Sucked company

Feed and Suck are the latest casualties of the dot-com downturn, but co-editor in chief Steven Johnson vows to bring them back from the dead.

Published June 8, 2001 7:04PM (EDT)

Two of the Net's oldest and best-known original content sites, Feed and Suck, ceased operations Friday when their parent company, Automatic Media, announced that it had run out of cash.

"We are effectively going into a kind of suspended animation state," said Steven Johnson, co-editor in chief of Feed. Johnson founded the site with his counterpart Stefanie Syman in May 1995. In a letter to readers, Johnson and Syman explained their financial woes and bid a "temporary farewell." "While we still very much believe that content on the web can support itself, Automatic Media is not able to succor us until we see that day," the letter said.

Sam Lipsyte, a writer and editor for the site from 1995 to 2000, said, "I think a lot of people saw it coming, but I just think it's sad. Six years later, there really is not a lot of smart writing on the Web."

At Plastic, the 4-month-old Automatic Media site, conversation will carry on. "Plastic will continue to run. That's one of the beautiful things about Plastic, it kind of runs itself at this point," said Johnson. And now it will have some help from its former employees. According to Plastic's editor in chief Joey Anuff, he and managing editor Tom Dowe will continue coordinating the site for free.

"There are a lot of people who have been working here pro bono for a while," said Anuff. "Now, I join them."

The irascible Sucksters, who gained a following by mercilessly mocking everything and everyone in a high-ironic style, heralded the news of their own cryogenic freeze with an announcement that they had "Gone Fishin" and an interview with themselves about this "vacation." Sample exchange:

Q: Is this vacation for real?
A: Real as the World Wide Web. See you soon.

Anuff, the founder of Suck, who now edits Plastic, said: "When we started Suck we didn't do it as a business. We had this rhetoric of it being a business, but that was ironic."

Johnson and a finance specialist are the two remaining employees on staff at Automatic Media -- 18 others were laid off Wednesday and Thursday with severance. He says the company is still seeking a buyer for the three content sites: "We're actively in the middle of trying to find homes for the content sites. I think they will find a home. I feel pretty confident from the initial conversations we've been having. I think it will work out."

Automatic Media's other hope is to find buyers for the software that runs Plastic's weblog format. Johnson said the company had been building the software-and-consulting business, but "we just kind of ran out of financing before we could completely see that business to fruition. We just couldn't do it with the cash we had in the bank."

The parent company formed in July 2000 as a collaboration with Advance Internet, a subsidiary of Advance Publications, the corporate parent of Condé Nast. Lycos provided additional funding.

According to Johnson, the three sites -- Plastic, Suck and Feed -- draw "just shy of a million users a month" and cost about $50,000 a month to run. While the apparent demise of Feed and Suck is sure to generate speculation about the viability of original online content, Johnson sees the Plastic model of user-generated content as the Web's future. "That's why we started Plastic. We think that's really what works on the Web. I wish that we'd had a little bit more runway to prove that's what works on the Web."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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