Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 16, 2007

Newsmaker Interview: Rick Marshall

Rick Marshall is the former on-line editor at Wizard Entertainment, who was let go by the successful publications and convention-hosting company at the tail end of October. Wizard has apparently let go a number of employees in recent months, some of which are listed here. It's my understanding that Ben Morse, Kevin Mahadeo, Chris DiSanto and Mel Caylo may be former employees of a more recent vintage, in various ways, for various reasons (for example, Morse left to work at Marvel Comics).

Marshall has been blogging about the experience but he also offered to take questions. The extreme rarity of an ex-employee of a comics company willing to talk on the record will hopefully be balanced by you, the reader, against the fact that this is someone talking about a former employer, and this is a parting of ways that has not always gone smoothly. I present this as a newsmaker interview in part to make it clear that is Marshall's view on things, and ask you to keep that in mind while reading.

Still, as the story of one of comics most successful companies moving forward without perhaps a double-digit figure in terms of people working there as recently as this summer has been under-served, and the obvious importance of a story that gets into the efforts a massively successful print enterprise that grew to prominence covering superheroes must make to keep its relevance in a world where on-line publication is so important and superheroes maybe proportionally less so than ten years ago, I think Marshall's take on things to be obviously valuable and worth presenting.

As always, I'm happy to publish any and all dissenting views sent to this site regarding Marshall's views and opinions, specific or in general, and will feature such rejoinders prominently.


TOM SPURGEON: Can you give me some professional background about your work before heading to Wizard?

RICK MARSHALL: Sure! Prior to working at Wizard, I was a staffer at an alternative newsweekly (a la The Village Voice) in Albany, NY, as well as a freelance writer/editor/columnist and occasional photographer for various newspapers, magazines and trade publications. I spent a few months as a government beat writer in the State Capitol, too. Basically, I've been a jack-of-all-trades journalist for most of my career. Prior to all of that, I served as a Data Analyst for a major medical insurance company for several years -- basically a glorified liaison between the IT people, the corporate people and the staff. I only mention that because it was interesting that the writing/editing and basic journalism aspects of my career seemed far less important at Wizard then my experience at the insurance company navigating between so many different departments and their often contradicting demands.

SPURGEON: What was your job there as you saw it? As I recall, Wizard's web presence was in the low five-figure hit range back then. What do you feel were some of your successes in building the site to the level of traffic it has now?

MARSHALL: I initially applied for an Associate Editor position at Wizard that was advertised on their site. It turned out that the position had already been filled, but they never got around to updating the site. Go figure, eh? However, because of my tech background, they invited me to interview for a position as the head of their online editorial department -- one that they were still in the process of defining. I was told I'd have a small budget, and a staff that would start out small but grow as the site evolved. From what I can piece together, my job was to recruit writers and columnists for the site, to find ways to generate traffic and to basically oversee the online presence of Wizard Entertainment's editorial department as a one-man managing editor, news editor, copy/content editor, etc. So the job description was a bit ambiguous, but it seemed like an attractive challenge.

As far as successes go, the fact that the site grew from 16,000 pageviews/month to 3-4 million pageviews/month during the period I was editor is amazing, but the fact that we were able to do it without any official budget (we had to borrow from the magazines) and a staff that was getting hired and fired faster than I could remember their names made it that that much more impressive.

On the content front, I consider Wizard's recognition of webcomics to be one of my favorite success stories. My former staff writer, Brian Warmoth, also has a very active interest in webcomics, and I feel like we were able to make some great steps in giving them the recognition they deserve. We eventually turned our piecemeal coverage into a full-fledged webcomics column, and I'm very proud of that.

On another, semi-related front, I'm very proud of columns like Keith Giffen's "As If I Care..." and J.G. Jones' "52 Covers Blog." Keith was one of my favorite creators to work with, and we remain good friends now. I'm glad I could give him a soapbox to shout from, and I'm honored that he agreed to do so. J.G. Jones' blog was a column that I had a hand in conceiving and it took off better than I had ever anticipated. I handled the first few weeks myself, and Brian worked with J.G. on the rest, so J.G. became a weekly feature in our lives for an entire year. It helped that he's one of the nicest guys I'd ever met.

So to bring it all back, it's disappointing that most of the real accomplishments that come to mind were achieved despite being under the Wizard banner and not because of it. But that's how things work sometimes.

SPURGEON: Were there times during which you felt you weren't being given the resources or opportunities to do what you had been brought in to do?

