Memoire Writing

Through Media to the Self

What I learned launching, and landing, a media startup.

Part 4

The First THRU Crew

From a broad view, we did tremendous work. On top of the original hundred or so posts that came from my previous blogs, THRU published at least an additional 300 posts: original stories, poems, podcasts, videos, photo spreads, and more. We didn’t cater to short attention spans, either. Our content was longer and more self-reflective than most publications. The only comparison that I knew of was friend Vivian Hua’s Redefine Magazine, from whom I drew some degree of inspiration.

When I get excited about a project, I talk about it with everyone. I will put out craigslist ads, I will go to meetups, or seek out synchronicity in the daily process of living. I met Jen Scholten and Estevan Munoz in that process. Estevan was a desk clerk at the Videorama store where I delivered The Portland Mercury.

Jen replied to a craigslist post. I invited her to a Future Talk meetup at the New Relic offices and we talked there. Both were young, new to Portland, seeking adventure and experience. Jen was ready to be our first photographer. She also liked writing and experimenting with graphic design, and frankly, she jumped in anywhere she could. She believed in our mission a lot.

Estevan also had photographic chops, but he dreamed of filmmaking, and writing, at this point in his life. He was just twenty. He came over for meetings and we’d joke about corrupting the youth because we let him have a beer. This all began late in 2014.

Kate, Estevan, and Jen with myself en route to Bernie Sanders Rally 2015

Estevan and Jen were there for the Ambit period and they were already the nucleus of my team when we rebranded as THRU. They are all over the Indiegogo video.

After THRU dropped, some new pivotal collaborators came along, including Forrest Brennan and Joe Jatcko. They brought credentials that informed Kate and myself, further improving our standards. They got to work on bringing video to the magazine.

Launching THRU coincided with the peak of the migration years to the formerly overlooked Pacific northwest city of Portland. Kate and I noticed quickly that all of our recruits were new migrants. Lots of hard working, creative, intelligent people flocked to the city from everywhere. I was positioned well to take advantage of this influx, and THRU needed a diverse list of contributors if we wanted to be relevant, so we cast a wide net.

People believed in the magazine, but most importantly they also believed in themselves. They had a lot of opportunity to discover the city, study the arts, and refine their professional focus in life by putting their name on some content to build their following, and to actually go out and network with people.

We also got “lavish” treatment as press. Opening night for the theatre is traditionally a catered party with free drinks. The face value of most tickets would be out of our price range. We had access to events every day of the week, far too many to cover. We would leave it up to writers to cover what they wanted to, although we nudged folks in certain directions, Kate and I, based on who we felt would best relate to a given event.

In the same way that I enjoyed myself at SXSW and other festivals, and wrote subjectively, I encouraged everyone to enjoy themselves and be as honest as possible about their experience. So we approached everything that way. That voice was innocent, surely naive, but it was experimental, and plenty of people enjoyed that.

Kate and I developed a process that we believed encouraged the progress of both our contributors and ourselves. As we tightened up our editorial standards beyond just grammar and style, we struck a fine line between a verifiable objective claim versus unverifiable subjective claim and worked hard to defend that line, to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard of journalism than the corporate media ever would.

But something had to go wrong. Otherwise this memoire would be premature. I would still be building this empire. So let’s look at that. Everyone discovered that I could be a dictator in some way — not proud of that.

As creative freedom goes, we always got credit from our contributors for being good to work with. From a managerial standpoint, most people are too polite to push me when I’m not being open to their ideas. They want to trust that I know what I’m doing with my vision. When it came time to admit my failures and adjust my attitude, it always came a day late and a buck short, quite literally.

When I let go of my four-year running contract with The Portland Mercury, I barely had enough reserve funds to live on, according to how I budget today. Back then, I felt okay having enough money for just one month of rent and bills.

I responded best to pressure, back then. If I pressured myself financially to find revenue, I would do it. I found scraps of freelance work and eBay sales.

Only this is, it wasn’t true. That is a common self-delusion. Objectively speaking, I was frequently abandoning ship because finances became untenable.

My SNAP benefits and Oregon Health Plan were the true sponsor of THRU. That always kept me alive. If everyone was as engaged in their community as I was while on public assistance, then the universal basic income would be a good program.

Kate moved into the penthouse with me and that stretched my money. She was only working part time with a cocktail catering company. We spent most of our time generating content for the magazine. I was so accustomed to poverty that I could cope with our situation just fine. I know how to milk every dollar. She was not used to that. Although she is not an expensive kind of person, she cannot relax on the razor’s edge.

Kate eventually picked up another serving/bartending job and suddenly she didn’t have the energy that she used to have for the magazine or the weekends free to see premieres. I spent all my time preparing for a THRU launch as my bottom dollar got closer and closer.

As I mentioned in the previous section, I had a big goal in mind to raise the capital to pay for my time to market the magazine. We gained a good $1,800, comparable to my peers and their media projects, but it fell short of the money that would have covered my time in the work of marketing the magazine.

