of these organizations are so new and still finding their feet.
Yeah. Then I suppose that the next question from all this is that, is that fragility. So it’s easier than ever to get started. in some ways, it can be even harder to stand out. but you’ve gotta, you’ve gotta pay the bills. And I, I know us, we kind of touched on, on some of this, but how, how sustainable is this in, in the long term?
I think we kind of, there are a few kinds of different funding options that these types of sites had. So obviously they’ve kind of got you, your ad spend, from an ideally local, local business is kind of keeping that money in the economy, direct support from your subscribers, patronage, if people are buying, merch, et cetera, and, and funding from, supportive bodies in, in us But that’s the one that kind of gives me, gives me concern cuz those pots of money aren’t, aren’t unlimited. So how, more and more things are moving to a subscription and people are very quickly becoming, the subscription fatigue is the word that goes around. and with the ongoing, inflationary pressure that we’re seeing across the world are people, these feel like very easy, expenses in one’s life, to get away from.
So, I mean, are we at risk of having this like, wonderful new world of, micro publishers with a great point of view all of a sudden, but then very suddenly the, the business model kind of just falls, falls apart. Like any one of those things could go, and kind of take it with it. Does that make sense?
not a diner.
No, no. I mean that’s, there’s absolutely 100% the key problem. I mean, newspapers. Throughout history, I’ve never been, the most stable of businesses. I would probably, look back with rose-tinted spectacles on the newspaper industry. In the past, newspapers came and went quickly, but yeah, right now it’s not an easy time.
Revenue is tough. These organizations are. Probably going to always pay their staff poorly and rely on people with a sense of mission. they’re always trying to be, going cap in hand either to their readers or to foundations. they’re always gonna have to be trying to, put together the annual budget from a mix of maybe some advertising, some subscriptions, some, Donations from foundations, events too.
We’ve seen some of these, hosts sort of, sort of monthly or big annual events to, to try and pay the bills. it’s, it, it’s not an entirely optimistic, outlook. But it is more optimistic than it was a couple of years ago.
Absolutely. and I mean, if anyone listening is interested, what put, I mean, you, you’re not running one of these publishers, you’re on the outside, but what’s the biggest way someone could make an impact into one of these? startups to kind of help them be sustainable in the long term.
well we have, I, I guess in, on our side of things, we’re trying to help with the technology. there are, quite a few people in the WordPress community that have realized that this is a problem and that, these publishers need affordable, affordable technology solutions. we do it at PublishPress and then.
Real kudos to Automatic for realizing this with, news Pack. They, they’ve realized that there was a real need for an affordable few hundred dollars a month, solution in this space.
and if, if someone is. Kind of not in the business. them finding one or two of these two support would be, a great place to start.
I believe that I n n the in mentioned the Institute for Nonprofit Music. Other times, I n n.org, they have a map where you can find members. So if you are. You are in Mississippi or you are in Illinois or somewhere, you can go to your state and find member organizations that almost certainly need your support.
Awesome. It just, occurred to me as well when you said, hosting events, because we’ve just had the MET Gala and in its way, the MET Gala is one of these just on a massively different scale. It’s producing very niche content for our group of people and it’s running various, funding events both from public pots, patronage and running events to get it.
So the Met is, basically an indie publisher with a huge building. get some good free advertising with the dresses and so right.
Yeah, exactly. They’ve done a great job. awesome. Steve, thank you very much for your time today. I just wanna keep an eye cuz we’re, we’re running on. if anyone wants to find out more about you, about PublishPress, where’s a good place for them to go?
We have our, our, our publishing plugins at publishpress.com and also we’ve been, Blogging and showing examples of some of these publishers at a blog, kinship Rests. So Kinship Press is we, when we did publishPress, we merged, publish and Press. And, for this blog, we merged Kinship as in kind of like building a kinship with your readers,
Community and yeah.
So kinship press.com.
kinshipress.com. anywhere on Twitter, social media, or are you best trying to avoid.
I, I do post occasionally, Steve j Burge on Twitter. maybe like one of those, those really good indie publishers, we’ve been talking about. I will try and publish one or two good tweets a week,
Great. Yeah, it’s a good
not very high volume at all.
Great. Well, again, thank you so much for your time today. and maybe we’ll have you on again to talk about, publishPress when we get around to doing a more, a more developer tooling-specific episode someday. if you’re keen,
Awesome. Thank you, Stewart.
No problem. Glad to have you. So, to everyone listening, thank you very much, for making it this far through.
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and speak to you again soon. Goodbye.