What Killed Culture11?

Over at the WashingtonMonthly, there’s a piece by Charles Homans that discusses what happened to Culture11, the Bill Bennett/David Kuo backed blog that lived a short life and died earlier this year.

The piece is extremely detailed and well researched, but it’s also so poorly written that it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what Homans is trying to get across.

That being said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons that can be learned from the failure of Culture11, especially since there are apparently some new investors onboard and there may be a “good chance of resurrecting Culture11.”

Since I wrote some articles for Culture11 and had a number of friends and/or acquaintances who also worked there or wrote for them, I think I know enough to give people a good idea of what went wrong.

1) Originally, when I heard that Bill Bennett was going to be involved with Culture11, I figured it would be promoted everywhere, right out of the gate. That just didn’t happen. It was a real missed opportunity.

2) Culture11 had multiple salaried staffers and paid a decent rate for new material. To do that, you either have large cash reserves, lots of traffic, or deep pocketed investors. Apparently, Culture11 had none of those things.

3) Culture11 was not, in a meaningful sense, a conservative website. Although the website did have some conservative employees and writers, oddly, the content often seemed to tilt to the left-of-center. That made drawing traffic problematic because the liberal blogs wouldn’t link it because it was supposed to be “conservative” and the conservative blogs thought the website was too “liberal.”

Intriguingly, Homans also included this from David Kuo,

“One of my proudest moments,” Kuo told me, “was when someone at RedState”–the conservative blog that attempted to mount an online purge of the movement’s reformists in the last weeks of the campaign–“said, ‘We aren’t even going to post a link to Culture11.'”

So, one of Kuo’s “proudest moments” was when a large conservative blog refused to link Culture11? If he still feels that way now that they’re out-of-business, maybe it goes a long way towards explaining why they went out of business in the first place.

4) Although Culture11 was a culture blog, much of its content was obscure or covered strange topics. Popular culture? It sometimes felt like Culture11, for reasons I didn’t completely understand, was centered around “unpopular culture.” Just to give you some examples, here are a few of the articles that are still on the front page of Culture11,

Whitewashing Graffiti: Museums featuring the medium shouldn’t ignore the harm it does on the street.

Moving Pictures: Mo Willems puts motion back onto the pages of kids’ funny books.

The Future of Music: Indonesia’s most popular band shows how American musicians can support themselves.

Faxing It In: The slow decline of the fax machine.

Incidentally, pointing out these articles isn’t a slam on the authors of the columns: those were the sort of pieces the editors wanted. The problem is, how do you draw and retain an audience that wants to read about fax machines, graffitti, and Indonesian music?

Summary: Again, let me note that I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea — I liked Culture11, was happy to write for them, and think there were a lot of fantastic, conservative people who worked there.

I also think doing a “culture blog” was a winner of an idea, as Big Hollywood has since proven. However, the way the project was executed ultimately made it very difficult for it to take off.

Update #1: My friend Ericka Andersen, who worked at Culture11, punched something up about the whole experience and gave me permission to share it in this post. So, here goes…

Culture11 was a misunderstood venture. I came from the very politically conservative Human Events and RedState to this quirky place — which focused on the curiously undefined, cultural conservatism. All parties involved in the operation from the senior leadership down to our liberal intern had their own view of what being culturally conservative meant and I think this was part of the problem. It couldn’t be captured in a sentence.

Political conservatives were skeptical when we featured pieces that seemed liberal. However, many people missed the point. In my mind, we sought to recognize a connection between people and ideas that ran deeper than politics. Every piece of politics encompasses a cultural aspect of someone’s real life. We wanted to find those stories and put a face on them.

On some level, were of a similar mindset to the Crunchy Con movement, declaring that Birkenstock loving, organic eating recyclers could have conservative values, too. We sought healthy disagreement, meaningful conversations and a variety of viewpoints.

But there was a disconnect for me. Some Culture11 contributors and wanted to be conservatives of their own definition — conservatives who disagreed with much of what conservatism is defined by. Pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, Obama voting conservatives, among other ideas. In the attempt to welcome different viewpoints, Culture11 sometimes veered from cultural conservatism to a sort of Unitarian conservatism and it didn’t resonate with even the more centrist minded cons.

Despite having met the goals and expectations of the board and senior leadership, Culture11 succumbed to the spiraling economy and did not receive the venture capital it was promised until 2010. It had a lot of promise and some brilliant articles — wide ranging in cultural topics that conservatives don’t always tackle. We had a staff of strong minded people that often came with a clash of personalities, ideas and direction. We had the spectrum of political ideology and an office full of passionate people who will all, I’m certain, go on to do and write great things in the future (and already have.)

Culture11 had a real purpose and a real void to fill. I was sad to see it go.

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