Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 7, 2009

Turning a Blog into an Empire, One "-ist" at a Time

Jake Dobkin, the publisher and co-founder of Gothamist, talks about what makes a city sufficiently buzzy to blog, and the limits of hyperlocal journalism.

Joe Horton

Jake Dobkin, the co-founder of the boroughs-based blog Gothamist is a New Yorker to the core; he claims to have spent no more than ten weeks away from the Big Apple in the past thirty years. But as the publisher of the Gothamist LLC network of nine other city blogs in the States and three internationally, few can match his online influence and digital reach.

Gothamist began with the simplest of roots. Back in 2002, Dobkin and Jen Chung, a friend and fellow student at Columbia, realized their back-and-forth on Dobkin's website—often, Dobkin would post interesting links, from within the city and without, and Chung would comment on them—might have a wider audience. In short order, Gothamist's traffic was enough to begin selling ad space and paying the staff and contributors who freelanced scoops and stories. Soon links were accompanied by more original content, including reviews, advice columns, interviews, and events listings. Soon, they expanded their network to include other city-based sites; "–ists" are live domestically in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, Austin, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and internationally in Shanghai, London and Toronto.

Photo of Jake Dobkin from <a href=''>kldobkin's flickr page</a>.
"We aim for a broader audience, and try not to get distracted trying to be the coolest kids in town."

Photo of Jake Dobkin from kldobkin's flickr page.

An MBA graduate of NYU, Dobkin is a keen observer of the business of online media, but he balances his business acumen with a longstanding interest in photography, seen on his Bluejake blog and documented by WNYC's Street Shots. His subject? Anything and everything New York, of course.

In the following interview, which was conducted over e-mail and has been edited for clarity, Dobkin discusses, as perhaps only he can, the self-made spaces of blogging and digital media, including what role can be filled by city blogs like Gothamist, the whys of the "total destruction" of the mainstream media, the buzziness of the blogosphere from city to city and the differences between local and hyperlocal coverage.

Gelf Magazine: How would you describe Gothamist?

Jake Dobkin: Gothamist is a blog about New York—specifically the most interesting news, arts, and events going on in the city. We try to be a trusted, knowledgeable source of information to our readers. In the other cities, we attempt to do the same thing. From a business perspective, we try to perform our role in the most efficient way we possibly can—in order to avoid the total destruction plaguing mainstream media right now.

Gelf Magazine: From your perspective, why do we continue to see that "total destruction plaguing mainstream media?" Is there any way to stem the tide or do we have to ride it out?

Jake Dobkin: It's just a typical business model crisis. The advent of the internet destroyed the monopoly the mainstream media (MSM) held on the distribution of information, and more importantly, its monopoly on information-consuming audiences. This audience is now reading thousands of websites, and advertisers are dividing their spending between all of them. The money that's left directed to MSM cannot support the legacy cost-structure from the monopoly days, and each sector—first newspapers, then radio, then TV—are dying out in turn. The only way for any of them to survive is to radically lower their cost-structure—get rid of all those offices, fire 85 percent of their staff, reduce payroll costs for the ones who are left, shed non-core assets, etc. Essentially, if you want to survive, you'll need a cost structure much closer to the average blog networks, and not the one currently employed by the New York Times.

Gelf Magazine: Gothamist was started on a very basic idea—to keep your friends and family informed of what was going on. Once the idea grew, nationally and internationally, did you ever stop and ask yourself why this hadn't happened before?

Jake Dobkin: No, because it has happened before. We're not that different from the alt-weeklies of our parents' generation, or the daily newspapers of our grandparents' generation. The only difference is the speed of publishing, the competitiveness of the blogosphere, and the relatively lower costs of producing the content.

Gelf Magazine: When you talk about the competitiveness of the blogosphere, how does that translate to you?

Jake Dobkin: Competition is intense for stories, advertisers, and staff. Much more so than in the old days of newspapers, which had a monopoly on the advertisers and the luxury of once or twice daily printing.

Gelf Magazine: How do you grow a website, or a network of websites, purely by word-of-mouth?

Jake Dobkin: You grow a website by producing a high quantity of interesting content every day, year-in and year-out, for a very long period of time.

Gelf Magazine: If Gothamist and its sister sites are like a "friend at a party who seems to know everything about what's going on" (as co-founder Jen Chung has said), is their stature and success ultimately dependent on the hipness and accuracy of their contributors' content?

Jake Dobkin: All blogs, and all media, are only as good as their writers. But Gothamist has never tried to be the hippest source of information in the city. The market for the absolute most hip insider information is actually pretty limited—how many people ever go to this week's new secret bar in Long Island City? We aim for a broader audience, and try not to get distracted trying to be the coolest kids in town.