She filled her coffers and quit the restaurant. My income flattened out at the end of summer, and the Indiegogo provided no extra money to leverage, and I became desperate for a solution.

When the rent went up and repair issues with the place got frustrating, I wanted to move out. Kate would later express regret for that. She should have demanded I get a job. But we put in notice.

I found a housesitting gig from sound designer Christi Denton in the month of October. She and her partner have a second home in Paris and they like having someone in the house when they stay there. They extended the trip for two weeks, time we sorely needed.

My goal was to fix Rudy the Dasher (my old Volkswagen) in preparation for the annual road trip to Tucson. After the project went past schedule and over budget, it still wasn’t safe enough for the planned holiday road trip. We had to rent a car, so I was officially broke. We got by because my folks floated a few hundred dollars to assist with the rental car. I got some ride shares on Craigslist together to cover most of the gas. Thankfully, I had my musician network to host through California as well.

We wrote on the road, finding stories at stops. I got podcast interviews too. We visited Tucson’s museum of modern art, generating a nice photo spread. Kate walked around Vegas and wrote a narrative about the city. Meanwhile, we continued to assign work to contributors and edit from afar.

Our people rooted for our romantic pursuit of love and independent media. But this was all before the bottom dropped out, our fragile relationship and my flawed leadership became more apparent.

Back in Portland, at the start of December, Kate found another housesitting gig for us with friends of hers, in Kenton.

Luck would have it that some old St. Johns friends of mine had up for rent a full size vintage Airstream trailer in their yard, cheap, waiving the deposit for us. We moved in over there, right after the gig.

We had to chop wood for our stove. We both enjoyed chopping wood. I was happy to be there. We managed to reduce housing costs dramatically. We felt good for a minute, but then I continued to flounder in raising more than the money to meet the razor’s edge every month. Believe it or not, I turned down a job because the pay and the company were simply uninspiring. I had no extra money. No prospects. I was nuts.

By the fire pit on Christmas Day.

At the end of December, just days after Christmas, our storage unit was broken into. They picked up some valuable office equipment, Kate’s bicycle, the title to my car, professional audio gear, and worst of all my hard drives. The police didn’t recover anything.

I had almost all of the data backed up on a single Apple Time Machine. I kept that unit in the trailer, but the irreplaceable loss was the entire InterArts digital archive. I lost almost all of the multimedia content taken from every No.Fest and Cathedral Park Jazz Festival while I was director. It was contained on a single external hard drive — the only disc not backed up. That really upsets me to this day.

In January of 2016, Kate split. I don’t blame her. I was flat broke, not taking jobs, and we had just been robbed. I am frustrating to deal with. The whole situation was taxing on her, on us. It wasn’t where we lived, she liked the cozy trailer and chopping wood for heat. My attitude should have been much different at the time.

When she left, I plunged into a depression. I spent my last dollar on pot and felt better. I got back to the hustle.

My friends with the trailer accepted some website work in trade for rent until I found a job. Sadly we never even finished the website because they never launched the company. I find that you keep peoples’ patience and respect when you demonstrate you’re pushing yourself out of your situation and that you have something to offer.

Kate continued to help with THRU as Chief Editor, even as we tried to deal with our broken relationship. Even while our personal lives were a mess, the publication continued on pretty much as normal. It’s all about keeping up appearances. I recently posted a video called “Thru the Fan” that is kind of brilliant as an inside joke because it satirizes not just celebrity interviews ala Between Two Ferns, but also the ragged situation that was THRU.

“Thru the Fan” was a mock interview for a mockumentary about a real movie.

In February, the storm ended and a path forward began to clear. First, I landed a contract to fulfill residential AV and IT services from a mobile app situation, with payouts ranging from $25 to 100 per hour, depending on work outcomes. 

Within the same month, I was hired by the food and beverage serving company at Providence Park for Portland Timbers and Thorns matches, serving VIP seats at the field level, and special events. It was a fun gig. It was really easy to schedule around, having a full season of games on the calendar by the day I was hired.

In March, I moved back to the farm where I had lived on and off since 2007. It was a sweet deal, and unbelievably cheap. I just had to contend with the nutty farmer-landlord.

Kate and I started another outreach campaign in March and a new round of contributors joined the fray. Housing was secure but temporary, for both of us. I felt that a commercial space might be the best bang for our buck, in case we ever needed stop-gap housing, not to mention safer storage space.

Kate and I were sitting together with laptops at the Dragonfly Cafe in Northwest Portland, mid-April. I was searching Craigslist for commercial space in the city. I saw a place close to Glisan north of 405 for cheap, so we jumped into Rudy and checked it out. The next day, we took possession of the space.

We had officially bounced back from rock bottom. I cannot say we escaped the cycle, however, as the rollercoaster of poverty continued through another loop, one more time. Also, I grew less idealistic and more stressed over time, lashing out at the friends that launched the magazine with me, burning bridges as quickly as I built them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.