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What's up with Gapers Block, the "Chicago-centric Web publication"?
April 2, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I hope I'm not breaking any Straight Dope policy by mentioning a Chicago Reader competitor. (If so, hopefully it's mitigated by the fact that the competitor recently linked to your Italian beef column.) Gapers Block is a Chicago-centric Web publication. It does columns about Chicago life, reviews of local entertainment and cuisine, and a calendar of upcoming events. Have you heard of it? Do you have any impressions of it? A friend of mine writes for it, but I have no idea how big a deal it is.

— Randy Seltzer, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

You're right, Randy, Gapers Block is a competitor. But that's no reason not to talk about it. My take on things (and you understand I'm speaking for myself, not the Reader) is that this isn't poker but chess — everyone's moves are right out there in the open. And at the moment GB and the Reader are at very different places in the game. The Reader straddles the great communications divide, with both print and online manifestations, the foldable version of which brings in the majority of the money. It won't always be that way, no doubt, but I'm not one of those people who see printed newspapers disappearing. On the contrary, I think they're an enormous advantage, like having 100,000 billboards for your Web site all over town. Gapers Block is a different animal, a Web-only publication whose front-page news is largely aggregated from other sources rather than reported.

It's not the sole such venture in Chicago, or even the biggest, and whether GB's way of doing things is going to work better than ours I have no idea. But I'll admit I have a soft spot for these guys. They remind me of the old days, when alternative newspapers were the ones offering a glimpse at the media future — or anyway one possible future. These are interesting if terrifying times in the newspaper business, with new and reinvented enterprises transforming the media landscape far more radically than the alternative press did 35 years ago. How tomorrow's journalism will differ from the stuff I grew up with is still being worked out. But here's one difference I can see already: you — and I mean you the gentle reader, Randy — will have to write most of it yourself.

That conviction isn't newly arrived at, but it was strengthened after a recent conversation with Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of Gapers Block, and David Schalliol, the managing editor. For both it's a part-time gig. Huff, who has a journalism degree from Ohio State and co-founded Gapers Block in 2003, is a professional blogger — in other words, he's got not one but two of the world's coolest jobs. Schalliol is a grad student in sociology at the University of Chicago.  Add in the results of a little digging, and here's what I think we can say:

(1) How big a deal is Gapers Block? Depends on your idea of big. Huff claims 90,000 monthly visitors, who view an impressive 1.8 million pages. Forbes magazine picked them as among the "Best of the Web." (Among other things, Forbes praised the site's terrific user-contributed photo section.) To puts matters in perspective, however, one ratings service estimates chicagotribune.com at 2.5 million visitors per month, chicagoreader.com at 189,000, and Web-only rival Chicagoist at 128,000. So while we're still early in the ball game, Gapers Block at this point trails. 

(2) GB has a gorgeous Web site, thanks to co-founder and rock star Web designer Naz Hamid. Reminds me of the fine work done back in the day by Reader co-founder and rock star print designer Bob McCamant. Writers like to think their prose is the key to a publication's success, but it's snappy graphics that give the thing some jump.

(3) Much of the content — I realize this is a common model nowadays — consists of links to stuff appearing on other sites. Maybe a little too much. More on that by and by.

(4) But here's the main thing, in my opinion. Gapers Block exemplifies a remarkable fact about online journalism: It's possible to create an enduring Web publication — six years is a lifetime in the age of the Internet — almost entirely with volunteers. GB has ~ 75 contributors, of whom one (Andrew) draws something approximating a regular salary and seven others, David among them, are paid token amounts. That leaves 67 who contribute for the love of it. To be sure, young writers willing to toil for chicken feed (if that) have long been the backbone of the publishing industry. My assistant Little Ed fondly recalls his first Reader cover story (not available online, alas), which netted him 25 bucks.

The question is whether anyone other than a lucky few will ever get paid much more than that. You'll excuse me if I go on about this; it's a subject that cuts close to the bone. As any editor can tell you, and the explosion of the blogosphere confirms, the writing marketplace shakes out as follows:

Number of persons willing to write for free. I estimate this to be roughly equal to the number of sentient beings currently alive. Initially I wondered whether I should discount for those so young, old, or wasted they were unable to form a coherent thought. However, as you know if you've done much online reading, no one light in the coherent-thought department ever let that stand in his way.

