On December 11, Ben Tribbett checked his phone messages and found two waiting for him from Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe and Creigh Deeds. And when he opened his inbox that same day he had received an email sent by another candidate, Brian Moran. All three messages were to wish him a happy birthday.
The fact that three high-level politicians would take the time out of their day to pay their respects to Tribbett gives credence to the power he wields in Virginia politics as a result of his blog, Not Larry Sabato. Launched anonymously in 2005, NLS quickly gained traction because it was one of the only news sources that dished dirt on the people behind Virginia political campaigns. Relatively low-level campaign workers who were not typically allowed to speak to traditional news outlets were suddenly seeing their names pop up on the blog, starting a state-wide guessing game as to who was writing the posts.
But Tribbett wasn’t even living in the state at the time; he had an apartment in Las Vegas. His insider’s knowledge stemmed directly from his work on previous Virginia campaigns, and by the time he finally came out and revealed his identity, his blog was read by just about every campaign operative and political reporter in Virginia. It was because of this that the campaign of then-senatorial candidate Jim Webb approached the blogger in 2006 to orchestrate the YouTube release of Senator George Allen’s infamous “macaca“ moment.
Tribbett is not the only example of a local or regional blogger quickly gaining power with an influential readership. As city daily papers continue to strain under the pressure of massive reporter lay-offs, hundreds of knowledgeable and independent local bloggers are rising up and finding themselves with small, niche audiences that sometimes provide massive political sway. And as these local bloggers continue to carve out their beats, local politicians and reporters are increasingly courting them in attempts to steer media coverage.
Urban Bloggers Gain Clout
When John Sarvay launched his blog, Buttermilk and Molasses, in late 2001 it had almost nothing to do with Richmond, Virginia. Instead it was simply a repository for things he found interesting on the web, and for years it only received a handful of visits a day. Sarvay was born and raised in Richmond, had attended Virginia Commonwealth University (based in Richmond) and had even written briefly for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
But it wasn’t until 2006, when a well-connected Richmond family was brutally murdered, that Sarvay turned his lens to local issues. The murder quickly gained the city’s attention — the family had owned a beloved local toy store — and the blogger soon became glued to the story.
“They were both really connected to the arts and culture scene and the hipster crowd in Richmond,” Sarvay told me. “So I started posting almost immediately the day of the deaths, kind of remembrances and links to other websites and newspaper articles that were focusing on the human nature side of the story as opposed to just the gruesome details. And within a week I started getting 1,000 and 1,500 and 3,000 hits a day from around the world, and a lot of people were emailing me and saying, ‘Thank you so much for sharing all this information and sharing these stories.’ And I had this sort of epiphany that, oh wow, I can use my weblog to fight crime and do good and change the world.”
However, it would be another year before Sarvay would develop a true niche. In the summer of 2007, the city of Richmond embarked on what he considered a lackluster downtown planning process. After lambasting local planning officials for not putting enough effort into publicizing public planning forums, he was soon contacted by those same officials and asked to meet with them.
“The director of community development called me and we had some good conversations and I became a pretty big fan of what they were trying to do,” he said. “And I realized that they were urban planners, they weren’t PR professionals. Their competency was running defense and building plans, it wasn’t how to get people out to events.”
So suddenly Sarvay found himself being read and even consulted by those who had the most power over the direction of downtown planning. During the peak of the process he was throwing up posts on the subject several times a day and his traffic reached an all-time high.
“I ran into a friend of mine who works for the Department of Social Services,” he said. “And she said, ‘Hey, you know you’re on the city’s media clippings list at least three times a week?’ And I said, ‘Really, who does that go to?’ And she said it goes to all the city employees, and it kind of struck me that that my blog had become mainstream.”
Sarvay would likely never gain the readership of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but in some ways this made it easier to serve the blog’s core audience. The blogger said he has spoken to editors and reporters at the Times-Dispatch, but even at the peak of the downtown planning process, the newspaper only ran one story a week on the issue while he was posting sometimes four times a day. If the newspaper were to run more stories than that, it would risk alienating its 200,000 other readers while Sarvay is only serving those interested in that very issue.
Uber-niche Beat Blogging
Richmond, with only a few hundred thousand residents, is a relatively small city. With even denser urban areas — New York, Los Angeles — you’ll find local bloggers springing up with increasingly smaller niches. For instance, a blog called Beer Menus is devoted exclusively to documenting all the beers you’ll find in NYC bars.
Shane Jordan launched Boston Biker less than a year ago while Boston was in the midst of what he called a “biking renaissance.” In that short period of time his site has become a central hub for all cycling-related news in the city, whether it’s the announcement of an upcoming race or an item sent in by a biking advocacy group.
