(By Mikael Strandberg) The big hoo-ha among readers and media colleagues about ExplorersWeb's subscription model is starting to mellow, but questions remain. Why? Will it work? And, what's next? ExWeb's Mikael Strandberg caught up with co-founder Tina Sjogren with some hardball questions picked up from the net.
MS: I think far too few of our readers know your story before you started to climb, sail and ski to the Poles. How did you and Tom meet, for example, and what led up to this life you have today?
Tina: We met at age 20, at a friend's dorm. I thought Tom arrogant and picked a fight with him. He took the bait and we went at it for hours. The more I challenged him, the more he kicked back. I was impressed. To cut the story, some time later I needed someone with a car to help me move into my new apartment. Tom had a car and ended up moving in right along with my furniture. We have almost never been apart since. The rest of our story involves business, travel and life. Tom is the sporty guy, he competed at national level in downhill skiing, sailing and figure skating. I was the adventurous wild child.
MS: Once you set up ten rules how to survive together during hard travel, can you tell us them, please?
Tina: Well, the first rule came during a hard spell in one of our earliest business ventures. We took frustration out on each other and realized that if we weren't careful, the constant nagging could cost us our marriage in addition to the money. So we decided that we could only fight on Mondays. The rest of the week we'd simply have to take notes for the Monday "meeting." But come Monday we had run out of steam, and went out for lunch instead. The rule proved so effective to stop the daily corrosion that we used it also at our North Pole expedition, to protect our daily morale.
The other rules came from the North Pole expedition. Before we went out, everybody said we were nuts and that it couldn't work. No woman had made it unsupported and no one had made both poles so close to each other. We too doubted, but decided to take one step at a time and see how long we'd last. And then we did it. Afterwards we asked ourselves what the deciding factors had been, and these became the ten "Lessons from the Pole." One that stood out was, "don't think."
Mikael:Why have you never written a book or done a documentary about your travels?
Tina: Because we seem to keep adding new chapters every day. We just don't have the time.
Mikael:What has been hardest to deal with since you set up ExWeb and how did you manage to get through it?
Tina: The hardest has been to realize that there are sides to the human nature that are still very primitive. And to lose so many friends. A number of climbers who died wrote some of their last emails to us and I still have a hard time to deal with situations like that. I'm a classic empath I guess. And then of course all the factors surrounding fearless journalism. You really have to have a courage of a different kind when using the pen. Along with a strong trust in your ethics, and the importance of it. Not sure we will ever be through it. It's an ongoing process.
MS:How do you determine which stories you publish at ExWeb?
Tina: There's a reason why you use fighters and not news anchors to comment fighting matches. Our writers, advisors and contributors are all explorers, climbers or closely related to the community. We rely on our own experience about what we cover, and that of our friends. Adventure stories have too often been told by non-adventure journalists who'd rather be writing for The New Yorker. That poses a risk of 'show-factor' coming before the technical. With us, the rich and the famous, the royalties and the aristocrats, they all still must prove their records, and so must advertisers' athletes. The actual accomplishment is what decides our coverage.
MS:I have heard through the grape vine that none of you or the writers you have hired have a journalistic background. Does that bother you?
Tina: That's like telling Bill Gates that because he dropped out of Harvard he is not a real businessman. The academics should worry less about us and more about the polls showing that the majority of Americans say they have little or no trust in traditional media. In any case Angela actually completed journalism school, and so did Jon, so I guess the grape vine is wrong. Correne teaches English and how many books did you write again?
MS: Seven books actually. But, how do you see that ExWeb differ from traditional media?
Tina: Good journalists are hard to find no matter the media form and unfortunately, outdoor media is not the most attractive to the brightest of them. We hope to stand out in our passion for and knowledge of our field. And our editorial courage to report the truth as we see it.
MS:What is your long term goal with ExplorersWeb?
Tina: A mix between Microsoft, CNN and National Geographic (all during their pioneer years). That is using edge technology and alert journalism to expand the world's view of itself, all the way to the new horizon which is Space.
MSThroughout the years you have gained a reputation for strong ethical leadership. I think many who follow you and like ExWeb ahead of the main stream media feel a certain worry that by going commercial you might lose that. How are you going to avoid this to happen?
Tina: I can feel their pain. They'd never accept a monthly check at their job for it would corrupt them. Oh I forgot - they already do!
We have always been commercial, because we need, and deserve, to be paid for our efforts. A car without gas won't go very far, but if we were after the money alone our stories would already have looked different. Corruption proliferates in communist and capitalist systems alike. If you think something is free, look again. But money don't always create greed, just check latest story on Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia. What if we use the funds to make ExplorersWeb stronger and better?
By the way, HumanEdgeTech is sponsoring ExplorersWeb to be free for all in Nepal and Pakistan. We know that we are important there, and that to them 5 bucks represent not a latte, but a month's salary.
MS: There´s also opinions that most of ExWeb's news is re-written news from elsewhere, that it's just ExWeb's point of view and so why should one subscribe? What will a reader/subscriber get, that you won´t get from somewhere else on the net for free?
Tina: If they really, really think that, why do they come to us in the first place? The Death Lab on Everest, our coverage of David Sharp (although we were not first to report his death as someone claimed in a book), our coverage of the Nangpa La shootings (that nobody would touch at first), the K2 tragedy (killing our friends twice, in media postmortem), our regular debunking of claims such as latest Miss Oh and Stangl, Dominick Arduin's fate in her North Pole quest, the unique Everest Olympic Flame stories -- they only wish they had written them first. Afterwards that is, because at the time, they didn't have the balls (or the sources). People should subscribe so we can do more of that.
