Paul Carr talks about why NSFW Corp. failed — but also what it almost got right

Paul Carr cropped

It may have gone unnoticed in mainstream media circles, but the death of entrepreneur Paul Carr’s NSFW Corp. on Monday caused more than a few tremors in the world of new-media startups — in part because that world is so tiny to begin with, but also because Carr is a somewhat polarizing figure at the best of times, and many were watching his venture with a mix of interest and schadenfreude.

Since the death of something new is often almost as interesting as its birth, I called Carr and asked him to talk about what he or others might learn from NSFW Corp’s relatively brief life as a media entity.

In typical startup fashion, NSFW Corp. isn’t completely dead, of course. The company — which launched its online-only media effort last July (it later also added a print version to its offerings) and was based in Las Vegas — is no more, but Carr and most of his team are joining PandoDaily, another new-media startup created by Carr’s former TechCrunch colleague Sarah Lacy that has renamed itself Pando and has taken on NSFW Corp.’s assets, including the print magazine.

Raising money is really f***ing hard

Sarah Lacy

Sarah Lacy

Carr said that he and Lacy had talked a number of times about PandoDaily acquiring or merging with NSFW Corp., but while they were both media startups and believed in certain principles — such as “paying people for their work and having real journalists,” as Carr puts it — they were also focused on very different topics, with NSFW Corp. taking on everything from porn to politics and Pando doing tech. So what changed? Carr says NSFW Corp. started digging more and more into big tech and media-related stories such as Pierre Omidyar’s attempts to start a media company with Glenn Greenwald — but he also says NSFW Corp.’s financial struggles were a big part of the picture as well:

“It is not getting any easier for journalistic organizations to raise money… everyone says that content is suddenly hot, and it is — but content and journalism are unfortunately not the same thing in investors’ eyes. And we can all wait for a Pierre Omidyar to show up, but truthfully it’s hard to raise money for a journalistic company. And the idea that both of us were out raising money independently — Pando very successfully and us less so — was kind of silly.”

Carr also freely admitted that fundraising for NSFW Corp. didn’t go well during the latest round, and that the company was struggling to survive (it laid off several staffers recently). And he also admitted that a big part of this failure to raise enough financing was his own somewhat antagonistic attitude towards investors:

“It’s really f***ing hard — I was spending more than half of my time trying to explain to investors that yes, we could do slideshows, that would certainly be an option, but that’s not really what we’re about… so we thought wouldn’t it be nice if we could create this world within Pando where we were doing this reporting that we wanted to do, and I didn’t have to have another f***ing meeting with a man who didn’t understand why listicles were not the same as reporting.”

No love lost between NSFW and investors

Money, greed, payoff

On a related note, Carr also admitted that his attitude towards his existing investors — such as his former boss Michael Arrington’s CrunchFund and Zappos’ founder Tony Hsieh’s VegasTech Fund, two of the company’s earliest backers — probably didn’t help increase his company’s lifespan either. As he described it during a discussion of Glenn Greenwald’s new venture, and whether the former Guardian writer would be comfortable reporting on his benefactor, eBay billionaire Omidyar, Carr said:

“You only have to look at NSFW and see that we have been relentless in attacking CrunchFund for its bullshit hypocrisy in investing in NSA-backed [actually CIA-backed] startups, and we have been relentless in mocking the stuff Tony Hsieh is doing in Vegas… of course it has [had an impact on financing], it’s probably the main reason we couldn’t raise any more. It’s the reason why Vegas Tech Fund didn’t invest in the latest round or the round before, and it’s why Mike Arrington hasn’t talked to me in a long time.”

For Carr, whose aggressiveness towards colleagues, friends and pretty much everyone else has achieved almost legendary status in the media community, this kind of attitude may have doomed NSFW Corp. as a financial entity, but it was required in order for the venture to have any kind of journalistic credibility at all. “I’ve never been one to hide behind saying ‘Oh, he’s an investor, I’d better be nice,'” Carr said. “Who cares? We’re f***ing journalists. I’d rather be poor and credible than have $250 million and have to say bullshit like ‘I can’t comment.'”

The beginnings of an innovative paywall

So was NSFW Corp. a failure? “It certainly under-succeeded,” Carr said. “As a company, as a corporate entity, it certainly failed, in the sense that if it had succeeded we would be buying Pando, not the other way around… but as a journalistic enterprise it absolutely succeeded.” The kind of investigative, long-form journalism that the company specialized in has proven to be necessary and has also gotten thousands of people to pay, Carr said (the site has a total of about 6,000 monthly subscribers after about 18 months).

Newspaper paywall

Although it started with a hard paywall, Carr said one of the innovations he is most proud of was the idea of “subscriber unlocks” — which allowed each subscriber to the site (those who paid either $3 a month for digital-only access or $7 a month for access to digital as well as the monthly print magazine) to share up to 10 articles from NSFW Corp. per month with anyone they wanted to, via a custom URL that bypassed the paywall.

“It’s one of the few things that I’m sad about because it really worked, but it doesn’t really fit with Pando — the idea of saying to subscribers that it’s up to you how open our paywall is, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of… we had to solve that problem of how you show people what’s behind the paywall without just giving away a bunch of free stuff, and the answer is you do what a member’s club does, you allow subscribers to share with non-members.”

And while his business may have failed, Carr said that he is still excited about the potential for investigative long-form journalism, and was looking forward to combining his passion with Lacy’s somewhat more friendly approach to fundraising. And what of Pando’s chances of success? Carr said he was optimistic, although he also noted that in general “it’s not obvious how you get a great return on investment from a journalism company.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christopher.Michel as well as Shutterstock / Sergey Moronov and Shutterstock / Voronin76

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