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Sustainability

Quebec duo find the right formula for their Web powerhouse Add to ...

Graham Hill has been coming up with Web-based projects for 15 years, a strength he describes as taking “nothing to something.” He found his perfect professional partner in another Quebecker, Ken Rother, a businessman who ensures that tech seedlings survive.

Their first collaborative venture, www.treehugger.com, is one of the most successful environmental sites on the Web, scoring between 3.5 and 5 million unique hits and 12 to 13 million page views per month. It is also one of the top 20 sites most-linked-to by blogs.

The secret of this success? Hooking up with a hands-off, deep-pocketed corporate partner and re-inventing the journalism business.

Mr. Hill, 41, and Mr. Rother, 52, met in 1998 when both their companies – Sitewerks (Mr. Hill’s) and Mountain Lake Software (Mr. Rother’s) – were bought by Bowne International, a U.S. financial printing business that since has been swallowed by another company.

The men know the typical acquisition problems: parties who secure the deal can change, the corporate agenda changes, and soon the purchased company bears no resemblance to its former self. “Most of them don’t work,” Mr. Hill says of such purchases. The buyer often professes love and then says, “Now change,” Mr. Rother says.

Mr. Hill started TreeHugger in 2004, and when he knew he was going to sell it in 2006 he hired Mr. Rother, who agreed to take equity in lieu of a higher salary. He also promised Mr. Hill that when sold, he would ensure that TreeHugger would be “properly integrated before it was taken apart.” Discovery helped him keep that promise to steer the ship properly, with an “earn out.” That means that Discovery pays a percentage when the sale is final and a much lower percentage over three years, based on the site's continued success. This ensures that the majority equity holder (Mr. Hill) keeps a close eye on the site, which he did via Mr. Rother, who had more experience working with large companies. Although not obligated to do so, and unlike when The Huffington Post was sold and the writers received nothing, when the site was sold Mr. Hill gave the writers at TreeHugger a bonus based on the number of articles they'd written.

The Discovery Channel bought it to establish a Web presence for its new TV show, Planet Green. Mr. Rother, now vice-president in charge of digital platforms at Discovery, says keeping TreeHugger as Mr. Hill intended it wasn't difficult because “there was never a time when [Discovery]said, ‘Now change.’”

TreeHugger’s mission is to bring sustainability mainstream. The site covers the latest in green news, design solutions, eco-art and product information. It’s aspirational and, the founder hopes, inspirational, gently urging designers, scientists and everyone else to move, as Mr. Hill says, “from ‘greener’ to ‘green.’”

TreeHugger brought traffic to Discovery, and in turn Discovery did not insist TreeHugger be integrated but allowed it to stay on its own platform. This means it’s been used as a testing ground for Discovery’s new products, such as its new website about parenting, Parentables. In addition, TreeHugger benefitted from an in-house legal team and the cross-platform sale of advertising, which reduced the site’s financial strains.

In crucial ways, TreeHugger isn’t a news site. It carries a lot of stories and has fewer than a dozen editors on staff, and no formal copy editors or fact checkers. It’s full of new ideas and new products. It’s more aggregating than analysis.

Mr. Hill describes it as “a jumping off point potentially to a much deeper explanation. Not necessarily the place you’re going to go, but hopefully if we get it right, it’s the place you’re going to start.”

Bonuses are paid for popular stories. Most freelance journalist fees are based on the length and complexity of their story. TreeHugger does that, but the bonus is an incentive to writers to push traffic to their own stories, increasing the site’s overall traffic. If their tweets or blog or cross posting or links in the story successfully drive more traffic to the site, their share of the bonus money increases.

The writer also has an option to recycle stories. If she or he has written about a topic that may have re-appeared in the news recently, such as the Kyoto Agreement or hybrid cars, the old story can be plucked from the archives and given a newsy opener and a new headline and be re-posted, in the hope of catching the news cycle. There’s also a bonus for the Editor’s Pick for photography and stories that are worthy but may not be as popular.

As journalism struggles to monetize its work on the Web, TreeHugger’s sugar daddy has allowed Mr. Hill and Mr. Rother’s goal to be engaging people with what they see as the most urgent issue facing us – the preservation of the planet. As Mr. Rother says, “It’s not [just]writing a great article, it’s getting people to read it.”

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