A modest proposal for the Straight Dope

(Second try. Little Ed, who I rely on to digitally transcribe these messages from the original parchment, stupidly posted the first attempt as though it emanated from himself.)

After a hiatus of almost three years, your columnist is thinking about resuming weekly publication of the Straight Dope column. There are three reasons for this: (a) Little Ed’s attempt to short GameStop didn’t work out as well as hoped, leaving the retirement account sadly depleted; (b) global ignorance, alas, hasn’t noticeably receded; and (c) your columnist was bored and in need of amusement, and Mrs. Adams felt that if the choice were between my resuming the column and puttering in the workshop with ammonium nitrate, she’d be more comfortable with the former. So here we are.

I emphasize that no decision has been made, and I won’t be the one ultimately making it – the call will be made by the Straight Dope’s owners. Nonetheless, we’ve been kicking around some ideas, and since the Teeming Millions will play a more central role than in the past – I’ll get to that – the time has come to put the matter before the house.

The practical realities being what they are, things will have to be done a little differently. Reality #1 is that the old Straight Dope business model, which was largely dependent on advertising revenue (and worked OK for a while) is no longer sufficient to keep the bills paid. We would of course like to draw more visitors than we do now, and doing so would surely mean a few more ad dollars. But we’d still be at the mercy of the Google search algorithm, the most whimsical arbiter of fate since Schroedinger’s cat, and not something one can build a business on. Instead, we’ll need to rely more heavily on subscriptions. More on that below. Reality #2, a consequence of Reality #1, is that the Straight Dope’s once-formidable research and support apparatus now consists in its entirety of Little Ed. ‘Nuff said.

The answer to all these problems, I perhaps naively hope, is greater reliance on the Teeming Millions. Here’s what I have in mind:

I plan to establish a new SDMB forum called the Boardroom, the board in question being the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board (SDSAB), which up till now has been my online auxiliary. The Boardroom will be operated on a subscription basis – anyone can read it, but only subscribers can post. I expect to be a regular participant in this forum. Membership in the SDSAB has been informal up till now; this will put things on a more organized basis.

The purpose of the Boardroom will be to provide a place for the SDSAB to convene. The purpose of the SDSAB, in turn, will be to help me come up with questions worthy of the Straight Dope treatment. You may think that’s easy. On the contrary – it’s by far the toughest part of the job.

No doubt this scheme raises many questions in your mind. As is our custom at the Straight Dope, we’ll attempt to address the more obvious issues in the form of a FAQ.

How do you see this working?

In some ways, not so different from now. The General Questions (GQ) and Comments on Cecil’s Columns (CCC) forums will remain open for anyone to read, and any registered user (including guests) can post. I’ll peruse these forums looking for potential column topics; SDSAB members can do likewise. Anyone who finds a thread that looks promising can post a link in the Boardroom with a note to the effect of, “Potential column here. What do you think?” We’ll go from there.

So we get to decide what you’ll write about?

An advisory board advises; I’ll decide. That said, I see this as a collaborative process. The Straight Dope’s mission has evolved considerably since pre-Internet days. Today we don’t provide answers you can look up just as easily on Wikipedia. Rather, we’re sorting through competing explanations, some of which may be at least moderately illuminating while others are complete |-|0r535|-|17. I expect the SDSAB will be helpful in the filtering process. As has always been the case, I’ll be responsible for reviewing source material, doing offline research, making judgments, and writing the column.

Sounds like you’re expecting me to pay for the privilege of helping you out.

Let’s put a more positive spin on it. Your membership fee will help keep the Straight Dope afloat, and you’ll also have an opportunity to join in the struggle against ignorance. Those are both benefits in my book. In any case, whatever helping you do is strictly voluntary. If you simply want to kibitz, start a thread on a different topic, or say nothing, that’s up to you. If you don’t want to subscribe at all, you can participate as before; we shall endeavor to make our way without you.

So if I subscribe to the Straight Dope I automatically become a member of the SDSAB? Seems like a low bar.

Not at all. It requires a modest but ongoing financial commitment (which, to be blunt, will need to increase), and that’s what it’s going to take if the Straight Dope is to survive. Digital ad revenue having largely migrated to Google and Facebook, subscriptions are the one route that seems viable. A lot of mainstream media are headed in that direction.

