New online magazine called The Distance is about old businesses

Online publication featuring long-lived businesses not the only venture getting into quality content creation

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Melissa Harris

Melissa Harris (December 5, 2013)

Newspaper reporters call them evergreen stories.

Nothing described in them is occurring now or tomorrow, or happened yesterday. But the subjects are, nevertheless, intriguing.

It's a breed of story that sometimes gets lost amid today's minute-driven news cycle, and it's the kind of story Chicago entrepreneur Jason Fried is trying to resurrect with The Distance, a new online magazine his company launched last week with the help of its editor and writer, former Tribune technology reporter Wailin Wong.

Every month, the magazine will feature a business that has lasted more than 25 years. The first company is Horween Leather Co., billed as Chicago's last tannery and a producer of high-quality leather in NFL footballs and presidential footwear. Next month's story will highlight a suburban bra retailer run by a woman Fried described as "a force of nature."

"Whenever I've walked by a store or a shop or something and it says on the window, 'Since 1942' or 'Since 1965,' I always say to myself, I need to go in there," Fried said. "If it's lasting that long, it means there's something going on that's special. Yet I never seem to hear about them. Newspapers don't write about them very often because the news cycle is often driven by what's new rather than what's been around."

Fried acknowledges The Distance is "a pet project, a passion project." It's not a moneymaker for Basecamp, which is both the name of the company he leads and the name of its product, the popular project management software.

"But hopefully, it reiterates that Basecamp appreciates longevity and the drive for longevity," Fried said. "We're not going to be doing this for two years, or else we wouldn't be writing about businesses that have been doing it for 40 years. It's related in that way."

Starting a quality, online publication isn't cheap — in the six-figure range. But it's far cheaper than it was a decade or more ago when any effort in this vein would have required a printing press and postage. And Fried isn't the only Chicago executive getting into the game of quality content creation.

Here's a look at some others:

Rabbit Hole is an online lifestyle magazine from the restaurant group Element Collective, which owns Nellcote, Kinmont, Old Town Social, RM Champagne Salon and other restaurants.

"We started it with two rules for our contributors: You can't promote your own business, and you can't promote our business," said Element Collective partner Chris Dexter, regarding the stories about food, drinks, travel, music, culture, etc.

The only whiff of advertising: An Element Collective logo/link in the upper right-hand corner of every page. Dexter and business partner Chris Freeman said all they want for now is a platform where they can share their aesthetic and, in the process, learn about social media.

"Freeman and I are not digital natives," Dexter said. "We're more like digital tourists or something. We didn't get it. We didn't understand it. And from a business standpoint, we had to start to tackle it."

Research led them to conclude that asking people, including their restaurants' staff members, to write stories was of far higher value than aggregating or curating others' content. The site launched in November. And without promoting Rabbit Hole (this is their first interview on the subject), Dexter said the site is drawing about 25,000 unique visitors per month. The business case?

"They're only one click away from understanding what our company is," Dexter said.

ArtPHaire, an online contemporary art magazine from the Park Hyatt hotel chain, grew out of the company's renewed focus on art, food and wine.

"We had all this great art in our hotels, and we didn't have a program around it," said Katherine Melchior Ray, vice president of luxury brands at Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. "We had this notion: How can we sort of prove our passion around art, not only in our hotels but outside them?"

The magazine, launched In November, has since expanded its focus to include stories about design and architecture. Hyatt hired Bond Strategy and Influence to produce the site.

"We don't need everybody to know about it," Melchior Ray said. Instead, the metrics they're using to gauge success are the time spent on the site as well as the open rates of the ArtPHaire electronic newsletter.

"Our open rates have done quite well compared with some of our other Hyatt campaigns," she said. "Of course we want it to grow. But again, it's not for everybody. It's a very targeted clientele, and it's been another way to extend our reach with opinion leaders in the art community."

MAS Context, a quarterly print and online magazine from MAS Studio founder and architect Iker Gil, operates as a nonprofit.

Founded in 2009, each issue ($20 plus shipping) is organized around a single theme, such as repetition or conflict or network.

Gil said that philanthropic grants "mostly get used to cover printing costs," and the publication holds a monthly lecture series. The impetus, he said, came after he wrote a book for "a traditional publisher." Dissatisfied with the process, Gil wanted to do one on his own terms with collaborators of his own choosing.

"When I set up my practice, I felt that creating a platform for others to talk about issues was part of it," Gil said. "It was about creating something for other people to add their voices, not only within architecture, but it was a way to talk with architects, urban designers, photographers, graphic designers."

RebootIllinois.com, founded by hedge fund manager and top Republican donor Anne Dias Griffin, is a for-profit online news site featuring original opinion and aggregated news stories.

The site is managed by its chief operating officer, veteran journalist and former Daily Herald executive editor Madeleine Doubek. Although not overtly partisan, don't expect Reboot to shower praise on Gov. Pat Quinn. The premise of the site is that state government and public education are broken and need to be "rebooted."

DNAinfo.com, founded by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, is a hyperlocal news operation that focuses on neighborhoods. Started in New York, it now has more than 30 reporters and editors in Chicago, according to its website. And it has expanded into radio and a weekly print edition in Lincoln Park.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Newsletter tinyletter.com/MelissaHarris. Twitter @chiconfidential.

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