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Jan. 21, 2015, 11:06 a.m.
Business Models

Can Ratter turn local news into national headlines?

“The specific goal I told them was to alienate the local readership”: The new startup from former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio is taking an irreverent and investigative approach to local news.

Between early rumblings around who would run for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat and the 49ers ending their search for a new head coach, there was no shortage of news coming out of San Francisco last week. Those kinds of stories are the bread and butter of local media: topical and substantial enough to grab readers who care — about who represents them, or at least who’s calling the plays at Levi’s Stadium.

Will Kane, on the other hand, was spending his time tracking — and writing about — shit. Literally. Kane is the editor of Ratter SF, and he’s been trying to get to the bottom of why the city seems to have a different kind of waste problem.

ratterlogo“You could say it’s crass and juvenile and stupid,” Kane said, “But really I think the interest in the idea is that this is what people in San Francisco see every day. It’s what happens on a daily basis. It’s a problem.”

It’s a story grounded in one of the city’s daily realities, something shocking but also mundane. It’s a part of life that could seem normal, or at least ignorable, to someone who lives in the city, but is mystifying, and consequently interesting, to those of us outside the Bay Area. That’s exactly the kind of stories Ratter is looking for.

The media startup founded by former Gawker and Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio has raised more than $1 million in funding and is setting up franchises around the country, with sites in San Francisco, L.A., and soon to launch in New York. Sliding into the world of hyperlocal media has proven to be tricky, as companies as large as AOL, newspaper barons, and individual startups have tried to make a play in community news with varying degrees of success.

But Daulerio doesn’t see Ratter as a typical local news site. Ratter will not be the place for reports on local council proceedings, recipes of the week, or prep football highlights. The directive he gives his local editors is simple: “The specific goal I told them was to alienate the local readership as much as possible,” Daulerio said. “Their version of L.A., or San Francisco, and hopefully New York, is supposed to be one that is inclusive with a national audience, and completely ignore the people that live there.”

This is typically the part of the story when you mention that Daulerio is known for being the editor at Deadspin who chased down photos of Brett Favre’s gentleman’s paraphernalia. Infamy or no, it’s one of many stories instructive on how Daulerio, and by extension Ratter, will approach reporting. “One thing I realized in Deadspin was whatever instinct I possessed for what is newsworthy and what wasn’t was something different from other people,” he said. “Sometimes that was successful, sometimes that was polarizing.”

Local news can be constricting in a way, as reporters and editors focus on the traditional types of coverage they believe local readers want. It’s a combination of tradition, longstanding beat structures, and the need to fill several sections of a newspaper on a daily basis. Conceiving and writing stories for a national audience — an online audience — first is different. Daulerio says it’s the reason big local stories grab national or international attention when they get picked up at places like Gawker. That’s what he wants to emphasize at Ratter: “local stories that become a phenomenon.”

So far it’s a relatively small shop — four full-time employees. Daulerio expects to hire an editor for the New York site soon, though he plans to write about New York for Ratter in the interim. Funding for the site came from Mark Cuban, Jason Calacanis, and Daulerio’s former boss, Gawker Media owner Nick Denton.

That’s not the only connection to Daulerio’s past life: Ratter is publishing on Gawker’s open platform Kinja. That familiarity with the platform was a major reason Daulerio decided to use Kinja. One of the benefits of Kinja is that it makes it relatively simple to share stories across different sites within the Gawker family; a Jezebel story can easily pop up on Deadspin. Theoretically, Ratter stories could get called up to Gawker sites, which could potentially throw more eyeballs after the fledgling site. But Daulerio made it clear that Ratter is not a part of the Gawker Media network: “It’s basically our publishing platform. There’s no formal agreement with Gawker and Ratter,” he said.

It’s not hard to imagine a little mingling between Ratter and Gawker. A look at some of the site’s early stories shows a spirit similar to its forebear: an interview with the detective still investigating the Zodiac killings; a story on why Pumas are the unofficial sneaker brand at Rikers Island; a scoop on Drake being a Coachella headliner.

“A.J. is not requiring us to be a catchall publication,” said Ratter L.A. editor Kate Conger. “When you’re working at an alt weekly or a daily paper, you have news of the day and everyone is going to be covering that in the same fashion. There’s no mandate for us to jump on a particular press release if it doesn’t fit for the site.”

Instead, editors are encouraged to go after the stories or subjects they find the most interesting. Conger, who previously wrote for places like SF Weekly and The Village Voice, has written about the Oakland police department’s history with crowd control violence, sex workers, and, on one occasion, nail art.

The way for Ratter to stand out, Conger said, will be through unique stories and new approaches to telling them. “We want it to be a great site, a site that people are gravitating to because they find something unusual,” she said.

It’s that kind of freedom that attracted Conger and Kane to Ratter. Kane, who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for over four years, said he was excited at the idea of starting something in local news from scratch. “I love the Chronicle, I love newspapers, I love traditional metro reporting,” he said. “But I don’t see how that is going to last in its current form much longer.”

Ratter isn’t an attempt to replace those local media channels, but to build on them by writing with voice, looking for stories that range from the improbable to the investigative, and thinking about online audiences, he said. “I would see Ratter fitting in as the irreverent tabloid cousin of all these things,” Kane told me.

That will take a little time, which Daulerio is okay with. The staff is building up sources and getting into a publishing rhythm, and in the case of Ratter New York, getting hired. There’s also the matter of how the site will make money. Daulerio says he plans for the site to be ad-supported, but he knows “revenue through advertising is something that comes with readership.”

For now, they’ll focus on the three city sites and building an audience through writing stories. Daulerio wants his sites to be competitive, not with the local media, but with the stories that are dominating on social media nationally and internationally.

“People will realize we’re around once we break a story,” Daulerio says. “Being patient with them and whoever comes to the site as a reader. That’s what pays off.”

Photo of Rattus norvegicus by Jean-Jacques Boujot used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 21, 2015, 11:06 a.m.
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