Well, that or they find a billionaire backer. If you happen to be one, I’m happy to talk.

Your thoughts on the above scheme are humbly solicited.

And yes, to answer a question already asked, we’ll have to get the payment function operational. I’m assured this is theoretically possible.

Sounds like an interesting idea/concept. I’d be interested in participating.

Good to hear from you again, Unca Cece. Let me ponder this a bit, but I’m interested.

I would happy to contribute both financially and academically to this endeavor. Point me in the right direction and I’ll be there.

I’ve been mostly a lurker over the years, but I could see myself contributing, both financially and otherwise. Besides, it’s something of a family tradition: my wife (many years ago, before we were married and before the internet was a thing) helped out with a column.

Am I wrong in thinking that you are:

  1. Looking for questions that are not easy to “Google” and/or
  2. Have an interesting backstory you can apply your wit/intellect to?

We’ve probably already establish what kind of people we are, now we can start haggling over price.

What do you have in mind for the cost of the subscription?

In the past, you’ve always turned down offers of donations, for good reasons. Is this workable as an end run around the fact that the SD is owned? Would this be a pathway to make the SD independent of the Sun-Times or whoever controls it to make it less vulnerable to sudden closure? Is the idea to just make enough money to keep the site running or to provide an income?

The concept is intriguing, but the details are fuzzy. I’m afraid you’re going to have to throw out some numbers and what the end goal would be.

But on the bright side, we have many members who boast about how rich they are. Get them to lift their sofa cushions and you’ll be all set!

I am taking it at face value, that this is an attempt to get the Straight Dope column up and running again.

  1. I always thought Cecil Adams was a mythological figure like Betty Crocker or Dr. Scholl. Are you saying you are a human being and reside on this earthly plane? Is there evidence of this that you are at liberty to share?

  2. I heartily endorse this modest proposal, and although I am not enough of an expert in any field to be on the advisory board, I will gladly read, learn, and pay a hefty subscription fee. I pay hefty subscription fees to places I hardly ever visit, and y’all let me come here all day every day, drink the free coffee in the kitchen, and weep into the free tissues in the waiting room (when I have forgotten my own cotton hanky). I want to pay. I implore you: let me pay.

TL;DR: YES Bring it on!

This looks like a super complicated way to get voluntary donations from some of us to help keep the place afloat. I’m happy to help but damn, dude, you could have explained all of that in like three sentences.

The site needs help since advertising doesn’t pay the bills anymore. We’d appreciate it if those who can will help. Those who help will get to post in a new forum (everyone can read it) where “Cecil” will write more columns.

If I’m reading between the lines right, continuing as we are now means the site will be killed in the (probably near) future. So I’m all for doing something.

Getting more SD columns is a win, so an approach that includes that sounds good. And I think tying subscriptions to something more than “no ads and you can post in marketplace” will get a few more subscribers than if you rely strictly on donations. The perk of feeling like we’re contributing to the columns feeds our superiority complex and is bound to attract plenty of the resident know-it-alls (including me).

It might be a good idea to have different levels of donation. One price fits all won’t work very well. There should be a way for someone who can’t afford the full subscription to donate a modest amount. There should also be a way for someone who has deep pockets to donate more, possibly by giving gift subscriptions.

Shut up and take my money!

Exactly. The better columns over the years - my favorites anyway - tell a story or at least have a narrative arc that carries the reader along and arrives at a conclusion, and not coincidentally provides opportunities for the occasional wisecrack or shrewd observation. This is a matter I look forward to exploring with the SDSAB in the proposed Boardroom forum.

I would certainly be interested in helping to keep the place running. Being able to contribute to the Dope beyond just a subscription would be a nice bonus.

I’m in. It sounds like fun.

Right, I’m just trying to get the Straight Dope running again, and put the whole enterprise on a sound financial footing. Spinning the thing off as an independent venture isn’t in the cards right now.

Same, but I’d be interested to see how it play’s out.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of the original SDSAB was they were vetted for expertise in particular areas, and could be called on to edit columns and write staff reports. Expertise and willingness to contribute were key criteria.

It seems the strategy for finding those folks who want to help in this new model is less about the expertise requirement in favor of a financial commitment? In other words, are you vetting people by expertise or is it open to all willing participants?

Each model has its merits- just making sure I’m clear on the strategy.