Last Fall, a new, city-mag-style Web site quietly planted its flag in the crowded San Francisco blogosphere. There was no launch party, no ad campaign, just an eye-catching design and a single, first-person story about weird exercise classes on offer in the Bay Area. A few days later, another story, about a bike-thief stakeout. By the end of its first month, The Bold Italic had also tackled the how-to of street musicianship and the etiquette of a strip-club visit.
But despite the eclectic approach, one topic seems too touchy for the site to address directly: its ownership. The Bold Italic is a Gannett experiment, led by Michael Maness, the company’s vice president of innovation and design. But Maness’s name is absent from the site, and Gannett’s is mentioned only once—buried in the 3,000-word terms of service. (Full disclosure: the site I work at, Bundle.com, has had conversations about collaborating with The Bold Italic on an editorial project.)
Keeping quiet about the site’s lineage is a strategic move. Gannett is still a traditional company; its family-friendly newspapers are not likely to use the word “tranny” or end a story about marijuana dispensaries with helpful local listings, as The Bold Italic does. And while the arm’s-length approach allows Gannett to maintain its squeaky reputation, The Bold Italic is free of association with its stodgy parent. As Jim Goss, an analyst who covers Gannett for Barrington Research, says, “Sometimes it’s good not to tie a new project to something that’s perceived as a challenged brand.”
And this is a new project (it’s still in beta), with a new function—to “help people be better locals,” according to Maness—and an upbeat tone. Maness found that readers are frustrated with journalism’s claims of objectivity and its focus on corruption, crime, and disasters. So Bold Italic stories are written in the first person, and the site doesn’t cover bad news. “People want to feel good about where they live,” Maness says. The site’s freelance writers aren’t necessarily trained journalists. “We don’t even call it journalism,” he says, preferring to talk about “storytelling” and “narrative.”
The sunny, service-oriented approach carries over to the business model, which depends on listings and targeted ads. A black tab on the side of the screen functions as a “clipbook,” where readers can bookmark events and businesses that interest them; that information will “help match merchants with potential customers who share their passions,” according to the site’s About Us section. (Maness didn’t offer specifics about Gannett’s investment or financial targets, but says the site is generating money “in fits and starts,” and added, “We’re patient for quick profit, but we’re impatient for early revenue.”)
While the implications of product placement may make traditionalists nervous, early reviews have been flattering. The Webby awards gave the site an honorable mention, and tech blog Gizmodo complimented its iPad app. And traffic, though modest—a big story might approach 20,000 page views—is growing.
Jim Hopkins, a former USA Today journalist who runs a blog about Gannett from his San Francisco home, says he likes the writing and the tone. But more than that, Hopkins says, “I like it because it’s Gannett. They’ve historically been so timid, and this is nothing you’d ever see in a Gannett product, period.” For this exercise in anti-branding, that is, perhaps, the first mark of success.