Gelf Magazine: Why do some cities have an -ist while some of equal size do not? Seattle and Boston have theirs, but Phoenix and Dallas don't? How do the -ists expand?

Jake Dobkin: We use a secret formula that measures the size of the city, its internet audience, the strength of the ad market, and the general buzziness of its blogosphere. Some cities make sense for us, and others don't. Now that we're in ten cities in the United States, we're much more cautious of expanding to new destinations.

Gelf Magazine: Without asking you to divulge the secret formula, how do you gauge the general buzziness of a city's blogosphere?

Jake Dobkin: Number of blogs, their editorial strength, whether they seem to be drawing ad dollars, number of comments, etc.

Gelf Magazine: And how do the –ists expand internationally? London, Shanghai, Toronto?

Jake Dobkin: Our international cities are run as franchises, so we wait for an international partner to approach us with a proposal for opening up in a new city. If their idea makes sense, we work out a franchise agreement.

Gelf Magazine: As an example, one of your LAist writers who writes about cheap food and activities around the city, says he reads LA Weekly Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold's column for inspiration. How much of hyperlocal reporting is driven by the major media outlets or established sources in that city?

Jake Dobkin: I'd say about a third of our content comes from MSM, a third from other blogs, a third from original reporting. But often, a single story can have elements of all three types of sources.

Gelf Magazine: In the -ist cities, particularly those with vibrant (or crowded) media scenes—New York, LA, London—what do you consider the role of the sites?

Jake Dobkin: I want our sites to be the leading local blog—the most trusted source of up-to-the-minute "what's going on" information in town; a metafilter that reads all of the other sources and selects what's important, and compliments that information with our own original reportage.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a sense of how much of your content is generated by people surfing at the office—manually aggregating from other online sources—and how much of it is old-fashioned "I know a guy who knows a guy?"

Jake Dobkin: We do a surprising amount of regular shoe-leather reporting on most posts—calling up sources, emailing people, sending a photographer to a location, etc.

Gelf Magazine: Writers on the Londonist site are self-ascribed "London obsessives." Does one have to be obsessive about a city to cover it on a hyperlocal level?

Jake Dobkin: None of our sites are truly hyperlocal. They're just local—focused on the most interesting stuff across the city. Very few blogs are truly hyperlocal—devoted to a neighborhood or a single block. There just isn't enough content there to attract a large audience of readers, and even if there is, the site is still too small to attract enough ad dollars to make it worth doing. And local businesses, like dry-cleaners and real-estate shops, just haven't shown the interest in local internet advertising that could make that kind of system work.
So we stick to the larger geographies—and that makes it a lot easier to find good content, readers, and advertisers. I'd much rather be obsessive about the 30 or 40 interesting stories in New York City in an average day, than try to sustain that level of enthusiasm for the stuff going on in Brooklyn, or in Park Slope.

Gelf Magazine: With the increasingly specialization of media—niche channels and networks, the much-maligned "blogosphere,"—do you think hyperlocalization is the future, or has a sizable place in the future of digital media and news?

Jake Dobkin: Like I said, I don't see hyperlocal happening in any way much bigger than it already has in the past. Neighborhoods have always had local papers, and blocks have always had block associations and block association newsletters. That work will probably shift on to the web, if it hasn't already—but it'll always remain a relatively small piece of the media landscape. Ask yourself—how much time do you really spend with your local newspaper right now? Wouldn't you rather read the New York Times or the New Yorker or Gothamist—something with a slightly wider field of coverage?

Gelf Magazine: You talk about the difference in breadth between local papers and the New York Times, New Yorker, etc. New York is fortunate in that it has a robust media landscape that can offer a great deal of coverage. But for other cities, like Seattle, for instance, with the contraction of its dailies and closure of the print Post-Intelligencer, may have a gap between very local coverage and reading the New York Times or BBC online for the big picture. Is that an ideal gap to be filled by city blogs and the -ists?

Jake Dobkin: Smaller cities afford us a real opportunity—Seattlest or Bostonist can be the best blog in town with much less work than what we need to put in New York City. But they also have challenges: less MSM to draw from, less blogs to send traffic back and forth, and a smaller population (which means less interesting stories every day). So on the whole, I think it probably evens out—more opportunities, but more challenges as well.

Joe Horton

Joe Horton is a writer based predominantly in the northern hemisphere.

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- Media
- posted on Dec 14, 09

Do you have the "ist" suffix trademarked?

- Media
- posted on Jun 11, 13
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Joe Horton is a writer based predominantly in the northern hemisphere.

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