A modest proposal for the Straight Dope

Thank you for putting this in words better than I did. These are exactly the answers we need. As of now, all we know is Ed wants to write a column again and he wants the board to pay his salary, and I’m sure it’s not minimum wage, to do so. Plus the whole idea of having people pay even more money to do half of his job for him. Meanwhile, the board gets nothing back after having their membership fees doubled.

Have you even done any market research on this? Why do you think there is a market now for a column that failed two years ago? Your business plan at this point seems to be give Ed a job, make Dopers pay for the whole thing, profit for Ed.

I also have to say that I think this is probably an already done deal. This thread isn’t to see what we think about the idea, it’s just the first step in getting us used to a doubling in membership fees for nothing in return.

Frankly, setting up a podcast, even of old columns, might be a better approach. I’m not a podcast person myself, but they do seem very popular these days.

If this is the case (and I’m not certain that it is) it is just the way creative endeavors work nowadays. Welcome to the future. On the plus side, you get to vote with your wallet, in a very real sense.

I’m probably willing to pay a higher membership cost. However, I never got that many lulz from the columns, and I’m not interested in also contributing work as well as more money, when the end result is just more columns. Get the payment module working and stop faffing about with this stuff until it is.

No, creative endeavors do not suck money out of other things. Creative endeavors get people to pay money for their own content. No reason Ed can’t write a column that pays for itself. People do it all the time. If this column is such a great idea, why doesn’t the company owners pay his salary? Better yet, have Ed lease/license the Cecil name from the owners and split all the gigantic profit they seem to think is coming. That way the owners get a little cash from a name they aren’t using, Ed will earn whatever the public thinks he and his columns are worth and the owners get a slice of that if he succeeds. Win - win for everyone, even us. If we have to pay double for membership, at least some may go to board enhancements and not Ed’s bank account.

It’s my column, not Ed’s, thank you very much. I assure you neither of us has any expectation of making a lot of money doing this. It’s more the prospect of having something to which we’d devoted a good chunk of our lives simply sputter out.

That’s where things are headed as things stand now. Reviving the column is an attempt to stave off the end. Whether it’ll work I don’t know. But if we do nothing it’s inevitable.

It’s not simply a question of money. We need to bring in new people. The community is aging out.

The column was what brought people to the board in the first place. The online Straight Dope community formed almost immediately after the column archive went live on America Online in the mid-1990s. The early members of the SDMB were fans of the column. Either they knew it from their local alternative weekly, they’d read a Straight Dope book, or they saw a column featured on the AOL home page. Fighting ignorance was always the mission for both the column and the board.

Once the Straight Dope migrated from AOL to the Internet, the SDMB took on a life of its own. After a while it generated its own search traffic and more than paid its own way.

That’s no longer the case and hasn’t been for a while. The reasons for that are complicated. The ad delivery model changed faster than we could keep up with. Google kept tweaking the search algorithm. (Seriously, after one new iteration loaded, our numbers dropped 40% overnight.) To an extent, I suppose, the world simply moved on to shinier toys.

Reviving the column is an attempt to keep the enterprise afloat. It may not work. If it doesn’t, we move on to plan B, which (most likely) is that I return to retirement, management appoints an admin with tech skills, and the board survives as long as it can.

I can see there are some who’d prefer to skip to plan B to start with. Patience. I’ve proposed to management that we conduct a three-month trial. During that time we’d need to achieve three defined objectives. The first is that we’d need sign up X number of subscribers at Y dollars by Z date (or anyway we’d need to raise X times Y amount). The second is that Little Ed and I would have to be able to get the column out each week without assistance. The third is that the envisioned collaboration with the Membership - I’m trying that on for size - would actually have to work.

Item #3 is the one I worry about. I’ll say it again: finding questions worthy of the Straight Dope treatment is by far the hardest part of the job. Czarcasm upthread has the right idea: there needs to be an opportunity to tell a story memorably explaining how the world works. Find such an opportunity and the column writes itself.

No doubt everyone will have their own opinions about what constitutes a good story. They won’t necessarily coincide with mine. The long-term plan is that topics I take a pass on could be written up by others as staff reports.

But that’s down the road. We may not get that far. Management may not let me try this little experiment at all. We’ll just have to see.

