Next month is a big anniversary. It will be ten years in May since I decided to ditch my lucrative graphic design work, coding work, videography gigs and assorted stints with my former employer and make an attempt to operate Utah Stories full time.
I had had enough of programming, and I wanted to spend at least half my time producing journalism. I wanted to talk to people and interview them, rather than sitting in a cubicle feeling enslaved to my computer. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my computer, it feeds me and depresses me.
Prior to 2008, Utah Stories was a video website similar to YouTube, but with millions less viewers, but a channel for only Utah videos. And there were only two of us submitting the videos. I was a coder and perhaps more accurately a computer nerd, but I fancied myself as a documentary filmmaker. I like the British English term “to fancy oneself” because, while I never was actually a “documentary film maker” nor was I ever a “journalist” I found that if one “fancies oneself” just about anything, one can be that thing, just in perhaps a less legitimate form. It’s along the same lines as the American idiom “fake it till you make it.” But it’s not faking it’s fancying. And fancy sounds nicer than faking.
Back to the story. We were dissimilar to YouTube in that we were not bought out by Google for $1 billion. But we were getting a ton of traffic, but no way to monetize. Rather than attempt to find a high-tech solution, we decided to try to partner up with a struggling TV network. I made a deal which allowed us to be paid $150 by the Larry H. Miller empire for each video story that took me about 40 hours to produce. Yes, I was making a whopping $3.75 per hour. Still, I appreciated the opportunity. A heartfelt thanks to Larry (and a big thanks to KJZZ Program Director Dean Paynter).
As a programmer I could command up to $80 per hour, and as a documentary video UtahStories.com website producer, I could make $4 per hour. But I was doing what I fancied, and isn’t that what matters? I took the road less traveled and it has made all the difference. While my starting out pay was tiny, I immediately felt so much more optimistic about my future. I felt I was making the a transition from the “virtual world” which was full of computer code and programs destined for obsolecense to a more authentic reality, a real world full of characters, personalities and inspiring people who were making the most out of their lives. But we had to find another route to our goal.
Fast forward a year and we had about ten web sponsors for UtahStories.com and a team of amazing writers who were crushing it with content. And we were pumped by how many accolades the website was getting, “Best Citizen Journalism” award from City Weekly. Stories written by the Salt Lake Tribune and a news story by KSL, and I had sold ten web sponsorships. By this time besides Johnny, we had Rebecca, Jacob, Heidi and Warner and a few other freelancers (many of which were former reporters and journalists who had lost their jobs). Later came Paige, Adam and Al. Artists Scott and Mark. Then Connie and Dave. We believed that despite the terrible recession we could turn our website into a magazine. And we realized if we didn’t we would eventually lose all of our web advertisers.
This was happening during the housing bubble collapse of 2008, known as the Great Recession, when hordes of people were being laid off and losing their homes. Undeterred, and motivated by our happy readers we decided to launch a print magazine. My Grandma had given me some money. I thought what better way to get a crash course in business and publishing than to invest that $11,000 into a print magazine business. I gave us three months, and I decided win or lose, it would be glad I put the money toward my dream rather than in a bank account. But I was pushed into the decision partly because my awesome writers wanted bigger paychecks. Most of them were being paid $35 per story. Undoubtedly they deserved more, but I had little hope for our success.
But thanks some hardcore tenacity and lots of very long days, by our third month, instead of going out of business, we tripled our gross revenue and doubled our advertisers, page count and circulation!
How did we do it? It was largely through the support of Utah’s Breweries, especially Greg Schiff, Will Hamill, and the late Joe Petrus. And, I truly believe it that much of it was due to the killer content we were producing. It was inspiring stories about the tenacity of workers who had been laid off, who were finding new ways to make ends meet. We wrote about a laid off chef who found a niche foraging mushrooms in the Uinta Wilderness; We wrote about an out-of-work contractor who found he could sell wooden bowls that had once been trees the city had to remove. They were amazing, these people were inspiring.
I ditched the idea of producing videos and went straight into print journalism—the kind you find in quality magazines between the ads. It turns out that if you produce a magazine with great content, one that people want to pick up and read because it has great stories about local entrepreneurs, farmers, and community builders, you will also attract advertisers and readers. Best of all, you can make money.
Well, sort of. My pay increased from $4 per hour the year before, to around $12 per hour. But how many people can say they tripled their salary during the Great Recession?
And the rest, as they say, is history. A history full of great stories that our readers came to appreciate and our awesome advertisers supported with their ad dollars. A big THANKS to all of you!
In the past month we have compiled some of our favorite stories from years past. It has been extremely hard to pare these few stories down from a panoply of insightful stories published over 10 years. In fact, it was so hard that we decided to include the rest in a Best of Utah Stories book. It is a compendium of 34 amazing stories, and if you buy it, not only will you get a fantastic book, but you will help us to produce quality Utah Stories content for years to come, and the first 200 sold copies will be signed.
Thanks to you, our readers, for picking up Utah Stories each month, and for patronizing the local entrepreneurs and small business owners who support us with their advertising dollars. Thanks too, for allowing a kid who had a dream to escape the pallid glow of a computer screen and see the world; to get out and produce authentic local journalism.
Thanks to the support of Golda, Keeks, Louie. and all the amazing writers over the years. And thanks especially to you, our readers! If you want to read another 34 stories like the one we will be publishing this month, buy our book. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter and we will inform you as soon as copies are available. We are shooting for early June.