Last week, on the day he unveiled his newest project, I had the chance to catch up with Jon Mitchell, founder of The Daily Portal, the newest addition to a rapidly growing collection of high-quality digital magazines. Mitchell has expanded the scope of coverage from solely reporting on technology at his previous journalistic home, ReadWrite — from which he left in February to start The Daily Portal — to writing “stories about the future we’re making and what it’s doing to us.” We spoke about the stress of the perpetual news cycle, the future of publishing, and what went into building The Daily Portal.
Micah: Where are you and what are you doing right now?
Jon: Sitting at my desk at home on the big screen at the end of a monstrously good day. I’m watching Google Analytics in real-time like a junkie and replying to a bunch of wonderful messages I got today.
What is The Daily Portal and what inspired you to create it?
The Daily Portal is a virtual component of a real, physical place that I love. An artist named Harlan Emil Gruber makes strangely shaped, brightly colored, vibrating portal sculptures that he brings to Burning Man and other festivals. They’re like psychedelic gazebos with room for a bunch of people inside, and they make this electrifying rumbling sound that’s very soothing. He just leaves them out there, people wander in, and they hang out. I’ve been visiting them for years at Burning Man, but at the 2012 event, I stayed out at the portal all night a couple of times, way out in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere, just keeping company with people and getting them to tell me stories. I loved the job of portalkeeping so much that I decided to do it full-time. Then I realized I already was doing it. Journalism is totally a portalkeeper’s job. It took me about six months to figure it out, but The Daily Portal started that summer.
My little catchphrase about the site is, “Stories about the future we’re making and what it’s doing to us.” I want to write good cross-sections of life in the 21st century. It’s definitely journalistic in nature, and most of the stories will be fairly short, but they’ll be deep. Technology, art, science, design, politics, spirituality, all of it is fair game.
The Daily Portal is my prototype for a one-man web publication. It’s designed for the open web, for reader-friendliness, for saving for later, for keeping forever. It’s not a news site. I publish it in daily issues, which are collections of a few posts, rather than publishing posts constantly like a blog. The issue is the primary unit; that’s what goes out over the RSS feed. All posts belong to issues. So we had to write code for that. No one has made an easy tool for this kind of publishing because page view economics don’t support it. But that’s the point. The plan for The Daily Portal is to plan two-month seasons of coverage in advance and to crowd-fund them. That, combined with some other direct payment ideas and some events I have planned, is how I plan to support the site and myself.
How difficult was it to nail down and build the exact components and features you wanted in The Daily Portal?
It took a few months. The issue-based format appeared to me simultaneously with the idea, so that wasn’t hard. It was an ah-ha moment after a few years of watching ideas like Mule Design’s Evening Edition, Marco Arment’s The Magazine, the evolution of Pocket as a publisher data gold mine, anything that puts the reader first by giving them the best possible experience. The season format occurred to me next as a way to manage what seemed to be a lot of work.
Building it was another matter. I knew enough about the technical requirements to manage the scope of the project, and I knew what technologies I needed. I knew it needed to be all static HTML and CSS. I knew it needed to be something I could operate myself, repair myself, take apart and put back together myself. But I also quickly realized I couldn’t build it for myself the first time. I had the amazing help of some friends who saw the vision completely.
Who helped you build The Daily Portal?
My initial design meeting was with Tom Carmony of Mule Design, and he was a huge help. I worked with a designer named Brenda Lee Neigbauer at a hackathon in March who helped me think outside of literal and conceptual boxes a little better. But the site really came together when I started working with my friends Grayson Stebbins and Alex Kessinger, who just saw exactly what I was going for and knew better than I did how to get there. Grayson recommended a frequent collaborator of his, Dmitry Belitsky to come in as front-end developer and turn the pixels into code. He was awesome, and now I count him as a friend, too. All their bios and stuff are here.
Did you ever contemplate adopting a sponsorship or subscription-based funding model that so many native print and online publications seem to be heading toward?
I’m still considering lots of models. I think a diverse range of revenue streams is the key to figuring this out. There are certain kinds of sponsorships I would do, but I’d be very picky. It would have to be something that felt like is a good cause, not just a neat product or service. I think the thing that will end up sustaining the site, if it works out, is more of a pay-what-you-want membership model combined with these big crowd-funding campaigns for seasons, as well as one-time events. Maybe they’ll catch on and turn into regular events. Who knows? I can’t wait to find out.
When you left ReadWrite a few months ago, was there any trepidation in stepping out on your own?
Sure. But compared to staying in page view publishing until it falls apart? Easy choice.
Do you consider sites like The Daily Portal and Marco Arment’s The Magazine what the majority of publishing will look like in five years, or are they simply a new but pivotal cog in the wheel that is online journalism?
