Can offbeat local news stories attract national audiences (and advertisers)? Former Gawker and Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio thinks so. He recently launched Ratter, an online tabloid centered around news from cities like San Francisco,and backed by $1 million from Gawker Media chief Nick Denton and others.
Street Fight recently caught up with Daulerio to talk about making local stories into national news, “building a tabloid about city while acknowledging the internet as the neighborhood,” and how he plans to avoid Patch’s missteps.
As I understand Ratter, the goal is to make local stories appeal to a national audience. But aren’t those just national stories? Why bother with the city-centric idea?
The whole idea was borne out of a conversation I had with Nick [Denton] a little over a year ago as Patch was dismantling. We were talking about the concept of Gawker when Elizabeth Spiers was there, when it was a much more local publication.
The idea is to try to rebuild that, a tabloid about a city while basically acknowledging the internet as the neighborhood. We’ll use the cities as hubs, rather than doing the local service angle and trying to compete with the local media market there. If we can package stories a bit differently, can they go viral? We’re trying to find people who have the right mix of reporter instincts and know-how to package stuff for the web.
San Francisco is a very slow process. You realize quickly that you’re not at the old place. You have to go through a longer, slow build. It’s almost like a beta mode. It takes time.
Do you mean that from a hiring perspective or something else?
It’s not even hiring. It’s more about getting the day-to-day down. Will [Kane]’s been doing it for the past couple months in San Francisco. The poop stuff and everything like that is about getting the infrastructure in place. Next month we’ll flip him onto features and put an associate editor to cover the day-to-day. We’ll slowly roll out the bigger features that we’ve been working on for the last couple months.
How do you measure success? Traffic?
It takes so long to have traffic on a sustainable level. I realized from working at Gawker and Deadspin that you can have five or ten really great stories a year that can give you some stability. You can build a readership that way, and then slowly over time, add different pieces. You can be flexible and adapt to whatever everyone is reading.
The goal is to have the right people. When you start a company, you realize how important the first couple hires are. Even on the editorial side, you need someone with a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are tough to find. You have to weigh a lot of things in terms of ability. There are plenty of overqualified people who just wouldn’t fit. If we hire a couple people a couple months from now, it will probably take them three or four months to get up to speed. But that’s how long it takes. I’d rather be real slow about it, watch everything, be in beta mode, and build it in its own way.
What’s worked so far?
Actually, the poop [story] is working really well right now. The whole charge behind it was that ultimately San Francisco is presenting itself as this city of opulence and this is a problem that is head-slappingly not fixed. There’s so much bureaucracy and red tape that they have to go through to figure out if they can get zoning for port-a-potties.
People shitting on the streets is reductive in a lot of ways. Having Will do it so consistently was good and now we’re starting to get other people who send it in. It’s become this thing. I told him to think about it like he was writing a letter a day. Do it in this very dramatic way. And gross. He’s taken to that really well. He’s an Eagle Scout and a traditional journalist. He came from the Chronicle. But he gets the concept and it’s started to work in the ways that we wanted it to, where everyone else in the city is participating when they can.
When you’re pitching advertisers, is it a local play? Or [are you going after] national businesses?
I think the best way to look at it is something like Curbed. It has had success in some local markets, but it’s also a national site because of how big it is.
Who knows exactly where online advertising is going — we’re at the whims of that. For the most part, you have to find a way to figure out several different streams of revenue to survive in a very crowded market. There are a lot of [sites] that are the titans of the industry that were not five years ago. The Buzzfeeds, the Voxes, the Vices are the new Conde Nast. The advertising market is still adjusting to that. Who knows where it is a year from now? That’s why I wanted to be very flexible and open to everything at this point.
We are doing some analog advertising. We started to do placemat ads in diners. We’re trying to do all these things in a very unorthodox fashion. We’re trying to generate the readership that we want and, more than than, the tips that we want. The placemat ads are basically like ‘do you hate your neighbor?’ and then an email address. If we get one tip, that’s great.
Why are you using Kinja [Gawker Media’s CMS]?
There’s no harm in us being there right now. If we get the stories we want to get, people will find them. That’s how the internet works. Not having a customized platform is really not an issue for us right now. We don’t have a formal contract with Kinja. It’s just a public CMS for us. We’ll see. I would say probably this summer we’ll see if staying there is a good fit for us, but right now we’re going to be flexible.
Nick Denton’s goal for Kinja was to have commentators help build out stories. That seems like something that could work in the tabloid/Ratter model.
I’d like the comment system to be a feeder system for local neighborhood arguments. I would love people to tell me why their mailman sucks, and then blow that up into a bigger story. Make civilians characters in this very tabloid way.
Right now, you have San Francisco up and running. And you’ve talked about Los Angeles and New York.
San Francisco is going. We hired someone for L.A., but I promoted her to managing editor so we’re going to do another hire there. And then New York after that.
Those three, and figure it out from there?
Our runway lasts for a year. We’ll probably have to go in for another round of funding. For the most part, this is an advanced stage of what the idea could be. I want to get all that in place. Having those three cities work on some level consistently is what we’re trying to go for right now.
If Ratter works, how many cities do you end up in?
For the next three cities, I would prefer not to do the traditional Philadelphia-Chicago-Boston route. Detroit is really intriguing to me. New Orleans. Other cities that have an established culture in some way. We can go in and really benefit from the richness of the stories that are there.
But there’s been good stuff out of Jersey. It sits on the cusp of that Philly-New York thing. There are a lot of places that can potentially be interesting if you get the right batch of stories. That’s going to be the driving force behind this if it works. The more participatory the people that live there and the media agencies that live there, if we can find a way to bolster some of this other stuff, then I think it will work.
Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.