A People with Passion series
September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff
Andrew Huff’s road to professional journalism moved from newspaper to PR to the internet, ending back where it began in his hometown of Chicago. But if the physical destination was familiar, the work site was new, because it was Huff and designer Naz Hamid who put their brains together in a Lakeview coffee house and invented the website Gapers Block, the city of Chicago’s first city blog. What is a city blog? Find out in the 12th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, as Huff defines the true importance of the internet in journalism.
My father was a PR man. He’s done public relations as long as I’ve been aware. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, and learning the facts about situations and events. When I got to high school I joined the school newspaper. While I was interested in journalism I wasn’t all that interested in the class, so I decided only to do it for one year. I wrote such groundbreaking stories as “What is the poser?” (Smiles.) And actually, one of the more controversial stories that year was one I wrote about black ink vs. blue ink preferences in the school. Controversial among students. They decided for some reason that was something worth rallying over. It’s sort of like Cubs vs. Sox. There wasn’t really a resolution.
I went to school as a journalism major at Ohio State, and spent a full two years on the school paper, the Lantern. I was an unofficial photo journalism minor. There was no photo journalism degree. I was a photographer as well as an assistant, and then a full photo editor on the paper. But I also had to do true reporting. I was on the general beat. I did everything from reporting on a suicide to interviewing Henry Kissinger when he was in town for a talk at school.
How was that?
It was interesting. It was intimidating. I didn’t really know much about him. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know much about his policies. I asked colleagues for questions I should ask. I was allowed to ask him three questions. He dodged two of them and responded about Ohio State football. (Laughs.)
Got out of school. Looked for jobs in journalism. Landed a copyediting and layout job at the McHenry Star Newspaper Group, which was a group of community weeklies up in McHenry County. Five papers with a combined circulation less than the Lantern. It was really small. It paid ten dollars an hour. I had to work out of the Elgin Courier offices Friday nights, Saturdays, and parts of Sunday if I needed it, laying out five editions of the paper with just a couple of pages different in each one. Not exactly something that somebody fresh out of college is looking for. Certainly not good for my social calendar.
I ended up going into PR after that. I certainly had plenty of connections through my father. Landed an internship at Bozell Sawyer Miller Group, something like that. Worked on the Milk “Where’s your moustache?” campaign. It was hell. Ended up in a smaller agency doing mostly hardware PR. And then randomly I had Northern Trust for their events. It was okay, decent work, but pretty boring. I did that for a couple years, tried to get into music PR, and did a little bit with a couple of unsigned bands around town.
Eventually ended up taking a job with my dad. I was working for him part time and trying to get this music publicity thing off the ground. But around that time, I started doing an email newsletter to friends and family that I referred to as The Huff Report. It was once a month, end of the month, just a summation of what I’d done in the past month, some interesting thoughts I’d had, some news about friends, what I was doing at work, et cetera. I did that for about a year and realized I was forgetting lots of things that would happen throughout the month. Sometimes it would go out late because I was too busy when I would normally put it out. I was like, “I need to find a better way to do this.”
I was aware of blogging, and specifically Blogger, at that point. I started seeing stories about weblogs. I was like, “I should check out Blogger and see if I can use that.” It was perfect for what I wanted to do. You could easily put up a site and point people to that, and update whenever I thought of something.
It was a tripod site. I think it was ahuff.tripod.com. I wanted to look a little more professional than tripod, so I got my own domain, me3dia.com, which was a typo. I was typing the word ‘media.’ The ‘e’ and ‘3’ are close together on the keyboard, and I accidentally hit them in order, sort of simultaneously, and I liked how it looked partly because I envisioned going freelance and doing journalism, PR, and general copywriting. Three medias.
It does look good.
Yeah, you know? So I went with that, intending it to be a combination of the blog and my portfolio site. Portfolio site never really happened, but I started as me3dia on January 3, 2001. Started to get to know local bloggers, just reading and finding different people through links from blogrolls. In September 2001 – it was actually not too long after September 11th – this site called metafilter had a meet-up, a world-wide meet-up. Chicago had one. A group of us went bowling. We talked about how the Chicago blogosphere needed to get better organized and get together more often to introduce each other to new events and new experiences.
