Ten Things I've Learned About Running a Website on the 10th Anniversary of Pajiba
This week marks the 10th Anniversary of this site, and I'm not sure how to mark that "achievement" without sounding like the self-indulgent asshole who threw his own birthday party. But I also feel like I should say something, because 10 years is a long time both on the Internet and in the real world. Ten years ago, I wasn't married, I had no children, and I lived in an apartment in Boston. Ten years ago, there was no Buzzfeed. Or Upworthy. Or mobile apps. Or YouTube. Or Jennifer Lawrence. Ten years ago, we wrote about politics, and my hair hadn't turned prematurely grey yet.
We began 10 years ago as a three-man outfit. Me, my best friend growing up, Jeremy C. Fox (now a reporter for The Boston Globe), and his boyfriend, Ryan Lindsey. Soon we added Phillip Stephens. These were also people who were working for an Internet company I was co-running. We created the site on Microsoft Frontpage. It was ugly as sh*t. I don't remember what our first movie review was, though I remember mine was Fahrenheit 9/11. I remember Secret Window, Spider-Man 2 and The Terminal were also early reviews.
None of those guys is still with us. I haven't even spoken to Jeremy Fox in six or seven years (it's a long boring story, although I do keep up with him online). We've had a number of writers come and go, although mostly they've stayed for two or three or five or eight years. They've all meant a great deal to this site. Some have gone on to Vanity Fair or The New York Times or jobs in academia or on other sites. Some have completely disappeared. Some have left angry. One was apparently a fictional person who never existed in the first place. Some who remain and some who have gone on feel as close as family to me.
It's been an insanely fun, occasionally stressful, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding ten years.
Here are 10 things I've learned about running a site in the last decade:
1. Relentless bitchery can be fun. For a while. Then it gets exhausting, and it seeps into your worldview. Cynicism has its place, but idealism makes work -- and life -- and lot more rewarding. People also tend to want to be around you more and read your stuff more when you don't hate everything. Skepticism is healthy; constant negativity is ruinous. It's why we eventually dropped the "Scathing Reviews, Bitchy People" tagline.
2. Don't concern yourself with what other sites are doing. We did this a lot in the early years: We called out other sites over ethical concerns. We created some bad blood. It was dumb. I remember meeting another film blogger -- a big one -- who once said of us that "We were the asshole in the room, and that every profession needed one." Maybe so, but God, I didn't want it to be us anymore. We do the very best we can to abide by our own ethical principles, and what other sites do -- or sometimes have to do to remain solvent -- is their business. We're all in this together, and we're here to entertain, inform, and occasionally enlighten. The high-horse is a lonely f*cking place to be.
3. To paraphrase the Princess Bride: "Never engage in a comment war on Pajiba." With one exception (TK, who can somehow always pull it off), it's never, ever a good idea for a writer to engage in an argument in the comments. It always make us look defensive and pissy. Engaging with you guys is always great and important, as long as we're not trying to defend ourselves. We get above the fold space to make our points. If we do a clumsy job of it there, that's our own damn fault. Trying to fight a battle in the comments is pointless, because we will never win. If our argument was a good one to begin with, somebody in the comments will usually speak up on our behalf, anyway (thank you!).
4. Apologize when necessary. Over 10 years, we've made plenty of mistakes. We've said stupid things. We endeavor not to, but it happens. When it does, apologizing in the comments is helpful. If it's an egregious mistake, devote a post to it if necessary. But if there's one thing I've really come to learn, it's not to try and defend yourself, or excuse your words, or justify your actions. Apologize, and make sure the readers know that you understand why you are apologizing.
5. Be transparent. Or at least, as transparent as possible. If people hate your ads, explain to them why you have to run them, and hope they understand. Explain the situation with movie reviews. If you make changes to the site, explain to the readers why. On the other hand, personnel matters do not fall into that transparency category because those situations involve another person, whose situation is not for us to explain. So, no: We don't talk about those things.
6. Don't do syndication deals. This post should explain why.
7. Back up your site. Frequently. This was a tough lesson to learn in our second year when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seized our hard drives. We still don't understand why. We were never given an explanation. But we did lose two years of archives, which I spent three days recreating using Google caches. It was brutal.
8. Don't be greedy. This is not necessarily applicable to every site. We are not small, but we are not huge, either. Because I worked in this industry before Pajiba, and because I have experience working for bigger sites, I understand what it would take to become a huge site. It's just not us. Or it's not me. I live comfortably. I don't want for anything. I take what I need and distribute the rest. I would love to be able to distribute more, but at what personal costs? Before I started Pajiba, I had a lot more money, and I was miserable about it. Miserable about the work I had to do to obtain it, and even more miserable about the prospect of losing it. But when I finally did, it was one of the biggest reliefs I've ever felt in my life. I grew up sh*t poor, and I never want to feel defined by how much is in my bank account again.
9. Evolve -- This has been necessary throughout the years, as we transformed from a movie review site with occasional trade news round-ups into what we are today. It was necessary because it became a full-time job for me. It was necessary for the site to sustain itself. It was necessary so that we would have more to write about. But it's also important not to swing too hard into one direction. Don't make it all about the lists. Don't make it all about the think pieces. Don't make it all about the reviews, or recaps. Evolve in moderation, and hopefully your audience will evolve along with you.
10. Hire People You Like -- For me, for Pajiba, this has been the most important factor for the site during the last decade. There's something to be said for hiring professionals, or for hiring those with the strongest ability to generate page views. And we've hired "professional critics" before, and it never really seems to work out for us. It had nothing to do with them, but in order to connect with this audience, you need to understand this audience, and the people that best understand this audience are people that belong to it. So, over the years, we've mostly hired people who were readers or commenters, or friends of other writers. That's what has worked.
In order to create a community of readers, you have to create a community of writers: People who like each other. Who get along. Who rely on each other. Who become friends. And honestly, if the whole f**king thing went up in smoke tomorrow, the thing I'd be most proud of about the site is the people who have found each other through Pajiba, who have become close friends, who have relied on each other, who have hooked up, who have gotten married, who have had people to comfort them through divorce or death. Who have made each other giggle in the comments section late on a Friday night.
Every once in a while, someone will make an overture to buy this site, or offer me a full-time job that would require that I stop writing for Pajiba, but I've never seriously entertained any of those offers because I honestly don't know what I'd do without this fucking place. It's home to me, and the people who visit, or the people who write her, or the people who pass through, they are why I sleep too little to do this every day. It's my Cheers bar, and I hope I never have to turn out the lights.
Most of all, thank you all for coming to the site. Thank you for sticking around. Thank you for telling your friends. And thanks to all the writers and readers -- past and present -- who have saved my ass, who have made this place what it is, and who won't stop complaining about f**king spoilers.