BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — Nearly four years ago, the late renowned Brooklyn blogger Robert Guskind pointed out in his coverage of the 2008 Brooklyn Blogfest the pressing need for hyperlocal news sites in the borough’s least-covered communities. “While some neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Park Slope are written about at length, others, such as Sunset Park and Sheepshead Bay - where there are compelling community issues - are seriously ‘under blogged,’” he wrote.
- Read more about Sheepshead Bites
Ned Berke, a young journalist two years out of college, was living in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood at the time he read Guskind’s column, and decided to heed the call. He launched Sheepshead Bites while working at a trade magazine in Manhattan. Three months later, he lost his job and had to move to Peru for a new one. He decided to keep the blog going anyway.
While the concept of hyperlocal reporting from another hemisphere seems a bit counterintuitive, Berke was helped along by a volunteer in Sheepshead Bay who posted updates to the site several times a week. For his part, Berke kept tabs on the neighborhood by keeping up e-mail correspondence with civic leaders and monitoring Google Alerts. “Back then, I was less concerned with comprehensive independent reportage than I was with simply being a channel for the various civic groups and residents to broadcast their concerns,” he says.
Berke describes Sheepshead Bites’ tone in its early days as “tongue in cheek” (hence its name), but the website gradually matured, and is now an all-encompassing news conduit that now offers around-the-clock updates and in-depth reporting on crime, politics and arts and culture, among other topics.
“I focus on telling stories that I know are too small for larger media outlets but that neighbors find interesting since it affects their everyday lives,” Berke tells CJR via e-mail. “I also want to be the first to find the larger stories that the bigger media might be interested in, and if I’m not the first to find them, I’ll be the first to say it in a way that Sheepshead residents care about—because there is no other outlet out there with writers and editors from the neighborhood.”
At launch, it only cost Berke about ten dollars and two hours of his time to install software, customize a template, and publish his first post, he says. Since then, he has redesigned the site, upgraded the server, adopted the WordPress content management system, invested in various equipment, and hired writers and sales staffers. Currently, the staff at Sheepshead Bites consists of Berke (who works full-time as the editor), his business manager (who works on commission), a dozen freelancers, three editorial interns, a marketing intern, and a handful of unpaid columnists who write about what they love. “What once cost me ten dollars a year now costs me thousands a month,” he admits. The site publishes between thirty-five and fifty posts a week and gets more than 200,000 pageviews a month from about 90,000 uniques, according to Berke.
While Sheepshead Bites covers everything from education and transportation to business and real estate, Berke says that some of his favorite kinds of coverage come from “the breaking stories that totally screw up my day.” For example, when Brooklyn resident Maksim Gelman went on his infamous stabbing spree, which began in Sheepshead Bay, Berke spent countless hours posting updates on the website, starting with the initial story of the murders without a known perpetrator, followed by a later story naming Gelman as the suspect, and even a timeline and map that traced the rampage through Brooklyn. Berke has also covered stories in other neighborhoods, including the collapse of a Brighton Beach building that had him on the scene phoning in updates to three different writers as they conducted background research and tried to tie all of the facts together.
Besides selling advertising spots to local businesses, Sheepshead Bites is able to generate revenue in a variety of other, more creative ways. Berke says that the website raises money through hosting different kinds of events in the area, such as Sheepshead Bites Night at Cyclones Stadium, where the staff not only promoted the outlet at a booth, but also showed their presence before the game when Berke and his business manager went out on the field. (Besides the opportunity to promote the brand, they earned money through ticket sales bought with a special coupon code they passed on to readers.)
Berke also did editorially consulting for New York events publication The L Magazine after it named Sheepshead Bites the Best Local Blog in Brooklyn and Manhattan and put the money back into the website’s development. Lastly, the staff has sold Sheepshead Bites t-shirts to fans of the outlet and hopes to create more merchandise for the community in the coming years. (Berke says the site is profitable, but declined to discuss specific revenue figures with CJR.)
In June 2011, Berke and his team launched Bensonhurst Bean, a sister website to Sheepshead Bites that serves the Bensonhurst neighborhood in south Brooklyn. Berke is the sole owner of both Sheepshead Bites and Bensonhurst Bean.
Moving forward, Berke believes that it’s important to stay on top of the constantly changing technologies that impact online journalism. “We’re already building out a suite of new services to better meet our readers’ and business partners’ needs, we’re looking into mobile, and we’re looking into whatever is after that,” he says. “When you’ve got a chip implanted in your brain, it’ll load Sheepshead Bites without breaking the template.”
Sheepshead Bites Data
Name: Sheepshead Bites
Principal Staff: Ned Berke, editor and publisher.
CMS: WordPress - OpenSource (.org)