All Things Considered, May 7, 2007 · There are millions of home-grown Web sites out there, but only a few people actually make money off of them — people like Drew Curtis. For the past five years, he has run Fark.com as a full-time job. The site features news of the weird from around the globe. Last month, it drew 1.5 million page views a day.
So, as they say on Wall Street, how does Curtis “monetize” all that traffic? Recently, I spent a day with him, roaming around his hometown of Lexington, Ky., to see how he makes a living by aggregating goofy news.
Curtis begins his day around 7 a.m. at Common Grounds, a downtown coffee shop. He arrives in a red sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. With his receding hairline, he looks like Charlie Brown on the edge of middle age.
Over coffee, Curtis rips through hundreds of news links. While he was playing soccer and drinking beer the night before, several of his volunteer correspondents in California and Colorado sent him stories.
Curtis comes across a surefire hit for Fark’s predominantly male audience and reads the headline: “The harsh glare of flashbulbs can bring a lot of things into focus, especially nipples. Gallery of 97 transparent celebrities. Read ’em and weep.”
Curtis gives new meaning to the phrase “mobile office.” He carries his laptop everywhere. When he gets a few minutes’ break, he plops down on a staircase and continues editing.
Curtis doesn’t charge for Fark. (The name, incidentally, has no special meaning. It’s a Web site domain name he snapped up in the 1990s.) Instead, Curtis makes money through ads. Classifieds go for $40 a week. They include pitches for other Web sites on video games and entertainment news. Altogether, classifieds bring in about $40,000 a year, Curtis says.
He also has a subscription service called Total Fark. For $5 a month, subscribers get full access to all of the story submissions.
“It’s not a very compelling thing, as it turns out. Hardly anyone signed up for it,” Curtis says. “Then, later on, what happened was a mini-community formed behind it.”
That community of users began posting comments on all kinds of topics. There are now at least 2,000 Total Farkers, who generate another $120,000 a year.
The majority of the Web site’s revenues, though, come from just a few major advertisers, including Kawasaki and Old Spice.
That’s where Curtis is setting his sights for future revenue. The problem: Most big advertisers have never heard of Fark. So Curtis has written a book called It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News. Of course, that’s the same mass media on which Curtis has built his livelihood.
The book comes out at the end of this month. He hopes it will catapult him onto national talk shows, where he can brand himself and Fark.
“Now, I’ve got the license to contact Jay Leno or Fresh Air and raise the profile of the site and get advertisers to realize, ‘Hey, we really need to advertise with this guy,'” he says.
That’s why his next stop this morning is Z-103, a local rock station where he’s a weekly guest on the morning talk show. Curtis reads headlines from his site as the main hosts listen and chime in.
After scrolling around, Curtis finds this: “A local man, it looks like [in] Kansas City, wants police to pay for damage to a home he’s restoring because officers used the residence — because they thought it was vacant — for a training exercise. They kicked through the door, busted up the door jamb.”
It might sound as though Curtis is making a bundle, but he insists that his expenses are high. He pays several workers a total of up to $200,000 a year to handle his servers, do Web design and police the site.
He says he spends at least another $150,000 on lawyers for advice on contracts and libel.
And last year, Curtis says, Fark actually lost money.
On the plus side, living in suburban Lexington — where he’s had two other businesses — is a lot cheaper than living in Silicon Valley. He lives in a two-bedroom, red-brick house with his wife, Heather, and two kids. It sits next to a horse farm, and the mortgage is just $800 a month.
The modest cost of living in the bluegrass state allows Curtis to pay himself a yearly salary of $60,000.
“I keep it low,” he says. “There is more money in the bank, but I’m just waiting to get sued. It’s just a matter of time before somebody comes after us, and I don’t want to be sitting there at zero.”
Curtis says he’s built up what he calls a “war chest” of $140,000 to prepare for disaster.
Fark has allowed Curtis’ wife, Heather, to stay home with their young sons, Chance and Storm.
She says she’s thrilled by the growth of Fark, but she knows it’s fragile.
“I am definitely the worrywart, and one who is always saying, ‘We need to put more aside for our retirement; we need to put more aside for the kids’ college.’ He’s the one saying: ‘We’re doing that by investing in the business,’ ” she says while holding Chance in her arms.
She says her biggest concern is the nature of the business: Entertainment is fickle.
“People could find another site they like better and slowly disappear,” she says.
For the moment, though, Fark remains fairly popular.
Fans throw parties around the country, like one Drew Curtis recently attended in Washington, D.C. When he showed up, they mobbed him and posed for photos. Steven Hanlon, an IT worker, was among the dozens who turned out that night. He says he likes Fark because it’s a place where he can talk freely about the news of the day.
“I’m on there simply because the things you can’t say at work — you can’t have the conversations anymore — you can have it on the Internet,” Hanlon says. “It’s anonymous. You get to vent. You get to straighten out everything that’s wrong with your day.”
Curtis is now 34. He says he’d like to do this for the rest of his life, but he knows it won’t last.
So, he’s looking ahead. He says if his book sells, he might try to build a new career as an author — shifting from the world’s newest media to one of its oldest.