Rambling With Resnick
Flying under the radar
What's happening to all the photo dot-coms? Here's some inside dirt.
In case you haven't noticed, it's been a little strange in dot-com land lately. Web sites that were the hot new destinations last year are roadkill today. Or, go to your favorite site and you get automatically transferred to some strange place you've never heard of, or that you've visited before and had no intention to return.
I have had the good fortune to have worked for two websites that went out of business after I'd left. The first, a site which I ballyhooed a bit in this space at the time I started, was PhotoHighway.com. The original idea sounded like a good idea at the time: a photographic community with infinite photo-related discussions, on-line albums (this is before there were three dozen sites doing it), a full-fledged, weekly-updated photo enthusiast magazine, a constant flow of photo galleries and exhibits, live chat events with famous photographers,
I joined PhotoHighway's staff, first part-time for three months before launch and then full-time for almost a full year after that. We had a team of experienced photography writers on the East Coast, and there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm when we launched the site in June 1999.
So what happened to PhotoHighway?
The first inkling that things were not going well came when I visited the site a few days after it launched. There were numerous technical problems with the site which were to have been fixed by launch time, but most of them were still there. The most aggregious of these was also the most basic: the site was VERY slow. Sometimes, it would take 30-45 seconds for the home page to load. And this was on a DSL line! Site speed became an ongoing issue, and was never fully resolved.
I won't bore you with the whole story; let's just say that the ongoing technical glitches, dizzying changes in business plans and constantly-changing management on the West Coast proved that there was a serious brain drain going on in Silicon Valley. Eventually, Ixla, PhotoHighway's Melbourne-based parent company, fell victim to the falling Australian Dollar and cut staff. I survived that cut, but when I was offered a job at eTown.com a few weeks later, I jumped.
Etown also seemed like a good idea. Their plan went something like this: serve up unbiased hands-on reports of consumer products, add a dash of community and flavor it with some nifty flash animations that show you how to use the products. After floundering for many years with this idea, Etown was finally taking off. It had venture capital, having recently received multi-millions from Best Buy, the consumer electronics chain.
I was hired to start a photo equipment section, and threw myself into it happily. Finally, a company with money in the bank! Sure, most of the cameras I was writing about were point and shoots and low-end digital, but hey, they paid well and I could work mostly at home.
But as summer 2000 turned to fall, I watched news reports showing Best Buy making less than stellar earnings, and was somewhat concerned. Then the company hired a "Business Consultant". Busted! Next thing I knew, there was talk of finding ways to increase editors' and writers' productivity, and pressure was being put on me to take the long commute into New York on a daily basis.
I was pondering all of this when I got a call to join the staff of a print magazine that has been around for over 60 years, and decided, after a mere 5 months, to jump again. That was in November.
In mid-January, PhotoHighway.com fired its entire staff with the exception of its CEO, effectively ceasing operations. On February 14--Valentine's Day--eTown informed its 300-person staff that the company was broke, and this was their last day. They were told to pack up their stuff, send back products they were writing about, and go look for work elsewhere. And by the way...as of this writing eTown has not paid its staff for its last two weeks of work. That's cold, man.
Meanwhile, Black & White World continues. Maybe we don't update as often as I'd like to, but we're here. How did we do it? How did we survive the first round of the photo dot-com shake-out? By flying under the radar. We aren't shooting for some pie-in-the-sky profit (although I do hope to cover costs through our affiliate programs: if you need a photo poster I do encourage you to patronize our gallery, and we will soon have a new retail partner for cameras, darkroom equipment and the like). We have kept costs very low. And yet, our numbers are better than Photohighway's ever were: we get 30,000 unique visitors a month, have an enthusiastic, active community (with technical thanks to Phil Greenspun), and continue to feature great photography through our top ten List.
And now we're a team! B&W World was basically a one-man show for its first five years. Now with Joe Gioia and Ed Buffaloe voluntarily handling the List and Community respectively, the job of keeping the site fresh is spread around. But we still need more. My next phase for B&W World is to resume posting how-to B&W articles, as well as product reviews. I have been speaking with writers who are as committed to B&W photography as I am and are willing to contribute to this site for the glory only. Look for new content int he coming months, and if you feel you can contribute something, please let me know at email@example.com.
How do I plan to keep B&W World going and surviving the current dot-com implosion? I won't quit my day job.
About the author: Mason Resnick, the editor and publisher of Black & White World, is the managing editor of Popular Photography. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.