Over the past three years, Kevin Roderick’s LA Observed has become the go-to source for links and insight about life in the Los Angeles, California not populated by stars, agents and studio executives… or wanna-be stars, agents and studio executives. Roderick, a native Angeleno, worked as a staff writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times for two decades and writes as for Los Angeles magazine in addition to publishing LA Observed, which he started in 2003.
This month, Roderick expanded his site, adding three additional blogs and a slew of contributors, shifting LA Observed from a one-man blog to an emerging community portal. Roderick answered questions about the changes in a telephone interview with OJR.
OJR: What has changed at LA Observed, and why?
Roderick: I had done LA Observed for three years as a solo practitioner. But for the last few months, I have been trying to find a way to enlarge the footprint for LA Observed a bit, in terms of being a source of original writing, and in some cases, more news and information about Los Angeles. So what I decided to do — and it’s the first of many things that I think will be coming in the near future — to open up LA Observed to contributors who I approached and asked if they would be interested in joining the blogosphere through LA Observed. And these are, for the most part, people who had not been bloggers before. But most of them are writers of some kind, or have been journalists, or otherwise have written for public consumption. But they just hadn’t been online.
OJR: It sounds a little bit like a Huffington Post model.
Roderick: Well, in a way, it might be, with some significant differences. One is that it’s focused on Los Angeles. And it’s not about politics, primarily. And it’s not just people with known names, who are venting about something that’s on their mind, or something that’s bothering them, or a political cause that they want to advocate. I’m hoping this will be more interesting than that. And I think The Huffington Post is great, actually. And it’s a great thing that they’ve created there. But there’s hundreds of people contributing there. And I think for me, it’s just a little bit loud, in that sense. It’s hard for me to parse through it, and to get a real sense of the personality of the site.
OJR: Talk a little bit about managing these new contributors. Because there is a bit of a jump to go from a one-person publication to assuming the role of the editor managing a bunch of other writers. Now, obviously, you’ve had some experience in that in the past that I assume you’re gonna be drawing upon. But, how do you see that playing out in the blog?
Roderick: Well, first of all, it’s kind of fun to be back in the editor’s seat a little bit more directly than I have been lately. But the way I’ve set this up is, the contributors are going to mostly contribute to new blogs that are kind of operating as sidebar blogs to LA Observed. All of them will have sign-on passwords to the site, and be posting themselves. I’m not editing the content of the blogs. These are meant to be contributions from people who I trust to put up on the site unedited and unfiltered, for the most part.
OJR: What’s in it for the contributors? Are they being paid? Are they getting an ad share? Is it just for the publicity? What did you use to get them on board?
Roderick: Well, they’re not being paid. And – you know, LA Observed is primarily a personal site that is supported to a limited degree by advertising and sponsors, who paid for the expenses of keeping the site up. And that will continue to be necessary, and even more so.
I went to people and said, you know, “I have this website.” All of these contributors were regular readers of LA Observed, and I essentially offered them an outlet and a place on which to come online and kind of fly their flag, in a supportive environment where they didn’t have to start their own blog from scratch.
I’ve also promised them that there will be not only no editing, but they will also retain all rights to what they write on the website. So that if they they post something that they can turn into a magazine article or a book or whatever, go for it. It’s not my property. It’s a place for them to come on and be online, rather than it’s something that I’m creating.
OJR: Is there any worry that perhaps some of them will get particularly popular, then take off and do their own thing in competition with LA Observed?
Roderick: Well, it’s not a worry, but it’s something that I hope happens. I expect that some of the contributors will develop followings, and go off and at some point spin off, and decide to go try it fully on their own. And they’ll do that with my blessing.
I think one of the experiments is to have a very experienced business journalist, Mark Lachter, the former editor of The LA Business Journal, and a former Forbes correspondent, writing about LA business every day. Well, there are no other blogs devoted to LA business. And I think he’s bringing a lot to that already. He’s only been doing it now for three days. He’d never blogged before in his life. And he really was looking for an outlet. We had had a conversation some months ago about what he was gonna do after he left The LA Business Journal. And staking a claim online was one of the things that interested him a lot.
It wouldn’t surprise me if someday down the road he becomes so successful with what he’s doing that he wants to take it up, and become his own blog. Or even his own blog empire. Who knows? And that would be fine. And then, you know, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it. But that is part of the model here. These are not employees. This is a community. And community members can come and go.
OJR: About opening up the side of the community, have you given thoughts to bringing back comments, or adding discussion boards, or doing other things that might bring readers into the community as writers and publishers as well?
Roderick: I’ve given a lot of thought to it, actually. I think there will be more opportunities for reader participation than there has been up to now. As you know, I had comments for the first year, or year and a half of the website. Just got bogged down by the spam assaults that come because of the software I used, Movable Type. And also, because the community that was forming around the comments of the website was not particularly attuned to the community that was forming around reading the website. They were different groups. And it was taking an awful lot of time to manage that side of things.
So, I cut it off at some point. I guess it was about two years ago now. I still don’t think that the software filters are far enough along that – you know, you can open up full comments on the side like this, and not have to deal with a lot of spam. And I’m not too interested in that form of reader participation, as an art form. I think there’s better ways to do it, and I hope to hit on that. We may do some kind of a hybrid of a letters page, where people can send in things they want to say about what’s on LA Observed, but they’ll have to sign their name to it. Another way to do it may be to set up some kind of free posting community of invited commenters, the way that the Gawker networks have done it. Or to set up something like Romanesko does, where he posts letters from people that are kind of screened. He actually filters his a little bit more than I might, and picks and chooses the ones that he wants. Sort of in the way that a Letters to the Editor page does at a newspaper.
If I do it, I want it to be a plus.