Number of persons willing and able to write knowledgeably and/or entertainingly for free. This is a dramatically smaller but still large quantity, a fact that gives many journalists the willies. As my Reader colleague Whet Moser recently wrote, "Some of these people writing for free are better at writing than many of the people who are paid to write." Quite true. But hold that thought.

Number of persons willing to write well and at length for free. Now the figures start to get winnowed down considerably. A typical blog post consists of a few pungent thoughts or, for the journalistically inclined, a few pungent thoughts appended to a link, or sometimes a link to a link to a link, that eventually (not always) gets you  to a substantive piece, which may be either (a) the online version of a print media article, which we may ignore for purposes of this analysis, or (b) a provocative exposition by some individual who commits his or her thoughts only to cyberspace. The number of parties in category (b) is a small but nontrivial number. But we need to add one more filter to the mix.

Number of persons willing to write well and at length for free on anything like a scheduled basis. Here we arrive at the great sieve. The only thing that impels most journalists to write on deadline is the fear that, if they don't, they'll lose their jobs and starve. Absent such incentive, production is a good deal more sporadic. True, on any given day, something worth reading can be relied on to bubble up from the Internet, and the assumption in some quarters is that the online publications of the future will be, in part, shrewdly assembled gateways to such stuff. The Huffington Post is perhaps the best known instance, but a more admired example is Tina Brown's Daily Beast, which provides "curated news aggregation plus original reporting and opinion." 

That's what Gapers Block aspires to do on a local level — not altogether successfully, it must be said.  A couple of the daily columnists it once featured on its home page moved on, Huff informed me, and he decided to move the remainder deeper into the site. That may not have been the best idea. GB's home page at the moment often seems to consist of little but links, making it seem less like a gateway than an invitation to go someplace else. 

But here's a more basic concern, which isn't peculiar to Gapers Block. Original online writing typically is what we might call second-order journalism — some of it brilliant, but nonetheless a resifting of ore mined by others. For breaking news — which is to say, news — virtually everyone relies on the pathetically small and declining corps of reporters employed by daily newspapers and the wire services. The situation is hardly novel. In a New Yorker column published in 1948, the press critic A. J. Liebling wrote:

The American press makes me think of a gigantic, supermodern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats.

The difference is that in 1948, the fishermen/reporters could rely on the cannery staying in business long enough for them to cash their meager paychecks. In 2009, that's no sure bet. As for the bloggers and columnists and such, I suppose it's not out of the question they'll write indefinitely without compensation. Then again, one recalls the words of Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." I'll refrain from the obvious comment, other than to say even blockheads burn out.

Still, chances are for every blogger who shuts down the computer, a dozen new ones will spring up. Many are delighted at the prospect. A common view is that the Web represents a great democratic leveling, in which the top-down hierarchy of journalists preaching to the masses is replaced by a new paradigm of equals. But already we can see some corners of cyberspace are starting to coalesce into a business. The revenue model remains a work in progress, but someone will figure out a way to make money, depend on it — and the key as in any business will be keeping the expenses low. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying Gapers Block or even HuffPost is heartlessly exploiting the proletariat. Nonetheless, all the indicators point to one conclusion: writing, rarely a lucrative profession, is likely to become less so. The owners, editors, ad salespeople, and no doubt the upper echelon of pundits will get paid, because why else would they bother? But the overwhelming majority of the content, ranging from message-board posts to blogs, will be contributed by its creators for fun or fame or the satisfaction of doing good — and that's all.

— Cecil Adams

One way to make money from writing: Sorcery!

Least we can do for an author subjected to one of the Master's columns is give him a plug. Dresden Files creator Jim Butcher will pre-sign copies of his latest book, Turn Coat, at Oak Brook Borders, 1500 16th St., Oak Brook, IL 60523, 630-574-0800, starting at 10:30 p.m., Monday, April 6. The event includes a costume contest, reading, and discussion.

Follow STRAIGHT DOPE CHICAGO on twitter, assuming Little Ed remembers to send the feeds out, and if nothing else observe his fumblings with a technology that is obviously beyond him.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to cecil@chicagoreader.com or post them on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board.

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