What’s your marketing plan to get those X number of subscribers?

Honest, Ed, that’s really the only question. Management must have already asked you that, or will, if they haven’t already. You have to have an answer.

A podcast is a delivery model. You still need to produce content; you don’t just sit down at the mike and talk. (Or at least you don’t if you’re doing the Straight Dope.) If I had the right sidekick - and I can tell you from long experience, finding the right chemistry isn’t easy - yeah, it’d be fun. But it’s not where you’d start.

In doing some quick searching, it seems like it’s perfectly fine for a for-profit corporation to accept donations. They are classified as gifts, are not deductible, and would be considered as income in that case. If the corporate accountants of SDMB are okay with it, it seems like a Patreon plugin could be added to the SDMB for people who would just like to make a one-time or ongoing contribution to the site.

So we have to pay two salaries? That’s even worse! :smiley:

I think I addressed this above. I know you don’t follow conversations on the board but we have discussed the aging out of the board many times, plus the drop in message board popularity in general and what to do about it. Can you tell us what you discovered in your research that suggests the way to bring in new and younger people is to bring another old man( sorry, but we are pretty much all old here) out of retirement?

But how is the column supposed to do that? Your plan seems to be Column = Profit. How do you plan to accomplish that? If you think Google ratings are hard to work with for the board, what’s your plan to have the column hit the top of Google search hits?

If this is what people wanted, then why did your column shut down? What happened to all the opportunities to tell a memorable story? Why weren’t people begging across America to read your column anymore? It’s because the very thing that launched your column left it behind many years ago. The internet is full of free information, some of it fun, some serious, and it’s all there for free. A lot of it in video or podcasts now.

No decision has been made but you already have a Plan A that’s going into effect for a three month trial? That sounds a little like a decision has been made, with no input from board members.

You can’t just drop a column and expect anyone to read it; someone has to work to market/promote it. I’m an old fogey but I recognize that today that involves social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. What is your marketing plan for your new effort?

And congratulations for finally recognizing that board membership is aging. That’s been obvious for years, perhaps even decades.

Unless I missed something (and maybe I did) the doubling of fees is purely voluntary. Choose not to participate in the single new gated discussion forum and you can continue to be a free guest.

The best source you have for good questions are the ones that are being asked already in GQ and sometimes other fora. Often with fair amount of research and critical debate done by the aging not so hippest internet users but many with deep knowledge of specific areas. You want to enlarge that pool not restrict it.

What is missing is determining which question might have broad appeal, and an entertaining concise presentation of a critical and skeptical take on it, that follows leads to original source material.

Maybe instead of a gated sub forum having some recognition for best questions posed and best answers offered, with “Cecil’s” presentation of it featured and volunteer contributors given shout outs? Maybe coffee cups or other cheap trinkets as a prize for having come up with question of the week, or if hits some number of best question? Heck scroll through the last years that you’ve never read for some great questions that could be answered in some updated depth.

Limiting that creative pool to those who want to pay for the privilege? Opposite of what you need to do. A new user who gets a question chosen and wins a trinket? That attracts a new crowd.

Cecil wants to do a Substack outside of Substack. Substack is a proven business model: some writers (eg Matt Yglassias) make their living that way. I’m not saying this will work: I’m saying it’s plausible, though difficult. I’m certainly in for $30-$60, maybe more.

Cecil has noted the difficulty of coming up with suitable topics for a column. Martin explicates:

Even before Wikipedia, penning a suitable question for Cecil wasn’t easy - at least for me. I tried. I’m intrigued by the concept of the Boardroom and might participate it - but frankly I predict my batting average would be 0.000. I occasionally think up questions that wikipedia doesn’t help me with, but they tend to be granular and esoteric. (eg I’m reading Dixon & Dixon’s Epic of Gilgamesh and can’t wrap my head around the concept of the Temple Prostitute. Maybe there’s a question there somewhere, but I can’t seem to tease it out. Wiki has a treatment, but it doesn’t dispel my confusion.)

Anyway, we won’t know for sure unless we try. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the web (and the world). Google’s search results seem shaped more by advertising algorithms + wikipedia than anything else. Lots of chaff, dwindling signal.

