News Innovators on the Frontline: Gothamist

Posted on 13. Jul, 2009 by in New News Organization, News Ecosystem

Gothamist.com was launched in 2003, as co-founder Jake Dobkin says, “by a few friends having a good time, talking about a subject they were interested in.” They only realized a few years later that they could sell more than enough advertising to sustain the site. Today, the Gothamist is a profitable brand with sites in 10 cities across the country and 3 cities abroad. But even with a national footprint and stable of national advertisers, Gothamist remains a lean organization with just a dozen full-time employees. Scores more write for the sites part-time. We spoke with Dobkin earlier this week.

What happens if the daily newspapers start going out of business, what does that mean for Gothamist?
Newspapers like The New York Times have really been financed by wasting an enormous amount of other people’s money and it’s hard to feel good about what they’re doing.

If the Times goes out of business because they’ve made poor business decisions, then so be it. They haven’t been that innovative, they tend to copy other people’s ideas, and they’ve made some poor decisions by investing in declining assets. And that same argument applies to pretty much every paper.

It’s businesses like Gothamist that will replace the Times or other dailies. It might not be Gothamist per se, because this business is very competitive, but it will be somebody like us.

Things are going to get much smaller, but that’s what happens when a monopoly dies. That doesn’t sound like a horrible thing to me. In fact it sounds like a pretty exciting thing. I don’t know why we should root for the 500-lb gorilla.

Gothamist relies on the reporting in those papers for a certain percentage of its coverage, will Gothamist increase its editorial staffing to fill the void?
We only aggregate 30 percent of our content from the Times, the Post or the News. Some of that news will come from independent media. There are something like 500 or 600 independent news sources in New York, and they will not disappear. Some of the rest we will report ourselves. So, we’d still have sources for the news, we might have to work a bit harder at it. If the Times went out of business, we’d get a bit of that advertising and be able to pay for more writers.

I’m sick of this idea that we’re just parasites. We break 5 or 10 stories a week. We broke the pug story last week– where the lady with a sick dog was arrested after an altercation with a Hasidic cop on the subway. That story ended up in the Post and The Daily News the next day. We broke the story about the Vox Pop Statue of Liberty being tortured. That made it into the Post.

We definitely aggregate more stuff from the dailies than they take from us, but given their budget is 300 times as large that’s not surprising.

Most of your advertisers are national, are they generally buying into the entire Gothamist network? Do you use sales reps?
Most of our advertisers are national, but they generally prefer specific cities. They’re national brand advertisers who have a preference to buy cities per campaign.

We’ll still do most of the sales ourselves. I’ve hired a couple of people over the years to help in reaching out to specific brands. But, mostly it’s a lot of people coming to us. Hopefully we please them and hopefully they come back—maybe they tell their friends or other media partners about us.

Do you have a local sales operation?
Only to the extent that we have a list of targeted local advertisers—30 or 40 in each of our big cities—that we talk to. They’re advertisers like museums, show venues, large stores, people who organize events in those cities. They are the same kinds of advertisers that you’d see in an alt-weekly.

What needs to happen on the business side of the online news space, in your view?
The one thing I’d like to see that would be helpful to smaller guys is some kind of real self-service model that works and is targeted at smaller local advertisers.

All of the alt weeklies collaborate in a clearinghouse to sell national accounts. Each of them owns a portion of the company, and gets a share of the profits. We need something like that, but it first requires a tech solution for local self-service and I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe it’s that they’ve tried and it hasn’t worked.

Without it, if you’re trying to run a neighborhood blog it’s going to be hard to do if you’re not doing direct sales. I believe in sales, but hearing it isn’t going to make you do it.

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