This is an interview for our “Let the People Speak” series. We will be conducting short interviews with an array of people—writers, fans, arena employees, our friends, a random guy on the street, your mom—typically about offbeat topics. Today’s interviewee is David Roth, who was just hired full-time for SB Nation, and in the past has written for Sports on Earth, The Awl, Vice, The Wall Street Journal, and GQ. Most relevant to today’s discussion, he’s also head honcho at The Classical.
However you choose to define the word, was the first eighteen months of The Classical a success?
I would say it was a success. I wouldn’t say it went the way I hoped or thought it would: we didn’t really know what we were doing.
I think we put out really good stuff. I have met a ton of writers and gotten to edit a ton of writers I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and I have gotten to read their stuff. That is fundamentally one of the things we wanted to do with The Classical.
In terms of having a business plan, we didn’t. We didn’t know. Everybody was thinking we could do this during bathroom breaks. Our business manager always had another job, and he is out of the picture. Shoals was writing as much as you could possibly write and he just had a baby. There is no way that the original idea we had—even if we had [executed] it—even if we had done it we wouldn’t have made money. No one knows how to make money. We couldn’t do the volume of posts we would’ve needed to make money: certainly not in the couple hours before bedtime and at lunch.
The conception for the site changed and the people shrunk, but I like it. If I didn’t have as much invested in it I think I would still read it. I think the writing is really good. The writers we have are the ones I want to read. That’s the successful part. The bummer part is doing this many hours for 18 months, and we originally had some payments that everybody that worked for us would get out of the Kickstarter amount. I got half of that, and it is unlikely I will ever get paid off of The Classical again. We were successful, but not successful enough.
Why is an online magazine app the next step in the evolution of The Classical? Why is it not ads, a paywall, a subscription to the site, a pay-meter or some other way to earn revenue?
We do have ads. VICE magazine’s ad thing serves our ads, except for the fact that they are blocked by some people’s browsers because of American Apparel ads.
Theoretically, if we had 12 pieces a day…All of our pieces do well traffic-wise. We could make money that way, but we can’t do 12 pieces a day. The site is me, Nick Bond and sometimes other people. It is all we can do to get several pieces up a day.
A subscription is basically the model we chose, it’s just a subscription to a monthly product, a magazine. We chose [a magazine] in part because 29th Street Publishing approached us, and they do The Awl’s app and Maura Johnston’s app and those are both beautiful, consistently good and successful on every level you want.
And I think also—I don’t know if this is just us being codgerish in some old grumpy dude way—but if you are making a product and asking somebody to pay money for it, it is weird that it is a gambit, and not the fundamentals of how stuff has worked for thousands of years. It shouldn’t be a complicated and weird thing, in terms of looking at something on a tablet or a smart phone.
The idea was we wanted there to be cool looking art. That’s something we’ve had on the site but you can only get 650 pixels across on the page. We can do 2,000 [pixels on the magazine]. The cover art for the basketball issue is by Joe Applegate, and we used a version of it on a piece that Lang Whitaker wrote about the slam dunk contest. There is so much going on in it and I am happy to run a full sized version instead of having to squint at it.
We wanted to look good, and I still like magazines. I still subscribe to a lot of them. I like the idea of waiting awhile and getting something. It’s a pretty old idea, but it seemed like the one that suited us best. I don’t think we have the cache or audience to do what Andrew Sullivan did and put up a request for funding.
So would you say the migration to the magazine app is primarily a monetary decision, or is it more of a content one?
The money aspect is there. This is the easiest way or makes the most sense for us to make the whole thing financially viable. But I think mostly it is artistic. It is a sanity-based thing, to be able to run things of the length we want to run. To give them the edits we want to give them, it helps to have time to be on a timetable more like having four weeks to put an issue out. We were running pretty serious features, and it’s a lot of editing to get this stuff up on the site every day and have it be good. I’d rather take more time with it, do an exchange of graphs with the writer instead of just rewriting it and putting it and up and saying “if you don’t like anything tell me and I’ll change it”.
How does the magazine change the type of pieces you look for or solicit?
We will have the same outlook and general perspective on stuff. We are not looking to turn into Sports Illustrated. We are each editing individually our various issues. In the issue I edited, the basketball one, we have a long piece about the relationship between
The same outlook and general perspective on stuff. We are not looking to turn into sports illustrated. In the issue I edited, the basketball one. We’re each editing individually our various issues. We have a long piece about the relationship between Blue Note Records and the Boston Celtics at the time. That is a cool piece. We could’ve run it on The Classical in three parts. It is 5800 words, it took a long time to edit. That’s the way that I would like to be able to do it. I think it has made the piece better. So it will be similar stuff. Some of it will be more reported than others. Each editor will define what each issue will sound like. Eric Nusbaum is doing a baseball one right now. He will do a different baseball issue than I would’ve done. The people still left doing editing all have their own ways of doing it, so the issues will diverse.
We ‘ve never really solicited stuff properly. There has never been submission guidelines on the site. Even The Classical email account can go a long time without being answered, which is a function of how overloaded our circuitry is. It’s also crappy and rude. If someone emails me I will email right back. That’s what we would like to organize better. Each of the issues so far has been themed around a different thing. Tim Marchman will hopefully do one about fighting, broadly defined. We are going to start putting that on the site so that people know what to pitch. That is something we need to work on accessing better. The people that read our stuff are the people that write. There are some pro writers that have pieces they couldn’t sell or want to do for a site like ours, but especially given how messed up our comment section it is, its always full of spam, it was hours a day deleting spam comments.
We need to find a way to keep the people that care about the site close to the site. Not because it is our road to riches, I don’t think that’s there, but because those people are awesome and the site isn’t interesting if we don’t have cool people reading it and contributing to it. There needs to be a way to keep them close so it stays fun for us.
I just had an exchange with this guy. Keith Closs was this 7’4 guy who played for the Clippers when I was in college. He looked like Jar Jar Binks. A dominant college shot blocker, he had substance abuse problems. He didn’t really last very long. But he has had an interesting post-NBA life. He has got clean and is a big advocate for AA type stuff and he is still playing. He’s in China. He’s an amazing Twitter follow. He’s tweeting this weird shit for this tour he’s on in China, people playing violin on the court. He is getting pictures taken in restaurants. A guy said he went to like 10 AA meetings with Keith Class. I’d love to follow-up up on that. I would run that shit twice. I would take my own stuff out and run that twice. He just sent me an @ message yesterday. We close the basketball issue yesterday. I can’t run it.