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Neil Morton - Shift Magazine
6.13.2001 by JP

Neil Morton is a man with a big job ahead of him. The job in question is to revive the Shift brand, which has encountered some serious difficulties in the nine years since founding editor Evan Solomon started it. The most serious of Shift’s problems came to a head last summer when funding dried up in the wake of an attempt to expand into the US. In order to save the 'zine, employees purchased it from then owner Normal Networks in exchange for a 30% pay cut, this, however, proved insufficient. By fall 2001 things were so desperate that the magazine was forced to lay-off all of its owner-employees although they continued to work pro-bono in order to release the next issue. A month later the magazine was saved: Multi-Vision Publishing Inc. purchased it and hired Morton to revive the brand. I spoke to Neil via email about the troubles he’s faced over the past year and the upcoming challenges faced by his magazine and the Net as a whole.

You're a relatively recent addition to the Shift staff, are you not? How long have you been at Shift? What were you doing before?

I've been at Shift as Editor-in-Chief since February I think. This my second go-round here, but in a different capacity this time. I was chief of copy/research (aka chief copy geek) a couple years back. I've been in the magazine industry about 5 years (did post-grad in journalism at Ryerson) -- worked as associate editor at Elm Street (women's magazine), deputy editor at Famous (in-theatre publication), co-editor of Pursuit (arts and entertainment mag), contributing editor/intern (Canadian Business), etc.. Since October 99, I have been going at MyVideoGames.com on the side as EIC/co-founder. Started that while at Shift -- seemed a natural/logical extension.

How's that been going?

MVG is a side project that's going beautifully (other than on $$$-side). It's been a terrific project for [co-founder] Steve Park and I to go at. we were nominated for a Webby award this year -- we'll try and get down to San Fran for the awards next month, and have been gettting terrific press. Whatever happens with that, it's been a monumental experience for us. A lot of hard work and sweat and tears, but no regrets.

Shift has just endured what must be the most tumultuous year of it's existence, what steps are you taking to revive a brand that was declared dead by former editor Laas Turnbull less than a year ago?

It was a tough year no doubt, but the brand is in terrific shape. Turnbull, Andy Heinztman (the former publisher), et al, did a great job of building this thing up and we're going to continue to do so with the terrific new team we have. We have fantastic new owners, Multi-Vision Publishing, who are giving us great support/autonomy. They love what we're doing, and I'm very comfortable with them, having worked at this company a few years back while at Elm Street. We're also getting tremendous support from the Shift community. They're all happy we're back. We already had a shitload of subscription signups through the sub card on our website.... we feel our mandate -- to study impact of technology on culture -- is a great niche for us and we're sticking with that. We believe in it -- our readers believe in it. We have some compelling stories coming out in next couple of issues, including The Rise and Fall of the Geeks (Summer 2001), which hits newsstands this week, and I won't give away the September cover yet but oh man...

I believe in Shift. The staff believes in Shift. The owners believe in Shift. The Shift community believes in Shift. So that's a pretty good starting point, eh? We'll be around for a long time.

The comparison of Shift to American giant Wired is inevitable, what makes Shift different?

Shift sort of occupies the territory Wired used to, before Conde Nast came along. Wired is essentially a business magazine these days and tends to take a rah-rah approach to applications/gadgets. Shift doesn't do that. We try not to buy into the hype. We look at implications of tech, not applications. I want shift to become a must-read for digital culture users (and we're all bascially digiculture users..we live and breathe it everyday). And we have provocative writers to get us there, writers like Jon Katz, Chris Turner, Matt Mckinnon, Clive Thompson. McKinnon, our senior writer, just won for Best New Writer in Canada at the recent
National Magazine Awards. He wrote our cover story on Josh Davis in our spring issue.

How can Shift deliver "Digital Culture Now!" when it arrives on my doorstep only 6 times a year? How does Shift.com help you achieve this mandate?

Shift has to continue to break new ground -- and that means not just having cutting-edge design, but also running compelling stories that really have something to say, that strike a real chord with our readers, that have a lasting impact on them..You'll see far more of that in Shift. We're going to continue to up the ante editorial-wise, be always ahead of the curve with our stuff.... Given our mandate, Shift.com is obviously a vital extension (or sister, if you will) to our magazine component. Shift.com allows us to put up great stuff from the magazinze, but we also have a lot of unique content up there -- great new sections like Consume, Filter, Random, Screen, Columns, etc., that allows us to post stuff right away that would be stale if we waited to include in the magazine. Steve Park is the new web producer of Shift and Chris Shulgan is the online editor. Both are really plugged in to what's going on out there. Both love digital culture. Shift.com and the magazine are more closely tied together than ever. They each inspire each other. They each work off each other. I love the website and recognize its value, its pertinence, to the Shift brand. We all do. The website is Essential.