Jordan currently works for a biking non-profit — though he launched the blog before he began work there — and Boston Biker allows anyone to set up their own blog and host it on the site. For the past several months the blog has experienced a “snowball effect” in which the more he updated the site, the larger the influx of news that flowed into his inbox. That created a perpetual cycle that has allowed Boston Biker to dominate its beat in a way that no other media outlet can.
“It’s kind of a trend in the media to get increasingly either broad or local,” Jordan told me. “There are people that work for the [Boston] Globe and others that will occasionally cover cycling stories but they are either freelancers or they don’t publish very often. Because that’s the case, pretty much everything that falls through the cracks is covered by people like me who are good about combing through and knowing people and getting things and posting them. I’d like to think that I’m sort of the catch-all of that stuff that would otherwise not be published.”
But when I asked him whether this meant that independent bloggers were ready to pick up the slack as the metro dailies continued to lay off reporters, he immediately dismissed the idea, asserting that what he did was not objective journalism, and was little more than information gathering and biased advocacy. He would never call himself a “trained, objective journalist.”
“So while I totally agree that the metro dailies are dying because they’re increasingly unable to fulfill what people want in a profitable way for them, I really lament their passing,” Jordan explained. “Because I’m not sure the blogs — even though they’re taking up the mantle and filling in the gaps — I’m not sure you get the same product. If newspapers die I’m going to be really sad.”
The Rise of the Alternative Alt-Weekly
I mentioned this discussion to Tony Pierce, the Los Angeles Times blog editor, but he argued that there is very little crossover between his newspaper and the topics covered by many of the independent urban bloggers in the area. Instead, bloggers more often found themselves covering issues that had once been dominated by alternatively weeklies. Given that Pierce’s ascension to the L.A. Times involved his own stints in L.A. blogging, he is well versed in what kind of content works and what doesn’t.
He launched his personal blog in 2001 and quickly rose to popularity with his first-person, tell-all essays about his experiences in L.A., sometimes disclosing the most intimate details of his life (“I had nothing to lose,” he said). In 2006, he was hired as blog editor for LAist, a site owned by Gothamist, LLC, a company that has launched blogs in several major cities. Given that Pierce found himself working with volunteers and citizen journalists, he understood immediately that it wouldn’t be much use to send one of them to cover, say, a mayor press conference when the L.A. Times was perfectly capable of doing that.
“When I was first trying to figure out what the game plan was for LAist, I really didn’t want to compete against the L.A. Times, because I thought that would be kind of worthless,” he said. “Instead I thought the [alt] weekly would be a better target to try to compete with, because I felt like it was similar demographics; it was a younger, more educated audience, and the good news was that the weekly could only publish once a week. The idea was to try to get that same demographic, but let’s get it to them every day, 24/7, and I think that that was a smarter approach for content. And I think it paid off.”
So what did LAist cover? “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” as he put it. Those were the topics that they knew their audience wanted and so the bloggers immersed themselves in the cultural scene in the city, covering everything from stand-up acts to live concerts. Pierce at one point realized that there was little in-depth coverage of the places where you could buy medicinal marijuana “relatively legally” and so he and his bloggers explored the issue.
“And for our food coverage, we went to Thai Town and covered every restaurant in Thai Town in like 28 days,” he said. “There’s no way that the L.A. Times’ two food critics would be able to do that, and the weekly is cutting staff still, so there was no way they would be able to do that. So we were able to approach things in a whole different way than the competition.”
But now that Pierce heads the blogs for the L.A. Times (which has a massive upsurge in readership last year), he said he thinks there’s still a lot of room to grow for metro bloggers. Part of their problem, he explained, is that many independent bloggers don’t realize that politicians and other people in power are often willing to give them access, and so there’s very little original reporting. He noted that after all these years the Technorati Top 100 — a ranking that reports the most linked-to blogs — only includes one metro blog — Pierce’s former employer, New York’s Gothamist.
But as is the case with Sarvay’s Buttermilk and Molasses, some bloggers may see the access coming to them. As local bloggers continue to leverage influence and power, government officials and businesses are finding they can no longer afford to ignore their opinions.
“I probably get two dozen emails a week from either individuals or organizations asking me to plug this event or that event,” Sarvay said. “And probably if I get 10 a week, I throw nine in the trash, because there are other outlets and I have a specific focus. But it’s sort of interesting that people have turned to me and other weblogs as a way to reach audiences that they know the daily newspapers aren’t.”
What do you think about the growing power of local niche bloggers? Which ones do you read regularly? How do you see them competing with alt-weeklies and daily newspapers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.