From 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao to Huffington Post

On the brink of 30, suffering from a bad immigrant hangover and feeling quite misunderstood and unhappy in my advertising tech startup job, I decided to take a small leap of faith: I started a closed Facebook group and called it “1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao” inspired by Neil Pasricha’s popular 1000 Awesome Things blog.

Until July 2012 I had been on a high speed train going from academic to career to immigration achievement and hadn’t allowed myself to put much thought to where I had grown up. In fact I was very actively running away from it; at one point I went 2 years without visiting. And yet I had a persistent nagging feeling that I was in the process of losing a lighter, funnier, healthier less anxious version of myself if I did not reconnect with my roots.

At first I only invited 20 Curaçao friends and shared a Tumblr link with 20 ideas. I defined “awesome” as “culturally curious” and gave the group a simple prompt: let’s try to get to 1000 things. Only a handful of these 20 friends actually live in Curaçao, most are in the Netherlands and US. We are in fact the brain drain (and do harbor some guilt about that). Friends invited friends and those friends invited their friends. The social format turned submissions into a fun contest: we all wanted to one up each other with our awesome ideas. Before long I was hosting a hot summer party and serving Netto’s rom berde to 200 Curaçao fans, laughing out loud at my open office desk multiple times a day.

Word about the Facebook group reached Curaçao media. So I started to feel I could give it more meaning. In September 2012 I upgraded the Tumblr to a nice Wordpress blog and launched an open Facebook Fan page. I expected to get a similar friend-of-friend-of-friend following. But the page hit 1000 fans within the first week! (Not shabby for an internet population of ~100K!) Radio journalist Maarten Schakel invited me on his Dolfijn FM show and featured me in their magazine. (1.5 years later I’d return the favor as Maarten himself ascended the ranks of awesome.)

This notoriety gave me the courage to approach Curaçao’s most prominent cultural philanthropist, Gregory Elias and his Fundashon Bon Intenshon, about a sponsorship. He was a fan. So I kept going.

At this point I had left my startup job and was traveling back and forth between Manhattan and Curaçao. My parents were very supportive. My mother even took a photography course to help me with the photos and my father mailed me several boxes of Curaçao memorabilia he had been collecting over the years. In addition to family I was able to rekindle several old childhood friendships and regain that lighter, funnier personality I had been missing.

In March 2013 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao grew into a daily column distributed in a newly launched print newspaper for tourists: Amigoe Express. Amigoe Express and a partnership with the blog Uncommon Caribbean helped me prove that the content I was creating was resonating with tourists as well as locals and diaspora. In fact, my audience consists of 1/3rd Curaçao, 1/3rd Netherlands [where many Curaçao expats live] and 1/3rd US [where not many Curaçao expats live] and the Curaçao Tourism Board (not a sponsor) even used the “Awesome Locals” concept in one of their travel blogger campaigns that year.

More than anything I’m proud of 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao’s sense of humor. Despite the most popular posts being about Food (#702 Saté ku Batata, #686. Johnny Cakes, #944. Bolo di Kashupete, #998 Pindasaus, #740. Boyo di Pan) and Sports (#586. World Cup 2014 Star Leroy Fer, #736. Tennis Champ Jean-Julien Rojer)… Baby Names OF ALL THINGS makes TWO appearances in the Top 10 most popular posts of all time. (They are hilarious and completely real.)

The best part about the work was meeting people who put their hearts into Curaçao’s creative and economic development. #658 Curaçao Cares Co-founder Deva-dee Siliee is now a friend and I think of Curaçao in terms of #703 writer Guilie Castillo’s description “Dutch, Antillean, Latin and several other passport-holders [belonging to 50 nationalities] cohabit in relative peaceful conflict, and Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and several other religions smile at each other from the doors of their places of worship.” I love that artist Ariadne Faries gave me permission to use her photographs to illustrate Curaçao’s resourceful essence in all its #nofilter glory.

Most kindred of all I found #767 Sculptor Helen Martina who has been living in the Netherlands since 1999 where she has gained creative freedom through relative anonymity. (Being the daughter of a former Prime Minister or any prominent family can be a bit stifling on a small island!)

