COLUMBUS, OHIO — Launched in 2001, Columbus Underground was founding editor Walker Evans’s answer to a lack of online resources for Columbus’s nightlife scene. A devoted fan of his city, Evans grew the site from a social calendar to a resource that helps the local community stay informed on just about everything Ohio’s capital city has to offer. With 2.1 million visits and 8.5 million page views in 2010, the site has seen nothing but growth in a climate that has seen other local publications decline.
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Evans attributes much of Columbus Underground’s success to its “robust” community, which he says has around 41,000 registered users. The site is open to the public, but creating a free account allows readers to contribute to the conversation on the site’s message boards. At just about any hour of the day, Evans says several hundred community members are weighing in on anything from the best sushi spot in town to a range of local and national political topics.
The message board, typically a breeding ground for internet delinquency, plays an important role on the site. Evans says that the members, although relatively anonymous, keep it civil because they are a civic-minded bunch and that “everyone on the site is a neighbor or a friend of a friend in real life. You never know who you might bump into.”
The Underground integrates the voices of the local community into its unique form of civically minded journalism. When Evans interviewed the city’s Republican mayoral candidate in March 2011, 90 percent of his questions came from community members who posed questions on the site. Evans, who sits on the boards of several community organizations, isn’t afraid of blurring the typically separate roles of journalism and civic leadership, and sees his approach as a way to open up communication between citizens and their elected officials. According to the site, the city of Columbus used input from Columbus Underground to decide where in the city to place bicycle racks and two-wheeled vehicle parking.
The serious civic focus doesn’t stop Evans and company from having a good time, however. In 2006, ColumbusUnderground.com started hosting happy hour meet-ups, designed to connect community members and help readers discover new parts of the city. (The site earns warm feelings rather than revenue from the events, which attract as many as sixty readers for each outing.)
Evans says the web format has allowed him to be fast and fluid, often beating local print media to break news. One of the site’s specialties is coverage of urban development—a passion of Evans’s. He’s particularly proud of the site’s coverage of Columbus’s ambitious 2010 downtown development plan. The site produced a twelve-part series on the preceding community meetings, interviewed council members, and profiled the design firm hired for the task.
Started when Evans was twenty-one, Columbus Underground grew steadily until Evans incorporated the business and began selling ads four years later, in 2005. By then, it was still a part-time effort that he often shared with his wife, Anne. In 2007, the couple decided to focus on the site full-time, and brought in Melanie McIntyre as an editorial director and Jared Thompson as advertising director. Evans and Anne split the duties of running the site, the weekly newsletter, and their popular Twitter and Facebook accounts. McIntyre contributes to Columbus Underground, but is mainly responsible for a separate site, The Metropreneur, a local resource for small business development in Columbus that Evans and his team launched in August 2010.
As far as business goes, Evans says he’s seen nothing but growth. Supported strictly by advertising, Columbus Underground maintains its bottom line by bringing its local community approach to its business dealings. Instead of pursuing larger clients, he appeals to boutique advertisers who might not be able to afford the prices of an ad in the local paper. Click around the site and you’ll see ads for the local female roller derby team, the local microbrew hangout, and Columbus’s new organic grocer.
By keeping its focus local and listening to the community, Columbusunderground.com is bringing its city a new brand of web journalism that is fast, fluid, and passionate about the community it serves.
Columbus Underground Data
Name: Columbus Underground
Principal Staff: Walker Evans, co-founder and CEO; Anne Evans, co-founder and COO.
CMS: WordPress - OpenSource (.org).
CJR on Columbus Underground:
12/07/11: Where’s the Party? - News startups bring their readers together offline - Alysia Santo
05/12/11: Q&A: Walker Evans of Columbus Underground - “We try to shape our editorial calendar around our audience” - Lauren Kirchner