In the wake of Shift's near-death experience you've reduced the number of issues from 10 to 6, why?

For now we're just going to focus on putting out 6 kickass issues a year, and we'll increase frequency if all goes well on the ads side. And things are looking quite optimistic on that front. As we all say these days, It's All Good.

Your latest issue featured an optimistic profile of Joey Anuff (suck.com, plastic.com) but last week Automatic Media fired the staff of suck.com and feed.com in order to raise enough money to keep Plastic afloat. Having recently been in a similar situation what chances do you give them for survival?

Shift almost went under for much different reasons than Feed/Suck/Plastic, which don't have a strong offline component like we do. I was devestated when I read about their demise last week. Feed/Suck are both essential sites, pioneer sites on the web. They're must-reads -- one of the 1st sites you check when you get into the office in the morning. But I think, as Feed's editor Steven Johnson said in his farewell note, that those sites are just "on ice" for now. I think they'll be back in some capacity. They have to come back -- what is the web without Suck/Feed? But it's a bitch to survive on the web these days if you're there to make coin -- certainly there's fantastic content but there's no clear revenue model. In fact, there never was a strong rev model there. As for Plastic, that has the best chance of survival of the three because they don't have to pay for their content -- they just link to the great stuff found elsewhere on the web (like, hopefully, Shift). They're more like a weblog/discussion board. And Joey Anuff is working pro bono to keep Plastic going, so they're still live and updating. Plastic will definitely find a new parent -- I predict Plastic will one day be considered one of the most influential sites on the web... It'll be right up there with Slashdot. It's the Slashdot of pop-culture, after all, and the world is made up of nothing but pop culture junkies these days.

In a recent editorial you compare May 2001 to "...95-96, the golden period of the web", referring to resurgence of DIY, artistry and creativity on the net. In the wake of the dot-com recession, will the net be able to sustain this creative energy or will the dot-coms rise anew, crushing the net's newfound vitality?

The net will sustain its creative energy, yes. There'll always be variations of Sucks/Feeds/Onions thank goodness, but for now, weblogs are the future -- it's far easier to link to content elsewhere than to have to create your own. that costs dough -- and time and editors (of course, at some point, weblogs might have to start linking to other weblogs if we run out of content sites). MyVideoGames.com has been getting free content for our entire existence, but it's been a tough haul. We won't be able to do that forever. Down the line, as the web matures, I think readers will be far more willing to pay for their online content. So we'll see nothing but paid subscribers on sites like Salon. I think people will pay for it, but the onus is on all sites to charge at once. You can't have 10% charging, and 90% giving it away for free. I think Wall Street Journal Online has a couple hundred thousand subscribers right now -- they're the future of web I think. Remember, the net is still very much in its infancy -- the net will work itself out. It will continue to get more interesting, more sophisticated, more diverse. An analogy is, think of where videogames were in the eighties and where they're at now -- games went bankrupt back in the day, but now they're the biggest thing since sliced bread. It's a multibillion dollar biz and a successful one at that. Real money will eventually be made on the net. Things will work themself out $$$-wise. and remember, there's no shame to making money -- no sell-out factor. Whoever tells you otherwise is b.s.-ing you. With $$$, Feeds and Sucks will always be with us. Without it, they won't.

What advice would you have for small Canadian sites trying to gather a readership?

Have a great niche. Get links, links and more links. Get press, press and more press. The more links and press you get, the merrier. Each link and plug you get in the media spikes your traffic, and draws more attention to
it. It's a viral thing. Some will go and never come back, others will most definitely be back -- and might even pass the word on to 10 others, or plug you on their own site. So i'm not saying prostitute yourself, but I guess I sort of am. But if you have a great product, why not get out there and draw attention to it? I mean, why else would you go on the web? Also, have a discussion board. The web is about community these days, so
you've got to have a way for your readers to interact with you and each other.

What advice would do you have for young people trying to get involved in the Net?

Don't go in it for the money -- Do it because you love the web. Going down that road would have to be a labour of love, at least for now.

Next week I'll be talking to Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) from popular web-comic Penny-Arcade.

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