I Can Has Cheezburger: Ben Huh

This is the second post in a series about a class trip to visit various newsrooms in Seattle. 

On our first day in Seattle, we arrive at the hotel jet lagged and wired on coffee.

We’re scheduled to meet with Ben Huh, digital entrepreneur and CEO of Cheezburger, the network of websites (single-handedly?) responsible for the internet’s infatuation with cats.

Cheezburger is the meme center of the internet. Huh helped start Circa, voted the best app of 2013 on both Android and iOS. He’s a legend, the kind of journalism entrepreneur we idolize.

So imagine our surprise when we cruise into Cheezburger’s headquarters and discover a half-empty office, well decorated but lightly staffed. We’re led into a conference room.

And imagine our surprise when Huh, about to go on vacation, comes into the room and gives us a frank explanation of his company and his industry. He’s wearing his standard circular glasses and speaks like a West-Coast techie.

One expects a man who runs a company called Cheezburger to be cheerful. However, his demeanor is grave, in stark contrast to the hand-painted memes hung throughout the office.

We do introductions and he launches into a short history of his career, from founding a tech company to his biggest break as a journalist. Soon the conversation turns to entrepreneurship.

“The best part about being an entrepreneur,” he says, “Is that somebody else pays you to learn how to start a business.”

At first his speech is inspiring, but soon he starts dumping realities. Journalism entrepreneurs – somebody asked a question about them – face a harsh and brutal reality.

“There’s a race in journalism and media to find the next hot thing,” Huh says. “By the time something gets big, nobody cares.”

Posed with a question about the newspaper industry, Huh speaks boldly.

Joint Operating Agreements were the worst thing to ever happen to news,” he says. “They were essentially monopolies that propped up voices. Now we’re seeing the natural defenses of a regional monopoly falling apart.”

He’s of course referencing The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer, two more locations we’ll visit later on the tour.

Even though it took a while to get profitable, and he had to lay off 24 employees, Huh doesn’t advise us to avoid entrepreneurship.

“People often talk about the ‘serial entrepreneur.’ It’s not about having ideas, it’s about a mindset. There’s no real value in an idea – ideas are worthless. The challenge is building something real. Don’t hold on to an idea like it’s a secret: the more people you tell about your idea, the better it will get.”

We leave Cheezburger disoriented. Was that a newsroom? Was the morbidly realistic Ben Huh the kind of journalist we’d all end up being? Is Cheezburger a success story or not? Why did we even visit?

Our professor Marty Steffens, in what I would call extreme wisdom, offers no opinions on Cheezburger or any other newsroom. She instead cheerfully offers the name of a good seafood restaurant downtown. We wander through the afternoon rain.

What is this trip about, exactly?

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