“Ed isn’t an expert in anything.”

Ed is a professional journalist on the Explainer beat. Explanatory journalism is a thing: practitioners include Vox and Slate. I’d like to see more of it, am willing to pay for it, and yes, there’s a market though that doesn’t mean any given business model will work.

“Why don’t we fund this via merch?”

No media operation is supported by merch. I bought a $30 coffee mug from Salon decades ago - I didn’t do that every year. Businesses require revenue flows not sporadic support. Also, the SDMB flailed around with this concept years ago due to lack of artistic submissions. Hey, we could try again - every bit helps.

“Why doesn’t Ed just go to Patreon?”

That might happen. But I think the Cecil meme might have some remaining potential, possibly greater longevity than me or you among them.

“Why did Cecil’s column shut down?”

Because it was circulated by freesheet weeklies, whose business model collapsed due to the web in general and craigslist in particular. Cecil’s column was too quirky for mainstream newspapers. The SD is a niche, but luckily the web supports a lot of niches.

I found the original Straight Dope book while still in high school. When I went to university in Montreal I was pleased to see alt-weekly Mirror carried Cecil’s column. I’ve been here for two decades.

Summary of problems:

  1. Cecil (Feldman used the term vade mecum. Who talks like that?) wishes to write a column since retirement is boring.

  2. The board needs more revenue, perhaps to survive.

  3. Most contributors are older than me and I am no spring chicken. Most young people have never seen the columns. The best thing about the Dope is a relative freedom from incivility (although the moderators might disagree) and trolling compared to many.

  4. Proposal for yearly fee to be a SD board member (and you will refer to the highlighted item in my curriculum vitae…) to suggest interesting topics. A little like the old Threadspotting feature. One suspects a rugged individual would mostly tend to select topics they are interested in. Unsure how proposal makes audience younger - unlike my magic, patent elixir available for the low price of (PM me).

Summary:
5. Am okay paying a reasonable fee to keep this site and Cecil going, since I like it and have for many years
6. Think the SDSAB thing is overly complex.
7. Would probably enjoy seeing new columns.
8. Why not just a yearly fee with site as is plus a members forum, optional donations or merch, something that will bring in the youngsters (crappy chive memes?)
9. Is there any attempt to reach out to old members? Should there be?

The creative pool wouldn’t be limited; GQ and the other forums would continue as before, and would be the intake point for all new questions. We used to have a separate email queue for questions to Cecil; that wouldn’t be reactivated.

As for trinkets, in my experience the chief reward people wanted was to have their question answered in a column. The difficulty isn’t coming up with questions; it’s coming up with questions worthy of the Straight Dope. I don’t see trinkets being much of an incentive there. Shout outs, on the other hand, absolutely. This is going to be a public process. People who contribute in some meaningful way will be part of the narrative. You can see how it’s worked over the years with my various assistants; what I’m proposing will broaden the cast of characters.

Will this be a big success in terms of attracting pageviews and all that? I have no idea. Will it make for a lively column? I have no doubt it will, and once we get that part working we’re halfway there. If you’re not quite seeing how this is going to work, wait till we get rolling. I think it’ll become pretty clear.

As for updating old material, whether pulled from the archive or the board, I couldn’t agree more. The column ran for 45 years; the SDMB has been in business for ~25. There’s a ton of material that needs a refresh. I can’t possibly do it all by myself. The Teeming Millions can be a huge help. But only if they want.

Definitely you need to do something with the existing columns. They need to be re-posted and accessible via a Google search.

Eh, it won’t be $60, although if you’re willing to pay that much or more, we’ll figure out a way to accommodate you. But yes, the subscription model isn’t completely nuts, as Substack demonstrates. Can we replicate that? Beats me, but there ought to be some entertainment value in trying, and at my stage in life that’s all I expect.

Btw, the temple prostitute thing? We’ll have to give that one some thought, but my initial reaction is it’s Straight Dope gold.

Is there any way to republish the books themselves? (I’m in Canada, and they don’t seem to be in wide release anymore)

Suggesting interesting topics in itself doesn’t make the audience younger. Getting the old toots to suggest interesting topics, and then using said topics to write entertaining columns that attract impressionable youth, that makes the audience younger.