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April 8, 2015, 10 a.m.
Business Models

The Bold Italic, Gannett’s San Francisco attempt to find a new way to do local, is shutting down

Launched in 2009, the site was an experimental way of rethinking local news and information

The Bold Italic, a local San Francisco site, surprised its audience yesterday by announcing that it was shutting down. “Together we have built a strong community of followers, contributors, and partners. However, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations,” the site said in a post announcing its closure. “It’s been a great run and we supremely thank everyone who has supported us along the way.” Its audience mourned on social media:

The site was owned by newspaper giant Gannett, but from the start it went out of its way to deemphasize that fact. It launched in 2009 as a very un-Gannett-like experiment that featured irreverent and proudly un-newsy content; it may have popped up in your social streams last week for an April Fools’ Day post about the staff allegedly working naked for a month. (Photos NSFW.)

“Executive producer” Laura Ramos and editor-in-chief Jennifer Maerz both declined to comment on the closure. Maerz directed me to Gannett’s vice president of corporate communications, who also declined to comment. But because this is 2015, Maerz did share her thoughts on Medium:

The Bold Italic was an experiment in trial and error. We didn’t have strict guidelines about what we could or couldn’t cover, and we used our space in the media world to try out so many ideas, some of which resonated and others that fell completely flat or instigated streams of wrathful comments. But through everything, those of us committed to this site — from the staff to our wonderful pool of freelance writers and illustrators and made-up chart makers and photographers — we created this site out of love for our city and a passion for expressing that love in new and unusual ways. I’ll be forever grateful to Gannett for letting us help tell our cities’ stories in our own way.

The Bold Italic described itself as “not a news site” and built its editorial and business approaches around engagement with the community. “The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of The Bold Italic, but they are the true opinions, experiences, and thoughts of writers from the diverse community we live amongst,” the site proclaimed.

Michael Maness, at the time Gannett’s vice president for innovation and design, oversaw the launch of The Bold Italic, and he said Gannett launched the site as an experiment to re-examine how to produce local news and information digitally. The company worked with design firm IDEO to try and build a new local news organization from scratch that targeted “key influentials and tastemakers.”

An IDEO writeup highlighted some of the ideas behind the site:

The project was staffed evenly by Gannett and IDEO employees, which led to a highly collaborative effort. A few Gannett executives relocated to be on-site in San Francisco, where IDEO conducted several rounds of field research, prototyped various ideas, and tested potential offerings with target consumers and merchants.

Together, the team found that today’s readers appreciate subjectivity (vs. strict objectivity), find narrative writing a refreshing alternative to Twitter-esque communiqués, and prefer highly designed premium content to user-generated scrawl. The team also determined that the site shouldn’t try to be all things to all people.

As a result, Gannett and IDEO refocused the start-up’s mission. The offering would expose San Francisco’s cultural core, rather than simply its civic image. The stories published would unearth rare tidbits about the city, outline offbeat urban adventures, and inform citizens about local products and services. To encourage this, the creative team ran new methods for generating content by writers and designers, breaking journalism’s conventional pitch meeting mold in order to establish the most efficient, creative environment possible for developing story ideas…

The site represented the best of old and new media, pairing carefully crafted editorial content with a diverse set of voices. The Bold Italic encouraged San Francisco citizens to become better locals by inspiring new ways to interact with the city. Publishing a cover story everyday, The Bold Italic delivered new intel on San Francisco by a team of savvy residents.

“We found that people really wanted to feel really good about living in the city that they’re in and celebrate things and uncover and discover new things to do there, as well as stay informed,” said Maness, who eventually left Gannett for a high position at the Knight Foundation (disclosure: a Nieman Lab funder). He is now innovator-in-residence at Harvard Business School (disclosure: right down the street from us).

Maness said Gannett chose to debut the site in San Francisco specifically because it didn’t own any other media properties in the area; he said the goal was to expand the site to additional markets, which is why the site’s name wasn’t explicitly tied to San Francisco. Last September, The Bold Italic began covering Los Angeles as well.

Maness said one of the key parts of Gannett’s experiment with the site was to design it for “a world without advertising.” And though The Bold Italic did ultimately publish advertising and sponsored content, it looked for other ways to generate revenue. At one point, it experimented with a print magazine.

It also explicitly framed support of local businesses as a key part of its model:

We support businesses. The merchants, food carts, coffee shops, galleries, bars, and bookstores we patronize everyday are an undeniable part of how we understand and define our lives, personal spaces, and communities. It’s our mission to commemorate the greatness, beauty, innovation, and heart involved in doing business.

The site was an early adopter in using live events to bring in cash and build community, a strategy since taken up by many other online outlets. “What we stumbled upon is that people who really like these kinds of online stories wanted to have offline adventures, and one of the easy ways to do that was to think about how we have these events — that we have sponsors for, we have people pay for tickets, we have underwriters for,” Maness said. “We saw that as a really important space to move into, and one where revenue was there.”

Events remained a key part of The Bold Italic’s identity until the very end. Last month, it put on a wedding expo and it was scheduled to host an event later this month featuring locally inspired cocktails. Perhaps befitting an operation that covered cocktails, the announcement seemed to drive some editorial staffers (like managing editor Jeremy Lybarger) to the bottle:

It’s been a rough stretch for Bay Area media. The Digital First newspapers are all up for sale; in February the monthly magazine 7×7 folded its print operations to refocused solely on digital; last October, legendary alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian also shut down after 48 years.

POSTED     April 8, 2015, 10 a.m.
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