This is going to sound elitist, but I don’t think that quality publications will ever be the majority. I do think there will be more of them over time, because I think experiments like these are proving that there are businesses to be built around quality. But those businesses don’t have to be massive to be successful, and arguably they can’t be.
Publications that cater to the majority have to become average by definition. I don’t think massive publications of average quality are going anywhere, although the ones that don’t understand the needs of their readers will die off.
But I think the other side of the spectrum is made up of hundreds, maybe thousands of small-to-medium-sized, high-quality publications that cater their content and their businesses carefully to their own audiences. And those audiences will overlap a lot. Those are opportunities for publishers to collaborate with each other and share attention. That’s where the really interesting stuff happens, and I want to be in the middle of that.
You are a well-respected technology journalist. Will you still be covering the industry in the same tone as you did at ReadWrite, or will your voice change?
Thank you for saying so. I always thought I was kind of a hack. I was never a good fit for the tech world, at least not for the mainstream part of it. Tech is a means to an end for me. Always was. Actually, that’s kind of a good definition of technology, isn’t it? The means by which humans achieve our ends? But in The Tech World™, a geographic entity hallucinated into existence by the kind of site for which I used to write, these inventions are ends in themselves. The deals, the quarterly earnings, the hirings and firings, the acquisitions and acqui-hirings or acqui-huisitions or whatever you want to call them, all that stuff really matters to The Tech World™. It never mattered to me. So I’m not going to write those kinds of stories anymore, if that’s what you mean.
But will I remain as excited as I always have been about the world we’re making possible with globe-spanning, real-time communication and sensors and computer interfaces everywhere? Absolutely. It’s amazing and scary and wonderful, and it’s way too much to process alone. I think that’s why people spend so much of their computer time reading more about computers and what they can do with them. I just want to make sure tech writing is a force for good.
Over the last few years as technology has begun melding itself into everyday life, it could be said that technology journalism has expanded, but hasn’t evolved like the industry it covers. Did this sentiment play into your decision to extend the scope of your coverage?
When I was doing tech news, I always tried to remind people that rectangular slabs of glass wouldn’t be around forever. There’s this fervency and fascination in the tech press that I find annoying. How long do you think newspapers wrote about the miracles of the printing press? As you said, technology melds itself into everyday life. So, too, should the stories we tell about it, and they haven’t yet. I think we’re about ready for tech journalism applied to a well-rounded high-tech life, not just one spent ruminating about technology’s potential.
Do you think that the ardency and fascination with which the tech press writes about the industry it covers leads to ‘shovel-blogging’ and contributes to the burn out that many journalists experience?
No, I think the metrics by which ad-supported publications get paid drive the shovel-blogging and cause the burnout. The ardency and fascination is what keeps people shoveling. That’s what publications hire for, because without boundless enthusiasm, you can’t do this stuff.
Did the constant grind of covering the news cycle cause you to burn out?
Well, it was starting to, but I wasn’t going to let that happen. More importantly, it pissed me off. I felt like it was dead obvious to everyone in the scene that it wasn’t doing any good, but everyone just kept clocking in and doing it every day. It wasn’t helping anybody. Sometimes it was actively hurting people by getting things wrong, and one of two things happened: Either no one cared, and it disappeared, or everyone feigned outrage in a page view orgy that lasted a day, and then it disappeared. I tried pretty hard to do something other than PR-scripted product news, and some of it was fairly successful, but it never caught on. I left shovel-blogging because I was feeling ineffective.
Will The Daily Portal always be a one-man publication?
I hope to run lots of guest posts, and I love it when Jason Kottke turns the keys over to somebody else when he goes on vacation, so I’d love to do things like that from time to time. As far as actual co-pilots, I’ve considered it. It’s way too early to say how that would work. But I could see planning an epic Season 5 that could require some teamwork.
Where do you expect The Daily Portal to be one year from now?
I expect it to have a few good seasons of stories under its belt that widen my network and put me in touch with some amazing people. My goal in a year is to have The Daily Portal be something people want to bring in to collaborate on big, interesting stories and projects. If somebody’s changing the world, I want to be there helping, thinking critically, providing analysis, and getting the word out.
When did you realize that you wanted to make journalism your career of choice?
Funnily enough, it was my first concrete idea. In high school, I thought I liked to argue about politics. My friend and I started our first blog, powered by MovableType, in 2003. He let the domain expire (WiredOpinion.com. What a doofus!!), but it’s still there on the Wayback Machine.
But I had a long wander away from journalism in college. At one point, I wanted to be a rabbi. It wasn’t until after graduation that I realized I had been right the first time. My first job out of college was in education, but it was less than a year before I got started in online journalism, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
From contemplating a life as a rabbi, to becoming a buddhist with an online publication. You truly left no stone unturned in finding your calling, didn’t you?
Oh, I’ve got many more stones to turn over before I find whatever it is I’m looking for.