MARSHALL: I guess I already answered this one, but yes, definitely. In fact, the only time in which the site seemed to be fairly stable and we weren't working crazy hours just to generate the minimum level of daily content was the period while Sean Collins was serving as Managing Editor. During that period, we had two great design people working their butts off to post stories (they've all been let go or quit since then), and we had Brian, Sean, Eric (the editor we shared with Wizard Magazine) and myself handling the rest of the site. That was the site's peak, but it only lasted a month or two at most. The rest of the time, everyone involved with the site was juggling several dozen different sets of vaguely-defined responsibilities -- few of which had anything to do with their initial job description. For example, somewhere along the line I became our primary online marketing person -- at least as far as editorial content is concerned. That was a new role for me, to say the least. In most cases, it was a matter of "If you want it done right (and quickly), do it yourself," but there is so much that needs doing to make a successful site, and so few people at Wizard who could handle the tech-oriented duties.

SPURGEON: Were there any significant conflicts with what you were trying and accomplish and those on the news magazine, convention or even retail side of the company. How were those conflicts resolved?

MARSHALL: I feel like the site provided a rude awakening for the Wizard Magazine crew. Web site tracking systems provide a very easy, clear-cut way to determine which articles people are reading, and which articles people don't bother skipping over. I don't think Wizard Magazine was ready for the cold, hard facts that this type of tracking provided. Until the site came along, Wizard Magazine was always the biggest fish in a very small fishbowl -- in this case, the world of comics news in print format. To take the analogy a step further, creating the website dumped that little bowl and its alpha-male fish into the ocean of online news. Suddenly it had to compete against other fish, and I don't think it was ready for that. For example, the Wizard Magazine crew always seemed insulted by the fact that content from the magazine rarely received as many readers on the site as the original online content we produced. From a pure traffic standpoint, stories from ToyFare Magazine clobbered Wizard Magazine stories on a regular basis, and the reaction from the Wizard Magazine side always seemed to be that the fault wasn't with the content itself, but the way in which we provided it online. It was very frustrating to present all of this data indicating that changes were necessary, and to have it ignored time and time again.

However, the most prominent conflict was always the traffic-vs-political content issue. From the start, my marching orders were always "More Traffic" and "More Readers." But it became painfully obvious that many people at the company assumed that the most popular stories would always be the stories about the companies who buy the most space at conventions or advertise the most on the site -- that we could MAKE a topic popular simply by posting it. It was an ideology framed around the notion that "it's interesting because we tell you it's interesting."

That wasn't the case, though. I obsessively tracked the traffic for the site, and there was rarely any overlap between the people who were considered "Friends of Wizard" (yes, that was an actual term thrown around) and the types of content and subject matter that generated the most traffic. So, most of the time, we operated under a cycle of unavoidable bridge-burning and tail-chasing, with the people at the higher levels of the company alternating between complaints of "Why didn't you give my friend/client a front-page story?" and "Why weren't the numbers as high today as they were yesterday?" It was a Catch-22 situation.

The thing is, no matter how much I tried to explain these very fundamental problems, I don't think they ever really penetrated. I wish I could say they were resolved, but in the end, I think the resolution they arrived at was to kill the messenger.

SPURGEON: Can you provide any insight into Wizard's abortive re-design attempt and abortive re-launch from a while back, exactly what happened and why it didn't work?

MARSHALL: Have you ever played that game "Operator," in which you pass a message down a line of people and see how it's been mangled by the time it reaches the end? That sums up the relaunch. Basically, I sat down with the redesign company at the beginning of the project and discussed the editorial needs for the new site, and several months later I was shown a preliminary, semi-functional version of the new site. When I saw it, I was horrified. Not only did it lack 95 percent of what we asked for, but I was told that we would have to force our current site's database to fit into this new site's limited architecture. I still don't understand why the decision was made to push forward with this site, to be honest. So we worked around the clock changing our current database of content to fit into the very limited constraints of the redesigned site.

My only guess is that the entire fiasco had something to do with the decision to have the least tech-savvy people in the company play the most important roles in the process. Over time, the flow of information went through multiple PR people before it ever reached the people who would be working on the site the most. It was an operational nightmare. They eventually decided to scrap the new site and move on. There's another redesign happening down the road, and while this one has involved more of the right people, I think there are too many other issues that they'll need to deal with before it will have a chance against Newsarama, IGN or other sites out there.

SPURGEON: Is it true you were asked to train a replacement from the magazine side of things? Do you feel like this person was adequately prepared to take over the enterprise as you had established it?