And yet for all its familial recovery and small island virality, the project did carry financial challenges. Despite receiving a handful of sponsorships from companies who considered the uplifting project good for Curaçao from a social responsibility perspective (which is fine by me because I don’t want to serve ads), my total sponsorship$ came to the equivalent of an entry-level journalist’s salary which is quite difficult to live off in Manhattan.

So after about 1 year I decided it was time to return to my career in business but with new purpose: help solve the digital journalism monetization conundrum.

Fall 2013 around the time I joined HuffPost.

I was lucky to land a job on the business team of the Huffington Post in fall 2013. Going from a small island audience of 20,000 to some 100 million in Arianna’s orb was quite exciting. But I spent two years learning once again how immensely difficult it is to run a profitable digital news business in the age of Facebook and Twitter, small mobile screens and programmatic data-driven (as opposed to context-driven) advertising.

I found many kindred coworkers at HuffPost. Especially the folks behind the Social Impact and Good News beats who also originated a new way of selling social impact campaigns to marketers. The proudest one being Chipotle’s Food For Thought which won most industry awards in 2014.

We were riding high on idealism for about a year: maybe we could make digital journalism profitable and meaningful. But Chipotle was a dime a dozen and Facebook would soon start to make publishers pay for traffic to their sponsored posts (which sucks the profit right out of it.)

I ended up putting a ton of effort into ideating new ad-free revenue. I tried to grow passive affiliate marketing into more active commerce editorial at scale. I looked into the viability of licensing HuffPost’s editorial technology to marketers/publishers and carving out a new B2B business.

Ultimately though I was able to make HuffPost the most new revenue in old traditional ways: by negotiating better terms for automated sponsored content and setting up tiered clearing prices in its programmatic advertising inventory. Ironically both practices proliferate a less than ideal user experience: more banners and those questionable sponsored links (you know the ones with grotesque pimples and awesome cat photos.)

A necessary evil to keep the lights on we in the media industry tell ourselves but I didn’t feel good about it.

By then it was summer 2015 and HuffPost’s (then) editorial team had decided to file Trump (the candidate) in the Entertainment section in lieu of Politics. A bold liberal traffic bet meant to disqualify and mock his candidacy. All to serve banners, pre-roll videos and questionable sponsored links to pay journalists to continue to file sensational stories to drive more traffic to serve more banners, pre-roll videos and questionable sponsored links.

The fact of the matter is that if you don’t have direct traffic ideally from paid subscribers — which very few digital publishers outside of the NYT, WaPo, WSJ can command at scale — your business lives and dies by indirect traffic sourced through Facebook and Google.

I played the traffic game myself in 1000 Awesome Things About Curaçao. The people I find most meaningful (like sculptor Helen Martina) don’t get the most traffic and I wasn’t entirely surprised that my audience wasn’t buying my more liberal values around social impact and women’s rights.

The fact of the matter is people mostly care about Food, Sports and funny Baby Names :)

So if my livelihood depended on running an ad-supported website about Curaçao I would publish Food, Sports and Baby Names all day long. (Ok maybe I’d throw in some Music from time to time because #642. beloved musician Rudy Plaate pops in the Top 10 too.)

But FORGET about Art, Nature, Language, Social Impact! Forget about duo penotti cultural heroes Elis Juliana and Pater Brenneker. Forget about American entrepreneur Leonard B. Smith who hooked up Curaçao’s infrastructure and utilities.

I’d give the people what they want because I have bills to pay!

But that would only tell part of the Curaçao story which is a disservice to readers and to Curaçao. The vast majority of curiosities aside from Food/Sports/Baby Names/Music tend to have a more niche audience. And that’s not a good enough reason to exclude them because, for example, some people might be willing to pay for content about their favorite interest: Birds. Proverbs. Traditions. Superstitions. In much the same way they’d buy a book or pay to watch a movie about the topic.

But the traffic and ad game dis-incentivizes the creation of this long-tail niche content and goes counter to journalists’ calling: unbiased, impactful reporting.

I’m not ready to cower under cynicism and throw in the towel just yet. There has got to be a better way to keep the world well-informed and pay journalists a good wage because it’s dangerous to continue to undervalue journalism.

This is all to say: if you want to brainstorm new ad-free monetization models or if you know of people launching new ad-free news sites, please let me know!