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Local Weblogs Gawk, Stalk -- But Balk at Minting $$

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Can they succeed where local city guides failed?

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when CitySearch and Microsoft's Sidewalk were going to take urban areas by storm, offering guides to nightlife and tourists spots and crushing online newspapers right where they lived. Nice try. Instead, they've morphed into city listings, no more than glorified Yellow Pages with bare-bones staff.

Game, set and match to newspaper sites, right? In pure traffic and revenues right now, perhaps. But there's a growing, if fractured, trend among Webloggers who'd like to give a grittier take on cities from the mouths of mouthy citizen/writers. The pre-eminent local Weblog is Gawker, launched by serial entrepreneur and blogger Nick Denton, with the sharp-tongued, addictive voice of writer Elizabeth Spiers taking in New York City in all its manic glory. One original feature is Gawker Stalker, where readers give sightings of celebrities in everyday settings.

Denton has kept his line of Weblogs (Gawker and gadget-freaked Gizmodo ) lean operations from the start, with total monthly operating costs for all titles at $10,000 per month. "We're signed up to a couple of ad networks," he told me, via email. "No proactive ad sales till later this year. Best advertising categories so far: music, fashion, books."

It helps that Spiers, basically the only full-time employee of Gawker, is paid a part-time salary. She still does freelance writing for The New York Times, Radar and Salon -- with the first two being prime targets for her at Gawker.

Despite her constant skewering of the Times during the Jayson Blair heyday,the paper gave her a glowing profile recently. "The media stuff on Gawker is what really gets media people," Spiers told me. "As a freelancer, you don't want to burn your bridges. Anyone willing to do a site like Gawker has to be a little reckless or crazy. But the media critiques on Gawker haven't made it difficult for me to get freelance work. The editors who are willing to hire me understand that it comes with the territory."

Gawker gets about 30,000 page views per day, but hit 120,000 page views when it posted a link to photos of a very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones sunning -- and smoking.

But can the snarky local blogger phenomenon be translated to other locales? Spiers thinks so, but not in every city. "I think Los Angeles would work but in a different way," she said. "I think there could be a huge market in Washington, D.C. It would be hysterical to make celebrities of lobbyists who aren't used to being in the spotlight."

When Denton was asked if he would start similar blogs in other cities, he said, "Yes, L.A. and London."

Examining L.A.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country from Gawker geographically (but next door in the blogosphere) sits the L.A. Examiner. Originally conceived as a localized Romenesko, LAX was also meant to be a precursor to the upcoming free weekly newspaper bankrolled by former mayor Dick Riordan. Longtime Angelino journalists Matt Welch and Ken Layne (both former OJR'ers) focused their angst on L.A. media, but have now re-focused on a bigger Los Angeles scene, a la Gawker.

Welch, an associate editor at Reason, is an open admirer of Gawker but doesn't want to do a cut-and-paste copy of it. "If you took an L.A. map and traced your finger down Sunset Blvd. to the sea (or, better stated, the 405 freeway), the inch or so south and north of that is jam-packed full of crazy young (or young-at-heart) people making movies, starting rock bands, knowing too much, making too little," he e-mailed me. "They absolutely do not have a publication to call their own, or that comes close to reflecting their reality."

As with Gawker and most blogs, LAX owes a lot of its material to other people's reporting, with some observations, rumors and tips from readers thrown into the mix. "I think of it as a newspaper metro column that never (or rarely) sleeps," Ken Layne says. "Columns live and die on reader contributions, and leaks, and memos, and party invites." But does it have a business model? Layne says the business model never existed and Welch says, "Business model: Never spend money. Try very hard not to spend much time on it -- I think at the beginning we even had a rule -- if you spend more than 30 minutes a day on it, you will be ostracized."

The site does bring in money from ads run through BlogAds, and Welch imagines the blog could easily pay for a part-time salary, if it's ever organized well. Those party invites probably get in the way of that. As for blogs as gossip outlets, this could be a match made in heaven. Freelance writer/blogger Greg Beato recently panned the L.A. Examiner newspaper idea, but thought the blog had promise. Why? "Gossip is the most perishable commodity in the media business," he wrote recently. "If the Bush twins are doing drunken table-dances at your neighborhood Taco Bell, you want to know now ... not next week when the National Enquirer hits the newsstands. So blogs, the most flexible delivery platform in the history of media, are the ideal venue for gossip dissemination."

So does Beato think the LAX can become a gossip king in La-La Land? "If its proprietors can overcome their chronic bouts with sobriety," he quips.

Finding Community

In the end, the trouble with business models for local Weblogs is the same as business models for any Weblogs, or any Web media. A recent Weblog Business Strategies conference in Boston could barely get past the definition of a blog (or whether they are journalism), let alone discuss making money for businesses, according to many attendees. Fast Company's Heath Row has the most in-depth report on the confab, with live-to-blog transcripts. Row sees potential in local Weblogs like Gawker and Boston Common, which is more of a meta-blog of other Weblogs based in Boston. There's also SFBayBloggers, which is more of a community site for Webloggers around the San Francisco Bay Area (with real-world events).

"People have long talked about how the Web is wonderful -- and how online communities are wonderful -- because you can find people of like minds and with similar interests regardless of where they are," Row told me. "The Web can help us learn more about where we are -- and where we're going. It can also be used to add a layer of annotation to a physical location. That's what excites me the most."

Local Weblogs might prove useful for local audiences looking to connect with those around them, but they probably won't be cash cows anytime soon. Consultant Vin Crosbie likes the journalism of Gawker, and how it outpaces the competition, but sees business-to-business Weblogs such as PaidContent.org as having more potential. "For media companies, it might make sense to employ local Weblogs as a defensive measure," he said. "But they're not really making that much money, and the Web doesn't really make sense for ads or paid content. Niche applications are possible, but the bottom line is that the fundamentals of sites and blogs won't be successful."

Gawker's Spiers also spoke at the recent Jupiter conference, but didn't buy into any of the revolutionary talk floating around. "I think I was expected to say that blogs would kill The New York Times and that Big Media -- as in 'Big Media, the homogenous monolith' -- was screwed," she reported in Gawker. "Which is just silly. Even I am not that stupid. Big Media does a perfectly good job of screwing itself without the help of blogs. (See Blair, Jayson.)"

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Related Links
Boston Common
Gawker
Gawker: The Boston report
Gizmodo
Heath Row's Media Diet: Weblog Business Strategies 2003
L.A. Examiner
Nick Denton
PaidContent.org
SFBayBloggers
Soundbitten: Hollywood Hearsay
The Age: Holidaying Zeta-Jones caught on film
The New York Times: A New York State of Blog
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