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July 9, 2024, 12:17 p.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism

“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”

One night in May, reporter Eddie Kim went for a walk in San Francisco.

Kim, a news reporter for Gazetteer SF, wanted to retrace the steps of a tech company founder who tweeted that a two-mile walk from SoMa to Hayes Valley was “the sketchiest walk of my life.” (The tweet’s been viewed more than 43 million times.)

Kim’s experience was different. Taking this route and talking to people along the way, he found that the path laid bare the challenges that the city and its residents face, but it wasn’t “sketchy” or dangerous.

“We’re trying to do stories that get word of mouth going,” Kim told me in June. “I keep hearing from random people in my life, ‘That was such an interesting story’…That’s a kernel of what we need to replicate over and over again.”

Gazetteer SF, now in its fourth month of publication as a local news outlet with a hard paywall, aims to replicate that success without much social media to help. The publication isn’t on any social media platforms and minimizes the extent to which it can be found via search engine, using a “noindex” tag in its code to prevent Google from showing surfacing its content in search results.

Gazetteer also keeps its tech stack to the minimum, using SendGrid for its email newsletters, Subtext to send readers SMS updates, and publishing platform Lede for its website. (Other independent, reader-supported publications like Defector, L.A. Taco, and StreetsBlogNYC are also Lede clients.)

Founder and CEO Byron Perry got the inspiration for a (mostly) off-platform, subscription news site from running an on-platform digital news site in Asia for over a decade. Coconuts had launched in 2011 as a local news site covering Singapore and expanded to several other major Asian cities. Perry said Coconuts tried all kinds of ways to make money, from video to putting up a paywall to offering creative services and more.

“I think everybody gorged on cheap traffic and growth in the mid-2010s, but in the late 2010s realized that it wasn’t sustainable,” Perry said. “The platforms are the main way to reach people, but publications reaching people through these platforms are not making it work commercially.” Coconuts, too, failed, shutting down in December 2023.

“To me, there seemed to be an opportunity to try to eschew the platforms, have zero dependence on them, and build a totally independent publication and business model,” Perry said. One of Gazetteer’s first stories broke the news that local news site Hoodline was using AI to produce stories and journalist profiles.

Staffers can, and do use, their own social media accounts to share their Gazetteer stories. “If we can generate a little bit of talk on a platform like Twitter and not do it through a neutered Gazetteer brand-type [account], but just let the people who are doing the work talk, that has brought reassurance that people are seeing it,” Kim said. “The mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”

San Francisco is “the tech capital of the world,” Perry noted — which, perhaps counterintuitively, also made it the best place to launch Gazetteer SF, in his view. “People here just get it. They understand the negative influence of platforms,” he said. If Gazetteer succeeds in San Francisco, Perry wants to expand the idea to other cities across the United States.

Gazetteer has two years worth of funding through investments from Perry and David Finocchio, the co-founder and former CEO of Bleacher Report who now leads climate news startup The Cool Down. (The publication has other investors who want to remain private, Perry said.) It’s a for-profit publication and its main revenue stream is subscriptions priced at $7.77 per month. It currently has a staff of five journalists, with Perry as CEO and an administrative assistant. Perry doesn’t currently take a salary.

The Gazetteer website is bare bones, which Perry says keeps costs low and lets the team focus on writing. Articles don’t include featured images if good original photos aren’t available. There’s currently no advertising, though Perry is open to including local ads down the line. The focus right now is on producing journalism that makes people want to subscribe.

“It’s been very freeing and fun for all of us is write headlines with no SEO or social consideration,” Perry said. “We can actually think about the language and the wording and have fun with it, rather than caring about jamming in keywords or writing clickbait.” (Some recent headlines: “Those weird spam texts are a symptom of the loneliness epidemic,” “This Outer Sunset beach bungalow has survived electricity, the 1906 quake, and gentrification — so far,” and “Ahead of Trump’s visit to the City, we asked Republican women of SF their thoughts on abortion.”)

To help build a journalism business without relying on major tech platforms was both a welcome challenge and a relief to Kim. Not having to chase traffic was part of what attracted him to the job. Kim had previously worked for Slate, Vice, and both versions of MEL Magazine and was laid off from both.

“I don’t want to keep doing the same thing and become a victim of the same industry machinations over and over again,” Kim said. “I know that there’s goals in revenue and subscribers that we need to hit, but it feels so much more clear to me. It is so much less in the hands of other powerful people and more in the hands of what we are able to produce and how we can hit a media market that is both pretty saturated here in the Bay area, but yet very often tough to differentiate.”

Not using the tech platforms for distribution has its tradeoffs. Social media is a fast and convenient way to drive audience growth but requires relying on a platform’s algorithm. Staying off of them means Gazetteer has to be intentional about its outreach and audience engagement on and offline. So far, it has spent some of its marketing budget on printed flyers promoting its text line and readers can text in and get a response. When readers respond to SMS or email newsletters, they get responses from staff too. Gazetteer has also advertised on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website and plans to host in-person events, starting with its launch party on August 1. Perry also envisions Gazetteer billboards.

Gazetteer doesn’t use Google products like Google Analytics. Perry can see a few website metrics in Lede’s dashboard, but the rest of the staffers don’t have full access to that. He occasionally shares some statistics with them and declined to share story-specific pageview numbers with me. He said the site generates an average of 20,000 pageviews per month.

“It’s just universal that everybody who has worked at a traffic-driving publication, which is most publications, has extreme burnout and hated it ultimately,” Perry said. “It’s certainly not sustainable for the writers. And so they all burn out, they quit, they move to another job. They might leave journalism. Maybe worst of all, it’s not even working for the publications commercially.”

Forgoing that traditional strategy is working out well so far, according to Kim.

“For Byron to not just say that we’re empowered to follow our instincts, but to back it up by not overemphasizing this analytics view of journalism, it’s very freeing,” Kim said. “It’s been the common wisdom that you have to care about these metrics, but to not do it takes me back to why I care about this industry in the first place. You talk to certain people or you come across a certain bit of information and there’s something that happens in your gut, and then triggers something in your brain. That’s the high that keeps me in journalism, no matter how doom and gloomy the industry may seem.”

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     July 9, 2024, 12:17 p.m.
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