MS:Others say that it is basically a site for climbers and polar skiers, how are you going to change this image?
Tina: Nangpa La spurred emails to us from Nazi camp survivors. The Olympic Torch prompted a special report by George Patterson, hardly a climber or polar skier. Greg Mortenson uses us to get his humanitarian points across. Scientists spread their findings through us. We were among the very first to cover the teens on the oceans. We highlight women, the elders, and people from the "weird" countries such as Korea and Kazakhstan. The stories at ExplorersWeb are far from your typical climbing mag. Nature is merely a backdrop to the lessons it teaches, but you have to be there to catch them.
MS:Who do you think your average reader is?
Tina: We don't think, we know: ExplorersWeb audience
The "typical" ExWeb visitor is male, 38 years old and married. He lives in North America or Europe, has a high level of education and above average household income (on par with Wall Street Journal readers). 74% have a college degree or higher, 39% are post-graduate, 24% are Masters and 5% are Doctors. 55% have participated in an 'Expedition', defined as at least a 30 day or longer adventure. 73% go trekking at least yearly.
MS: I bet you many readers wonder how many subscribers you have picked up the first two weeks?
Tina: I promise to tell you when we reached the first million :) But I can tell you right now that we beat already in the very first days a very popular Long Island mag that got only 35 subscribers in three months.
People pay for content on Kindle and iPad, apps on the iPhone, cable, etc. What used to be called paid circulation by paper mags is now called a pay wall on the net but the concept remains the same. You get a coffee, buy a paper and sit down to read the news. Quality journalism, not the paper, is what's expensive and people understand that.
MS: Do you think the model will be successful for ExplorersWeb?
Tina: As I see it, there is no turning back. Philip Meyer estimated in his book The Vanishing Newspaper that the last reader recycles the last printed paper in April, 2040. Advertising trends support this. Media ad spending has increased in 2010, but daily newspapers are tanking and expected to level off next year at $23 billion, with revenues remaining flat through 2019. Meanwhile, internet ad spending is climbing sharply, reaching an estimated $28 billion in 2011 and more than double that - $60 billion - by 2019.
But while media users are moving from printed to digital, some fundamentals remain the same. In a 2009 study by the Online Publisher Organization users said they were more likely to believe that advertisers on media Web sites were more reputable. They felt more loyal to a particular media site rather than a more general portal or social-networking site. The feelings were related to trust the users had in the sites, showing that content and brands matter as much today as they have in the past.
As for subscription content value to advertisers, the New Media Age industry magazine told CNN that if people pay to use your site, then they'll be more loyal and engaged readers. Therefore they'll be more valuable to advertisers who'll pay more for them.
We have already seen that. Marketing exec's from big outdoor brands that we talked to at the latest OR show told us they don't advertise much right now, because they are unsure what is the right market mix. The results of our own attempts to advertise with Google and social media have been pretty bleak as well. I think we'll see a return of the New to the Old, with image branding in regular media, and direct marketing in peoples' mailboxes. Their online equivalent that is.
MS: Some say that subscriptions haven't worked for others who tried?
Tina: New York Times dropped online subscriptions in 2007 but will start them again early next year, in a model similar to ExWeb's with some content such as wire- and breaking news free but charging for the unique.
The horror stories of 90% lost readerships are changing. Even a modest 10% of NYT online readers actually represent seven times their daily print circulation. And since it became known that some of Murdoch's brave pioneers, who took the first swarm of arrows, regained up to 50% or more of their readers within six months, just about everyone is scrambling to get on the wagon from what I can see. We are only very early in the industry trend.
What they're losing in volume they hope to gain in greater value per subscriber and that's where ExWeb stands as well.
The model works only for news media with unique and well researched content which is not new either, and only fair I think. In any case, all the speculations don't matter because we have no choice.
MS:Were readers upset?
We did take some heat initially. Interestingly, the meltdown was pretty weak and lasted only a few days. Our traffic has not tanked but actually spiked a bit last week. And I think that we could even gain with time. We plan not only better coverage, but also to use online tech in new and exiting ways. Watch for our special Karakoram winter coverage coming up next month...
MS: Final question, I know you have had many Expedition plans yourselves, but so far you are stuck in the US with your ExWeb dream. Do you have any serious plans in the nearby future? Do you think, as some say, that a journalist at ExWeb has to do an Expedition every 5 years to know what he or she is talking about?
Tina: I'm writing this from an old, beat up Airstream in Nevada en route to Los Angeles. Our serious plan for the nearby future is to go to Mars, which I think should count for an expedition. Oh, I forgot -- it couldn't work! The last time I heard that was before the North Pole and about the subscriptions at ExplorersWeb.
Born in former Czechoslovakia, Tina was daughter to a single mother who in 1968 came as a political refugee to Sweden where Tina met Tom in 1980. Following extended treks around the world, the two took up climbing in 1990 and climbed Mount Everest in 1999. Tina was leader of the small expedition which fixed ropes on most of the route and included the legendary Babu Shirri Sherpa, who a few years later died in an accident on Everest camp 2. Tom and Tina skied to the South Pole in 2001/2002 and to the North Pole in 2002. The couple were unsupported and unguided, with only 37 days to recoup between their polar expeditions.
Tina was the second woman to ski unsupported to the South Pole, the first to do so to the North Pole, and the first woman to reach the Three Poles (Mount Everest, South Pole, North Pole). Tom and Tina also hold a number of records together as a couple.
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