OJR: Let’s talk a little bit about the technological side of this. How’s that going?
Roderick: Well, I keep saying that I’m hitting the outer limits of what I know, in dealing with software and things like that. But then I keep finding I’m going a little bit farther. So, this web – LA Observed and all of these sidebars are published on Movable Type, at a discount hosting service that’s located in Wisconsin. Total Choice Hosting, which I’m pretty happy with. I anticipate – you know, the website probably outgrowing both of those things. Both Movable Type and Total Choice at some point. And I’m kind of dreading that point, of having to do any kind of major conversions. But this did involve, for me, deciding whether to create these new blogs, as separate blogs, or as essentially categories of LA Observed. And the software allows for categorization and customizing of categories. I decided to go the blog route. And it also makes them a little bit more transportable, if they break off. It’ll be easier to send them on their way. It also makes it easier for the contributors to sign on. And they all have passwords, and there is a learning curve for them, in learning how to use Movable Type. So, that’s an interesting facet of this. In that I’m dealing with people who have not been bloggers in the past. And have not been posting in any form to the Internet in a way that would make them instantly comfortable with filling out a blog form on Movable Type.
OJR: How much time have you spent training yourself on blog software, and what kind of resources have you used?
Roderick: Well, I’ve been learning it as I go along. I did read a book on how to use HTML early on, so that I felt comfortable with that. My kind of favorite for that, because of its usability, is Elizabeth Castro’s HTML for the World Wide Web. The Fifth Edition is what I have. That’s been very helpful. And then there’s also a community of websites that support users of movable type. And that has been invaluable to me. You know, that’s where I learned that you can do certain things that I didn’t know you could do. In this case, I converted what was an HTML site to PHP, which I had not done before, and had been intimidated about doing before. You know? And I realized that it will open up a number of possibilities to me that are interesting and valuable, especially with the use of scripts. And perhaps even switching from static pages to dynamically-built pages might help a little bit, in some cases. But it’s allowing me to simplify the spreading out of the website’s design onto new blogs. That’s just something I wouldn’t have known how to do six months ago. So, that’s one reason that I’m doing this now, and that I’m able to do it now.
OJR: What are some of those community sites?
Roderick: Well, the one that I tend to fall back on, it’s called Learning Movable Type, by a woman named Elise Bauer, up in the Bay Area. And she has put together just a very invaluable collection of tips, tutorials, and advice on how to both build and use and modify a Movable Type blog. And she has pointers to a number of others. Frankly, the Movable Type documentation and support you get from the creators of Movable Type is not very good. You need to have somebody translating it for you. And she does a pretty good job, for me.
There’s also support forums on the Movable Type website, where I’ve in the past asked questions.
OJR: I think one of the things that so many people like about LA Observed is that it isn’t this kind of outsider’s stereotypical view of Los Angeles, but rather something that’s far more informed by a native’s outlook. We haven’t had a major, locally-owned English language newspaper in Los Angeles for the past six years. Do you think that that’s created a void that LA Observed has stepped into? Do you think LA Observed could be as successful as it is if we still did have a locally-owned English language newspaper in this town?
Roderick: Well, you know, I don’t think the geographical location of ownership matters that much to the newspapers that we have here. I mean, none of the newspapers changed their sense of what they knew about LA when the new ownership came in. They did have some changes of editors, for instance at the LA Times, and there was kind of a rethinking of local coverage for them. Some in a good way, and some in a way that thinned things out considerably. I think LA Observed is a much different animal than any of the newspapers here, obviously. But I do think it is filling some sort of a niche for people who are looking for a very locally-oriented take on the news. Who are looking for a little bit more detail and nitty-gritty about local affairs and local events than they get in the newspapers anymore these days, which are squeezed in space. You know, the newspapers are trying to serve people across the region, the 15 million people. And I can devote my intentions to a much more narrowly-drawn group.
People tell me all the time that they used LA Observed as kind of one of their guides to deciding what’s important in the news. Having a very strong Los Angeles sensibility is appealing to a lot of people in Los Angeles. And I think that is a complaint that I hear about the newspapers, and the television stations, and even the radio stations. That they don’t feel as rooted in Los Angeles as some of the blogs do.
And then there’s other blogs doing the same thing, who are also telling the story of Los Angeles, in their own way. I think you’re gonna see more and more of that. I do think that that’s a big part of the advantage that websites and blogs have over old-style media — the ability to do things in a kind of a hyper-local way. And one of the things you’re gonna see at LA Observed is some spin-off, side blogs, I’m calling them, that are going to be focused more specifically on areas of the city.
OJR: Do you think that traditional media should have been doing more of what you’re trying to do? Not just in terms of providing the hyper-local round-up, but also getting the other voices online?
Roderick: Yes. I do think they should have, and I think it will be seen as a missed opportunity by some of the other local media outlets. I mean, if you look at The LA Times, for instance, which does have a number of blogs now, on its website. But it doesn’t have many blogs devoted to the news and public affairs and politics and gossip of Los Angeles. I guess the closest thing to that now would be the School Me blog that Bob Sipchen does, which is covering very intently the attempts by Mayor Villaraigosa to take over the school system. For a while there, Mike Hiltzik blog was touching on local affairs, but it really was a national business blog that was tending toward joining the national political blogosphere.
Not to pick on The Times. The Daily News, a paper that at least fancies itself as being more attuned to the local situation because it doesn’t have foreign bureaus, and it doesn’t have people around the country – they have a number of blogs, too. But they tend to be feature-y, and they’ve put more emphasis, as does The Times, into the Hollywood space than they do into covering just the community where their readers live. And it’s curious, because that’s a complaint leveled at both newspapers. You don’t get a sense of real Los Angeles that people live in by reading The Times or The Daily News.