Riff Raff: It’ll never work

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,067 views 

The City Wire launched Nov. 1, 2008. 10 years ago. A few folks like Fred Williams and then homebuilders association president Dave Hughes were supportive of the concept of an online media outlet covering Fort Smith metro business and politics. But most folks were skeptical, with a few not shy about letting me know it would never work.

It’s worked so far, but not because of me. Patricia Brown came along about two years later and pulled The City Wire out of a rut. More about her a little later. And there was Lady Jane Cohen who pulled in several big advertisers and proved the model could be profitable.

Let’s back up a little.

It was June 2008. My wife, Angela, was stepping down as director of the United Way of Fort Smith area. I was employed as business editor of the Morning News in Springdale and the Times Record in Fort Smith. We had worked our budget to be able to live on my salary and benefits with her substitute teaching as part of her goal to get a teaching certificate. Her last day as United Way director was June 26. Because of the high-profile position, her departure was well known, especially among newspaper leadership.

A few days before June 26, I was told by newspaper leadership my last day with the paper would be June 26. We went from a two-income family with decent salaries to a no-income family. We had two daughters, ages 7 and 4, a mortgage, two car payments and all the expenses that go with feeding, clothing and housing a family. Shit got real.

I immediately launched a communications and consulting company – Standout Media – and landed enough accounts to pay some of the bills. (And I used some retirement funds to buy a chunk of Baldor shares at around $11 a share. Those shares would cash out at $63 per share when ABB bought Baldor – but that money wouldn’t be available for many months.) The practical, safe, and responsible thing would have been to get a real job. But I wanted to try something different. And when Tom Kirkham presented the concept of The City Wire, I jumped in with both feet. To her great credit, the patience, understanding and impeccable financial management skills of my wife allowed me to pursue a track that most folks said would never work.

We muddled along for about two years. Maybe the best thing I accomplished in the past 10 years was to convince Patricia Brown to join The City Wire. She was a solid rocket booster attached to a bottle rocket. This thing took off. Chester Koprovic and Bennie Westphal signed on as investors, and their generosity, mentoring, and patience have been THE KEY to where we are today. If you ever need a living definition of the phrase “gracious gentlemen,” Bennie and Chester will more than suffice.

In 2011 we expanded into Northwest Arkansas – again, thanks to Brown, Koprovic and Westphal. Overall, that proved a successful move, but like any business, we struggled with cash flow and personnel decisions. Some months the bank account looked stellar, and some months it was nothing but dark matter. To be sure, I made a lot of mistakes, but the one thing that kept us moving forward was hiring really smart people and letting them do their job. Daelene Brown, our business manager, and Kim Souza, our senior reporter who keeps track of Walmart, are examples of that.

And there was this Roby Brock fella. First met him when I was a capitol reporter in Little Rock for what was then Donrey Media. He was a staffer for Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. He recognized immediately I was in over my head with respect to covering the complex machinations of state government and he helped me not embarrass myself. I left that job to return to Fort Smith to work for the chamber of commerce, and he left the Tucker administration. We stayed in touch. He launched Talk Business (no politics, yet) in June 1999, and I left the chamber in October 2000 to return to the newspaper world with Stephens Media. We reconnected during that time, and developed a content partnership that would prove amazingly fruitful for the young The City Wire.

In June 2012, metastatic breast cancer was back for Patricia. She fought like hell, beating the odds on several occasions. The cancer won in November 2016. But not not before the wedding of her daughter, Amanda, to Mr. Scott Whittenberg. And also not before she supported a merger between The City Wire and Brock’s Talk Business & Politics. The 2015 merger, supported by The City Wire investors Koprovic and Westphal, created a true statewide media platform covering business and political news. News from the state’s four key metro areas – central Arkansas, NWA, Fort Smith metro, and Jonesboro metro – was a daily staple on the newly branded Talk Business & Politics. Traffic grew. Revenue grew.

And then we were presented with the opportunity to buy the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. Again, Koprovic and Westphal were there to support this expansion, and the deal was completed in late 2016. Rob Gutteridge and Paul Gatling became important parts of our growth.

In eight years, The City Wire grew from a one-man show to a statewide media platform with more than 15 employees and freelancers. And at the 10-year point, we have television shows in three markets, radio shows, a website that generates hundreds of thousands of pageviews a month, a publication in Northwest Arkansas, a publication in Northeast Arkansas and several other outlets for business and political news.

But we continue to run scared. Or maybe not scared, but aware that how information is dispersed changes often. Our business model is focused primarily on delivering accurate and reliable content, but the method in which we deliver content is never assumed to be static.

Our continued goal is to provide you, Kind Reader, news that is accurate, informative and objective. We’ll make mistakes, but they’ll be honest mistakes. Folks on all sides of the political spectrum often tell us they trust us more than other media outlets. We appreciate that trust, but realize it’s fleeting, and we have to work each day to maintain the trust.

And each day I remind myself that this brand of journalism was never supposed to work.

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