After her five-year stint as a columnist in New York Times’ New Jersey section ended, Debbie Galant began to follow her father’s footsteps into the world of running a small publication. While her father was a publisher of newsletters, Galant assumed his modern day incarnation–as a blogger. At first, she blogged personally but after attending a meeting about hyperlocal blogging, she says, “the idea just clicked that here is a pretty cool opportunity.”
Along with a business partner, she launched Barista of Bloomfield Ave., a site that covers a small town in New Jersey. “I had name recognition and publisher blood,” she says. “I thought it might be better than being a freelancer—always subject to the whims of other people.”
Two years later, she has a small staff of reporters and freelancers, and a dedicated Internet server to keep pace with the site’s growing readership. Galant spoke to OJR about the challenges of running a hyperlocal site, building its credibility and making a living off the publication.
OJR: A New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann in August about blogging and citizen journalism called you “one of the most esteemed ‘hyperlocal bloggers’ in the country.” But it was a backhanded compliment. The article, “Amateur Hour,” went on to say that sites like yours amount to nothing more than a “church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up.” How do you respond to that?
Galant: Well, you know I don’t mind being part of the store of things that improve the world. I don’t consider that a terrible insult, number one. Look, we’re not changing journalism in the way that Woodward and Bernstein did necessarily, but we are a serious threat to our traditional competition in the local market. We are using the medium really well. We are working very well with small resources. And we are doing certain things that are creative and innovative. You probably saw the teardowns map and the story in The New York Times. We used Google mapping technology to show how Montclair was changing with old houses being torn down. I think that tells the readers in a creative way what’s going on and it would be harder to tell in any other way.
We’re also doing live chats with local politicians. We did a live chat with a councilman who said that the rest of the council is in cahoots and that they’ve been using patronage. He called for the ousting of the mayor and that happened on our site. We had a post on our site about someone who started going around and called our advertisers and telling them to no longer advertise with us. So obviously we are threatening the establishment enough.
And we’re doing another live chat with the county executive about another controversy. There was a movement to get rid of county government. There’s this huge controversy over the new jail that was built, and the union that runs the jail has been very much anti-local administration. A lot of tax issues in this town, so that could be very interesting, as well.
You could easily look at The New Yorker and pull out a cute little anecdote from “Talk of the Town” pieces that would be just like my piece that Lemann quoted… about kids chasing each other on move up day. There are many charming, charming pieces in The New Yorker that are equally worthy of a church bulletin. I didn’t have any shame over the anecdote he quoted. I was tickled to be mentioned in The New Yorker even though it was a left-handed compliment.
OJR: How has Baristanet evolved since the original launch?
Galant: The design has really pretty much stayed the same. But I’d say it’s bigger. There are a lot more people involved. When I started Baristanet, it was basically a one-person operation. I did have a business partner, but I did all the editorial myself. And now, there’s at least three different people doing editorial stuff. That deepens it. And a lot of it changed, we now have interactive stuff–like the teardown map.
If you go back into our archives to 2004 you’ll find stories with just a comment or two comments. Now, virtually every story we have has a dozen at a minimum. Anything with a controversy to it can easily have ninety to a hundred comments. So that definitely changes the whole personality of the site.
A lot of people interact with us by sending us either pictures or giving us tips about stories that we couldn’t have anticipated.
OJR: You have a certain amount of name recognition from your Times column. Have your contributors also acquired “name recognition?” Do people also come to Baristanet to read what these “personalities” have to say about local issues?
Galant: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Well, first of all, Liz George, my business partner and co-editor, is a professional. She freelances for the [New York] Daily News. She was less well known in New Jersey two years ago. She definitely has not only a lot of personality in her writing, but has expertise that I don’t. So she really brought a lot of knowledge of real estate and, and is also much more of a food writer than I am.
We pay Annette Batson to write a page four days a week. She doesn’t have any journalism background but actually in some ways she is a better reporter than us. She tends to pick up the phone more to follow things up. And she also has this kind of sweet personality that she just has friends all over town. So, you know, in this good cop/bad cop world, she is our good cop. No matter how controversial things get, pretty much everybody likes Annette. Her personality is not as caustic as ours is. Her voice is not as professional in terms of having a writer’s voice for years and years. We had a fourth writer, but we unfortunately came to a mutual conclusion that it wasn’t working out. She was having a lot of problems with typos and mistakes and the audience just really pounced on her. She was pretty much rejected by readers because of all the mistakes.
OJR: That’s interesting because a lot of times when people think about blogs, they think of free flowing copy–that it’s okay to have mistakes and typos–but here you have readers pouncing.
OJR: Are people expecting something different from blogs now? Are the standards evolving?
Galant: Well, I don’t think they think of us so much as a blog. I think they think of us as sort of a professional product. We don’t necessarily carry the banner of journalism to feel like we have to get one quote from the pro guy and one quote from the con guy. That’s what journalists are trained to do. We are much more… shooting from the hip and smart-alecky. We’re more like the front of the book in Newsweek or like those sly Entertainment Weekly-type magazines.
But what people have come to expect is a certain kind of professional polish. So while we’re not pretending to be completely objective–we do have a point of view–there is a certain amount of professional polish that they do expect from us and if they don’t get it they feel cheated.
That’s one of the things that’s been really interesting about this and has surprised us is how much people come to take ownership of the product. They are not paying a cent for this unless they are an advertiser and yet they get really mad if you make any mistake, if you make a typo, if you don’t cover the blackout that was in their neighborhood last night. They expect full coverage in your style and at your level and all the time. They are pretty demanding.