MARSHALL: I was never actually asked to train my replacement. Unfortunately, that's not how Wizard does things. I was told at one point, just after Sean Collins was let go, that I was getting a new supervisor. This struck me as a bit odd, as I had always answered directly to the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of the company, just like the Editors of each of the magazines. I was told that my new supervisor's job was to absorb some of the duties related to relationships with companies like Marvel Comics, and that his role was more to alleviate duties outside of the day-to-day managing of the site than to take a hands-on role in the Online Dept. My new supervisor had served as the Editor for the now-defunct InQuest Magazine and had a key role in creating those "How To" hardcover books that Wizard publishes and sells. This also struck me as a strange pairing, as he didn't have a stellar track record thus far, he had very little knowledge about the site (he admitted early on that he rarely looked at it), even less knowledge about the technology and systems that made the site possible. That, and he was only in the office one day each week. I remember him telling me early on that the one element we should be providing more of on the site is excerpts from the "How To" books -- because he believed that people were hungry for that type of thing and it would sell more books.

Then, over the next few weeks, I started receiving requests from him to explain more and more of the day-to-day aspects of running the site. He wanted all of my account information, and began asking the remaining online staff a lot of questions about how things run when I'm not around. So the writing was on the wall, really. I wasn't all that surprised when I started receiving calls from companies and freelancers who were confused when I answered my phone. They would ask for my supervisor, I'd tell them they had the wrong extension, and they would tell me that they were told to contact "the new Online Editor" by the Wizard Magazine crew and assumed this was his extension. This scenario happened quite a bit in the last few days before I was let go.

SPURGEON: Were you a given a reason why you were let go?

MARSHALL: The official line was "Your vision for the site no longer coincides with ours." This seemed especially odd, given the fact that I received a raise just a few months earlier due to the website's success under my supervision, but that's what I was told. Now, if anyone can actually get an answer as to what their vision for the site actually is, in clear, non-ambiguous wording, let me know. I couldn't get an answer to that one in two years.

SPURGEON: What was the nature of your disagreement with Wizard over severance? Why do you feel you can speak now?

MARSHALL: When I was let go, they offered me two weeks' pay and a long agreement I would have to sign in order to receive the severance pay. These terms included an agreement to provide "future cooperation" regarding any elements of the position that they request down the road, and a clause prohibiting any "disparaging remarks" about the company. I went over the agreement with several lawyers, and they all strongly advised against signing it. With their help, I drew up a counter offer, in which I placed a timeline on the "future cooperation" clause, requested that the "disparaging remarks" clause be made a mutual element, and that I receive a month's pay. According to the lawyers I consulted, as well as most labor and employment law resources, a month is pretty much the standard severance for employees who have been with a company for nearly two years -- and considering the great strides the site made under my supervision and the lack of any negative marks on my record, I was probably due more. Wizard ignored the offer, and after several weeks of prodding and tussling over the rights to the message boards and other non-proprietary elements of the site, Wizard indicated that they weren't interested in negotiating.

I declined the initial agreement, so I don't see any value in remaining silent. I firmly believe that the way a company handles it employees speaks volumes about the company itself. In this case, I feel like it's important to make people aware of the way Wizard treats its own. There are a great many people working at Wizard who are very talented and creative, but I believe that Wizard preys upon them. These talented, young people are willing to accept horribly low wages and long hours just to have a job with the products (be it toys, games, comics or anime/manga) that they love. But once the notion of "working in the comics scene" loses its appeal and they start to realize that they're worth more for their hard work, they get kicked to the curb and the next starry-eyed applicant walks through the door. Sure, this is how business works, for the most part, but with all of the talk these days about unions and such, I feel like it's important to make sure that companies who mishandle the people on their payroll are taken to task for it.

SPURGEON: What are your future plans?

MARSHALL: At the moment, I'm weighing my options. Sometimes it takes a very bad experience to develop a reliable reference point, and that's how I'm treating my time with Wizard. It provided an excellent example of a situation to avoid down the road, and it's important to know the warning signs firsthand. Many of the people who I got to know through my time at Wizard have been great since I was let go, sending me tips on job openings and, whenever possible, freelance work. It's funny how often I hear from former Wizard employees that "leaving Wizard was the best thing that ever happened to me." I'm fairly certain I'll be joining that chorus soon.

By the way, I encourage anyone interested in learning more about my experience at Wizard to contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
posted 1:30 am PST | Permalink

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