MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — After merging two local blogs to launch a news site several years ago, web developers Jeramey Jannene and Dave Reid have a strong presence in downtown Milwaukee, serving up local urban news on their combined effort, Urban Milwaukee.
Jannene and Reid do not shy away from writing with a very defined perspective. “We’re not simply reporting; there’s a level of advocacy there,” says Reid. At the core of it all, says Jannene, is the intersection of design and activity in an urban environment. Issues that fall under the site’s purview include historic preservation, architecture, and neighborhood density. One of the biggest areas of coverage for the site is transportation, such as the complete streets movement, which encourages safe, shared roadways for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and wheelchair users alike.
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Urban Milwaukee’s biggest mission lately has been coverage of—and advocacy for—a transit project that will bring modern streetcars to the city. Jannene and Reid even designed T-shirts to sell to streetcar enthusiasts to both fund the ongoing coverage of the project and help visibly show support for the streetcar at Milwaukee Common Council meetings.
The pair says that their site fills a gap in coverage of issues that aren’t always seen as important to larger news organizations. Jannene says that Milwaukee residents would be able to find broader coverage of issues such as transportation, but it’s unlikely that another news outlet would cover an issue like the changes to particular bus routes as extensively as Urban Milwaukee. His site is very focused in its niche, he says: “The few stories we cover we like to explore in great detail.”
And while Jannene says he wouldn’t call Urban Milwaukee an activist group, they do have a mission—to champion urban life in the Cream City—and their articles are written in light of that mission. “We stick to the facts,” says Jannene. “But the end product is not the same as what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel puts out.”
Former hobby bloggers who were both covering development and quality of life issues in Milwaukee, Jannene and Reid discovered they had a great deal in common. They lived near each other, had similar interests and both worked as independent web developers. So they decided to join forces and merge their sites in June 2008. They run Urban Milwaukee out of a shared downtown office, which also serves as the headquarters for their respective web development businesses.
The content on Urban Milwaukee’s clean, linear site is divided into categories such as transportation, government, politicians and neighborhoods. Each post is tagged with the neighborhood it relates to, making it easier for residents to browse through the issues most relevant to their area. Those neighborhoods with the most content—some have no related posts; others have dozens—are set aside on a drop-down list on the top menu bar.
Jannene says he and Reid try to post at least three pieces a week, but the frequency depends on what is going on, both news-wise and in their careers as web developers. The news site also has the occasional help of four non-paid contributors, each with their areas of expertise.
In addition to original writing on Milwaukee, Jannene and Reid have also developed a web product to aggregate news from elsewhere, called UrbanismNews. Since they were already reading a number of news feeds about urban news and development, it was a logical next step for them to develop a site that would allow them to curate and share the most important news. The Milwaukee version of the widget, which is displayed prominently on UrbanMilwaukee.com, brings together content from a variety of sources, including larger, more traditional news organizations like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Business Journal, and other sources such as college newspapers and advocacy groups like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
Jannene says they haven’t fully developed the product just yet, but they already have pages built for more than twenty cities, including Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Miami, and even Copenhagen, Denmark. Reid, sometimes with the help of Jannene, personally curates the newsfeeds for the site each morning. Although the pair employ Google Ads on the site, they haven’t yet generated a dollar, says Jannene, because almost everyone consumes the content via Twitter or the widgets. “Urbanism News generates a lot of traffic, just almost none of it comes from people visiting UrbanismNews.com,” he says.
Right now, says Jannene, Urban Milwaukee is mostly a labor of love. The site generates “a fair amount of advertising revenue” from local advertisers, but not yet enough to make it profitable. More importantly for Jannene and Reid, however, is that because they are web developers by trade, Urban Milwaukee becomes the showpiece for what they can do for clients.
Reid says traffic is dramatically higher today than when the pair first merged their blogs in 2008. According to him, the site’s monthly visitors we in the hundreds at that time. “We were just blogging as we had time,” he says. “It was a hobby at that point.” Now, Reid says, the more established site gets about 15,000 visitors during a busy month. In addition, Urban Milwaukee has just over 1,000 e-mail and RSS subscribers and engages with over 1,000 people through Twitter. Their growth hasn’t been steady, says Jannene, but rather a step-by-step process. The first step up came with the merger of the two blogs and then continued to increase in stages as coverage of hot-button issues triggered more interest among readers.
The developer-journalists say they would love to see Urban Milwaukee grow to a point where it generates enough revenue (through ads, T-shirt sales, UrbanismNews or any other means) that at least one of them could focus on the site full time. “Right now we’re just kind of focused on building a brand, and monetizing it later,” said Jannene, who calls this a short- to mid-range goal. “We’ll call it the Twitter approach, I guess.”
But ultimately, Urban Milwaukee is about more than the metrics and revenue it attracts. “A key piece for me is that at Urban Milwaukee, we try to effect change,” says Reid. “It’s about seeing Milwaukee become a better place.”
Urban Milwaukee Data
Name: Urban Milwaukee
Principal Staff: Jeramey Jannene and Dave Reid, co-publishers.
Affiliations: Business: Google AdSense, Offermation