One of those folks, Lacey Graves, started a project called No-East. It was meant to be a web magazine. We did No-East a couple of times. It was like herding cats getting it done. I had a conversation with Naz – another blogger here in town, mostly a designer – about Gothamist, Laughing Squid out in San Francisco, and some other city blogs. The concept of a city blog was just getting started, but there was nothing in Chicago along those lines. We decided to create that. No-East was the germ of the idea that blossomed into the more full-fledged concept with Gapers Block. We wanted to be a group blog, so we reached out to a group of writers whose work we respected and we thought shared a passion about the city. We asked about 14 or 15 and about a dozen said yes. Got going in April 2003.
We sort of dithered on what we were going to call it for a while and settled on Gapers Block for a couple of reasons. It fit with the theme that we wanted, to get everyone to slow down and check out all of the cool stuff around the city. But also, it was a very insidery term. You had to be a Chicagoan to know what it meant. It’s sort of turned out to be a little bit of a hindrance because the younger Chicagoans haven’t necessarily heard the term.
It started out as a traffic term from helicopter traffic reports, and probably was a cop term before that. It was apparently coined by the first helicopter traffic reporter, a former Chicago policeman. We liked the idea of it being something where you had to be in the know. Now, people have no idea what it means. When you listen to the traffic report they usually just say “gapers” if they say anything at all. Which is possibly because we own “gapers block,” so they just avoid it. That’s just conjecture, but it wouldn’t be surprising.
We were trying to fill the void of covering online stuff. There are a lot of interesting blogs, online-only projects, cool things in Flash or neat photo projects, things like that. Also, lots of events that only ended up on bulletin boards. We were trying to give a place where you could find that type of event, stuff that was niche or unique or really interesting but just wasn’t getting the attention. Also curating events, hand-picking what we put up there. You’d go through Metromix and they’d have 25 cent drink specials listed as events. When you look for things to do, chances are you’re not looking for drink specials. You’re looking for theatre or concert or something like that.
Something that is a reason for a drink special.
Right. Exactly. Exactly. So forget that! Why put a drink special on a list? Especially if it’s every week, you know? That’s not an event. That’s a menu feature. (Laughs.) We wanted to get rid of that. And the Reader, which I picked up every week back then, they’ve just got so much. It’s hard to decide, “What should I go to?” We’ve got a policy that if you’re on staff and it sounds like something that you would go to, you’re able to post it. If you like it, one of our readers is going to like it too.
So then my big question is this: Gapers is online. It’s always been online. It wasn’t a magazine and then became an internet site. What kind of an understanding do you and other sites have on how to be a journalist and how to be a publication and outlet online that the print guys are still maybe struggling with or trying to figure out or late to accept?
I don’t think we have any magic up our sleeves on that. We’re not saddled with a massive amount of debt and the massive costs that come with print, so that’s a benefit. It’s a lot cheaper to start online only. If we ever had a bankroll, we would be able to do quite a bit more with what we’ve got. We have the advantage of being more nimble than a publication that has to worry about print. We can go straight online with stories rather than having to wait or accommodate a print deadline. I think print media is starting to catch on with that and going online first. But it’s a slow process. It’s fighting against culture and tradition that has never thought of the web as being a primary outlet for news.
I interviewed Alex Kotlowitz three years ago, and Alex was talking about how we might be coming up on a time where we don’t have a city newspaper, we don’t have print, and he was very melancholy looking at that…
I worry about the Sun-Times. Back two, three years ago, I would have been right there with Alex wondering if the Trib and Sun-Times were going to make it. I’m not so worried about the Tribune anymore. I think they get the concept of being online first. They are going straight there. The Sun-Times is too, but it’s a little bit more hobbled because of how badly it was mismanaged for so long. It’s struggling under quite a bit more of a challenge to its business. So yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if two years from now the Sun-Times doesn’t exist. Maybe it is still online, but I’m not sure enough people read it online other than for Ebert and maybe Roeper for that to really carry.
