Transportation politics — especially bike and transit politics — can be fascinating stuff, especially to a transportation geek such as myself, but for most people it’s just all so much hot air. At the end of a day, to an average commuter, biker, walker, etcetera, does it really matter that so-and-so said such-and-such to so-and-so at such-and-such meeting? Does it matter to the average citizen what Fred Hansen (or now Neil McFarlane), David Bragdon, or Sam Adams has said? Doesn’t this all miss the point that, for most, transportation is about getting around, not about being a blood-sport to watch while eating popcorn?
Thinking about mostly non-auto transportation this way — as a consumer issue not a political one — is something that Michael Andersen thinks is an important but rarely undertaken endeavor. So after almost a year of toying with the idea, Andersen quit his job as a journalist at The Columbian this spring to concentrate on launching a new “10-minute newsmagazine” dedicated to the “bus, bikes, and low-car life.” Called Portland Afoot , the magazine put out its first issue this month.
Quitting a solid day job to stake it all on an untried niche publication? Some might question Andersen’s sanity, and when prompted he freely admits that they may be right. “I’m definitely crazy. But there aren’t enough crazy people in this business any more to come up with the ideas that’ll keep it alive. And I’ll be working like a dog all year to prove this crazy idea can work.”
Crazy perhaps, but Andersen has a method to his madness. In Andersen’s view, there is an increasing market in cities such as Portland for niche publications. “Regular newspapers are optimized for the 1950s distribution, with a very little [amount] of everything,” he explains. At the time, people weren’t paying for the news, they were paying for the aggregation of it in one place. The Internet has largely supplanted that role, meaning that the media have to concentrate more on producing valuable content people are actually willing to pay directly for.
Thus was born Portland Afoot, and Andersen isn’t kidding when he says it’s a “10-minute newsmagazine.” The publication feels like a small, high-quality newsletter, but unlike most of that breed it is not a haphazard collection of causes and events struggling for your attention. Instead, it’s a very graphically pleasing and efficient pub with more practical approaches to stories. A news brief about whether or not MAX will get to Clark County via the planned Columbia River Crossing, for example, includes a (thankfully shortened!) link at the end to additional information on the Portland Afoot web site about the related upcoming Metro president race. The primary feature for the inaugural issue is a ranking of TriMet’s bus lines for on-time performance, number of chair lifts, number of stops (a characteristic Andersen labels as “most hectic”), and so forth. In short, the magazine is a gem for those dependent on the non-auto transportation system, or those who are just plain transportation geeks. Subscriptions to the magazine are $14 for a year — thats about a buck per issue — and are well worth it.
Some may ask why Andersen is producing a paper publication in the age of the iPad. Andersen lists a number of reasons, including the ease of reading a paper publication, making the publication available to an audience that is both “rich and poor, young and old,” and the fact that paper publications are still a hallmark of credibility. There’s also a less tangible, more emotional appeal to a paper publication: pleasure. Says Andersen, “Getting a magazine in the mail makes me think somebody likes me. Getting an email newsletter makes me think I have something to do.”
Andersen has many ambitious plans, including filling out the Portland Afoot web site (which is a wiki) with more detailed, slightly “more wonky” content. The next issue is currently in the works, and will include an interview with famous bus driver and blogger Dan Christensen and an article on the best and worst places to sit on a MAX train. Andersen is working on stories that he hopes to break as well, noting that originating stories that matter is important to the publication.