Interview: Matt Peiken, 3-Minute Egg

by Claire Ruud

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      Matt Peiken

      Matt Peiken is the creator, producer and host of 3-Minute Egg, a daily video blog that covers the arts in the Twin Cities. Peiken's background is in more traditional arts journalism; he spent 21 years on the staffs of daily newspapers, most recently the St. Paul Pioneer Press, before becoming managing editor of the Walker Art Center's magazine in 2007. A little over a year ago, he left the Walker to start 3-Minute Egg, and produced over 170 episodes in the first season (from September to June) alone. Here, ...might be good talks with Peiken about the practicalities of running a publication like his.

      …might be good (mbg): What advice do you have for arts journalists interested in starting a project like 3-Minute Egg?

      Matt Peiken (MP): This may sound harsh, but journalists need to get over their sense of entitlement. One person in the [National Summit on Arts Journalism] forum chat room said “Soon as one of these new models offers a good salary, health care and a 401(k), I’m there.” Well, that’s not going to happen. Outside of union shops, journalists have never been well paid, and none of us get into the business for the money. In the 1980s when I started working for a weekly, my salary was $197.50 a week. In my early thirties, I made $450 a week. Yes, we need to earn money, and the work we do is valuable. But in this environment, as a journalist, you simply cannot feel you’re due a certain income from someone else.

      Another truth is that very few journalists have an entrepreneurial spirit. They want to do the work they’re comfortable doing and know that they’ll get a paycheck every two weeks. But now more than ever, you have to create your own worth and, as an individual journalist, understand where and how you can distinguish yourself in the marketplace. I firmly believe that means carving your own path outside the construct of a seemingly comfortable, salaried job with an established media source. It means establishing your unique value in the marketplace and then leveraging your position for partnerships with existing media.

      The first rule of thumb is to be local – know your geography, know your audience and make sure you can get to the stories and people you need to cover. In 2005, when I was still on staff at the Pioneer Press, I launched an online magazine called Metaphor, which covered slam poetry and spoken word nationally. I took myself to Vancouver to cover the Individual World Poetry Slam, had stories in text, video and audio and some fun features like an “Ask a Poet” advice column. It looked and worked great for about a month and a half, but I couldn’t keep sending myself all over North America to chase stories. To do the magazine in a way that would really make a difference with audiences and with the people I cover, I needed the ability to “be there” consistently. I folded the magazine because I couldn’t sustain it – not economically as much as personally.

      mbg: You were a journalist for years before you started 3-Minute Egg. What was the initial impetus behind starting your own project?

      MP: I spent 21 years on the staffs of daily newspapers—10 of them at the Pioneer Press in a fairly comfortable unionized position. But management was never really comfortable with me—they eliminated my arts beat in 2005 and eventually put me in a position that was just untenable for me, so I took a buy-out in 2007.

      I had already been percolating a variety of ideas for projects, but shortly after I left the Pioneer Press, the Walker Art Center hired me as the editor for its magazine. I thought it would be a dream job, but we were a bad match for each other. So here I was—a mid-career journalist in my mid-40s, and newspapers weren’t hiring anymore for the kinds of jobs I would take. I considered myself unemployable at that point, and I knew I had to create my own opportunity going forward.

      So I sat down with a legal notepad and wrote out all my ideas—there were 11 in all—and charted the pros and cons of each, the barriers to launching and sustaining. Some of them were pragmatic, but I wouldn’t have actually enjoyed them very much. Some seemed like a blast, but I didn’t know how I could fund them. So 3-Minute Egg was simply the winning idea—it seemed something I would enjoy doing that also had a strong business model.

      mbg: Practically, how did you get from the idea to the execution of the project?

      MP: I had two imperatives with 3-Minute Egg. To make it work, I knew I had to give it a local focus. I also knew I had to do this full-time. Everything else I’d ever done was on the side, in the hours when I wasn’t working, and 3-Minute Egg just couldn’t get the traction it needed by going that route. So once I knew what I was going to do, I asked the Walker to lay me off, so I could collect unemployment benefits. I bought a prosumer-level high-def video camera and some accessories—about $3,500 in all. I created a couple of pilot episodes even while I was at the Walker, and three weeks after leaving the museum, 3-Minute Egg became a daily video blog.

      The Twin Cities have a lot of arts coverage: two dailies, two weeklies, a few glossy monthlies that cover the arts, some blogs and online magazines and a vibrant public radio station. I knew that to make 3-Minute Egg competitive, I had to make this a daily enterprise. I didn’t think everyone, or even most people, would tune in every day, but I wanted people to know that whenever they chose to tune in, there would be something fresh there. From September 2008 to June 2009, except for holidays, I produced five videos a week—more than 170 total in my first season. The investment paid off—except financially. But now that I’ve built a reputation, it makes the money easier to come by.

      mbg: Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty stuff. What is your business model, in very specific terms?

      MP: I have a four-tiered model for financial support: Donations, grants, sponsors and what I call “presenting partnerships” with established media. All four of those tiers have sprouted, but none have caught fire. I recently won a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and I have other grant applications out there. I recently raised nearly $3,000 in a fundraiser. A local business that caters to visual artists is sponsoring all my visual arts videos this season. I have a weekly half-hour program on Twin Cities Public Television, which I cull together from the daily videos I place online, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is running one of my videos every week. Now, none of this is happening on a level that I need to keep this going, but things are happening. I’ve only been in business for one year—everything takes time—and the big question is how long I can keep going and building this business before I need to bring in more income.

      But my overhead is next to nothing. I do everything myself—shooting, editing, field production, promotion, fundraising, grant writing. I’ve had some help, especially in the fundraising and grant writing realms. But other than a graphic designer for my logo, I haven’t yet had to pay anyone. I use Wordpress for my core 3-Minute Egg site, and Facebook has been a tremendous boost for awareness and viewership, so I require very little personal tech support. I was disappointed that the NAJP Summit wrote off so-called one-man bands as unsustainable business models. I think the selection panel got hung up on that while losing sight of what a model is. Staffing isn’t a model—when I raise the kind of money that can support staff, I’ll hire staff. Meanwhile, compared to other projects, my expenses have been minuscule. I’m much more agile and able to shift direction when the currents change. At the risk of immodesty, there isn’t another project in the country like 3-Minute Egg, and I will soon be teaching a course here to help other journalists create their own versions of the Egg, in their own niches of expertise and experience.

      mbg: What are your next goals for 3-Minute Egg?

      MP: If I’m successful enough to build a sturdy financial foundation beneath 3-Minute Egg, I see myself contracting with reporters in other niches to train and equip them to do what I’m doing and produce work under the 3-Minute Egg banner—3-Minute Egg Style, 3-Minute Egg Food, 3-Minute Egg Sports. But my immediate concern is to strengthen the four legs of my business model to make the project truly sustainable. No one leg can sustain the project alone. Funding needs to grow in all four areas.

      Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.

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