SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Eve Batey, editor and publisher of The San Francisco Appeal, thinks it’s important to stick to the journalism basics. She says that a clean layout, good writing, and quality reporting are what drive a successful publication.
SF Appeal has dubbed itself “San Francisco’s Online Newspaper.” The content is almost entirely locally focused—San Francisco news, culture and entertainment, food, weather, and events. Most readers are based in the city, though some click on from the wider Bay Area, particularly in the evenings when readers commute out of the urban center.
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Batey has years of experience in the San Francisco media world. She was one of the founding writers for SFist—another city-focused online publication—and was deputy managing editor for online at the San Francisco Chronicle. In March 2009, Batey decided to go it alone and launch SF Appeal.
Batey doesn’t think of her website as hyperlocal, nor the audience as niche. San Francisco is a big city, she says, and her readers want to know what’s going on in their city on a number of levels. Breaking news usually gets the most traffic, but the site also has movie and theater reviews, food reviews, a calendar of upcoming events, and even a weather map for the local area.
The front page features hard news, such as the recent San Francisco protests against Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and crime reporting, such as a recent string of robberies targeting taxi drivers. The writing is conversational, heavy on hyperlinks, and geared towards a local, in-the-know audience.
SF Appeal articles can be as short as a hundred-word bulletin or as long as a thousand-word feature. To comment on a story, readers must create an account and sign in; this may be a deterrent, as the website doesn’t seem to garner a lot of comment traffic. Readers can also sign up for a daily e-mail newsletter to get news directly in their inboxes.
In terms of design, the look of SF Appeal is simple. The background is white, and just a few stories are highlighted at a time in large text at the top of the homepage, with the rest listed in smaller type below. While articles are accompanied by photographs, the website is light on multimedia. Batey says this minimal style is intentional—she’s not trying to overwhelm her readers with visual content.
“When a slideshow is relevant, we use it, and when it doesn’t make sense, we don’t. We use a video when it makes sense, and when it doesn’t, we don’t. Too many widget things make a site look silly,” she says.
Batey’s advertising strategy is closely tied to her preference for clean aesthetics. A handful of ads line each webpage, but they don’t interfere with a reader’s experience on the site. Business needs often drive editors to pack in as many ads as possible, says Batey, but she’s adamant about making sure her readers don’t feel “accosted.”
As a private company, SF Appeal gains all of its revenue through ad sales on both a regional and national level. It has never received any institutional grants. For effective advertising, deals are often struck with large-scale companies that represent a client with a San Francisco focus. To backfill ads, SF Appeal’s advertising director, Tim Ehhalt, also uses content from Google’s AdSense program. Through all of its ad sales, the website generates enough income to pay eleven regular contributors, who all work as freelancers. Batey is the only full-time staffer.
Unlike many publications, SF Appeal isn’t shy about its metrics. A Sitemeter link at the bottom of the home page allows anyone to take a look at how many unique visits and page views the website has received. Over the last year, the average number of visits was just under 170,000 per month.
While no new records have been set, the site has been steadily gaining unique visits from June through August 2011. It’s a period of growth, says Batey; but, sticking to her journalistic intuition, she says the numbers aren’t the only things that matter.
“If you’re proud of the work that you do, and you’re doing a good job, that’s just as important as your traffic,” she says. But adds, “I’m hopeful that we’ll always be growing. If we aren’t, then we’re screwed.”
The San Francisco Appeal Data
Name: The San Francisco Appeal
City: San Francisco
Principal Staff: Eve Batey, editor and publisher.