OJR: So the role of the professional journalist continues online…
Galant: The journalism really kicks in for us when there’s some emergency. Our shining hours have been during fires and this microburst last summer that was just like a tornado and that’s when we utilized the medium really well. We get normally like 5,000 to 6,000 visits a day but after the microburst hit overnight and hundreds of old, big trees fell down, and the power was out over half the area, we had ten thousand hits and we almost doubled the number of hits the next day.
And the local newspaper surprisingly enough, even though they were out reporting it and even though they have a website, they didn’t use that material and saved everything for their newspaper on Thursday–which was two-and-a-half days after everything happened. And so we just really felt like we completely kicked their butts.
OJR: You’re using blogging as a publishing platform…
Galant: Yeah, as a publishing platform but with the commenting and with the interactive features. It’s instant publishing relatively cheap and with interactivity. So it has all those aspects of the blog. It also has the general snootiness and attitude and voice of many blogs.
But it’s a little bit different from that because it is a more of a public service and most blogs promote a point of view of whoever writes them. We have lots of different types of pieces… we let people know what’s going on.
OJR: How has your writing itself evolved for Baristanet compared to what it was like for the Times?
Galant: I’ll look back at some of my columns from The New York Times and they’ll look a little floppy and a little long. The writing for Baristanet is a much shorter format. The joke is that you have to make the point in a 100 words instead of 800 words.
I’d say I’m also much more courageous now. I remember one of the first posts I wrote was about a fundraiser in 2004 for Kerry in the backyard of some very wealthy liberal. I wrote a teasing post and I remember really struggling over it, afraid people would be mad at me. And they were but that’s the kind of thing I can do now in an instant. I’m much more likely to just press the button and be decisive and not worry about who’s going to like this and who isn’t going to like this.
OJR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you first launched?
Galant: There were issues like it was a lot easier to get people to call you back when you could say “This is Debbie Galant from The New York Times” than it is when you say, “This is Debbie Galant from Baristanet.” We had to explain it to every single person every time we made the call. That slows you down. But now there is a lot more name recognition for Baristanet but it is not universal.
But the biggest challenge is simply to become a real entity and keep running it. I said earlier that readers expect all this stuff of us that you struggled to build. To keep that going is a professional and personal struggle. I remember the first time we received an ad for a whole year and I gulped and said, “Oh, my God. Does that mean for sure I’m going to be doing this in a year.” It was just hard to believe I had made that commitment to someone. You think this is cool, but, boy, I have just committed to being here next year, to being here on weekends, to being here when I don’t feel like it.
It was like claiming the territory of being almost like a newspaper single-handedly. It’s not very glamorous from the viewpoint of new media as a business and nobody talks about that. But it’s absolutely important for Liz and I to rationalize it as a business and to make it work as an organism, so that we have procedures, we are allowed to have vacations and go out of town. So that when somebody has agreed to be an advertiser, somebody is making sure that the bill is sent, and the money is collected and all those things. Writing is natural since that’s what we have done professionally, but it’s a whole different set of skills that has to be learned to run a business.
OJR: You have to devote time to editorial and business concerns. Are you concerned about breaking down the sacred separation that journalists have between advertising sales and the editorial side might compromise your work?
Galant: In some ways we’re shameless about it. But we have our own standards. I’ll give you an example: one of our advertisers called and said they are having parent workshops and they wanted publicity about it. It didn’t seem unethical to help an advertiser publicize the fact that they are having these adult workshops and the first one was about gay and lesbian parenting which makes it even more interesting. I happened to look at the backend and saw what Annette had written. It had really come out like a press release and it made me want to vomit.
I called Liz and I said “Have you seen this?” and she said “Yeah, I’m talking to Annette about it,” and she said, “Oh, I also found out that people from the advertiser wanted to see this story ahead of time, before it went up.” Liz told Annette that we don’t do that. We never do that. So basically we had our own values. We have our own standards for polish, we have our own standards for groveling.
OJR: And now does your audience also expect a different standard from you than it does of traditional media?
Galant: Oh, I think so. There will be people who will criticize us, and that’s part of the course. The comment function allows them to do that.
In a way, we are more like the editorial page. We don’t pretend to be objective but we do try to be fair. But we are more and more trying to be provocative and to provoke conversation. We’re almost more like what a TV talk show would be like to journalism.
OJR: What’s your advice for the many young people out there who want to start something like this?
Galant: We’re now after two years really starting to make some decent money. It took at least that long to build up the readership so we could become a viable competitor in the local advertising market. It certainly helped that during that time Liz and I both have husbands who were bringing in the health insurance and the steady income. My advice would be, don’t count it being your income right off the bat. But there is definite real economic potential there and I think we’re just starting to hit that. It’s not nearly as instant as I had hoped it would be. So you have to do some other work–like freelancing–to have some other source of income.
When we launched, we were on Typepad at the $15 per month level. The main thing that this technology allows is for you to throw something up. You can build a castle for free. Just try it, and that was what we did. There are many, many people in journalism who have this dream of starting their own small town newspaper. And it’s certainly something nobody could have done for $15 per month twenty years ago.
Once you become successful, then issues of the reliability and bandwidth come into play and so now we actually have some real expenses. We now have a dedicated server and we pay almost $400 a month for hosting and if the site grows where we want to go, we will have to expand the number of servers. And we now pay people on a freelance basis, both technical people and editorial people. So, yeah, I think the attraction is at first that you can do it for free, but as you become more serious you realize that you can’t really do it for free–you actually pay for things.
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