But the Trib I think is really getting it. They have their apps team doing some really interesting work with data and presenting news in different ways. Their website is a lot better than it used to be. Certainly the younger reporters understand what a link is, and the tradition of crediting sources through links and online media, something that is completely foreign to traditional journalists, the old-school journalists.
The link is the currency of the web. If you don’t link to each other then what the hell do we have an internet for? That’s the whole point of the internet: linking. Joining in with all of the interconnectivity that the web offers is a good thing. There’s a line, sort of an edict by Jeff Jarvis: “Write what you know, link to the rest,” that I hope is the next phase of the transition of journalism to the web. If you go into google news and search for a topic, you’ll see 500 hits for some big news story of the day. And if you dig into that, it’s not actually 500 stories. It’s the same AP story or re-writes of the AP story over and over again. There’s no need for that. Newspapers shouldn’t need to waste time and resources doing their own version of or printing or republishing their own version of something that’s already out there. There’s no point in that. Just concentrate your money and your resources and your reporters on what you can report, you know? Link to that story in that Chinese daily or wherever the story is. On international stories, just link to where the story is happening. Link to the expert in that market rather than wasting time looking for a story on it.
So in that case, what do you see in two years, five years, ten years? If the Tribune is making it, what do you see the Tribune as? What would it be?
I think it would be great to see it be a combination of aggregation. Being a place like we are where you can go and get links to news around town, links to news around the world, but they’re concentrating their original content like we are on stories that affect the local market. The local audience. We sometimes get written off as an aggregator, and that’s simply not true. We’re linking out a lot, yes, but we’re not stealing content. We’re not reposting stuff. And we have at least as much original content on the site as we do links out to other stories.
Even though the journalism field, the profession, is catching on to the fact that online is just as viable and important and potentially reliable as a print edition of a publication, there’s still a little bit of a lag with the world at large thanks in great part to journalists’s derision of blogs early on, not realizing that they were criticizing a format and not an actual type of news. I teach journalism at a couple of schools now. I’m teaching online journalism at both Loyola and Columbia. And my students say, “Oh well, it’s a blog,” as if that meant they could dismiss it.
But if you look at it, what’s a newspaper online? It’s news articles, posts, published in reverse chronological order with the latest story at the top of the page and a permanent link to that article. And now, thanks to blogs, usually there are comments – that you probably shouldn’t actually read on a newspaper site because they’re vile – but they’re basically a blog. They’re using more sophisticated CMS’s, but essentially that’s what it is. There’s no difference. And I think journalism has done itself a disservice by dismissing the format that they have now adopted whether they realize it or not.
So what could the big print guys learn from what you guys are doing?
That’s a good question. (Pause.) I think they have taken some advice from us already. Going online first, that’s a big one. Not being afraid to put it up there faster, and let the print lag behind. Understanding that audiences like twitter and facebook, because it allows people to share stories. In this day and age, people aren’t passing a newspaper back and forth very often. But they’re likely to email or facebook a story. That gets the word out, and that raises impressions on your story, and you get to sell ads against those impressions.
I love getting to share some cool thing that I discovered or that I dug up out of the bowels of the internet about Chicago. Seeing people respond to it, retweeting it, commenting about it, throwing it up on their facebook page or their tumblr. I find myself spending more time than I probably should digging for stories. It’s really something that I love doing.
Back when I was a journalism major, my dream job was to write the Today’s News column on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I thought that was just an amazing distillation of news. “Here is one sentence about something that you’re going to be interested in today, that you need to know about today, and here’s where to find the rest of the story.” Now I get to do that every day. With “Merge” on the front page of Gapers Block, that’s my Today’s News. With a few fresh faces and fresh writers on staff, I’m getting to see other people join in. They’re pulling up stories that I maybe would have missed or am surprised to see. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun seeing that.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)