One of Chicago’s original bloggers discusses why he’s signing off

AP file photo of the Chicago skyline at night.

A few days ago, the publisher of the Chicago digital news staple Gapers Block wrote a farewell letter to his readers, announcing that the 12-year-old weblog would be on hiatus after the first of the year and may not return.

It was hard for him to write the goodbye, cofounder Andrew Huff admitted to his readers. But the reality was that the internet had changed, and he was tired.

“At this point, I think Gapers Block’s model is just out of date,” Huff wrote. “The site structure is out of step with the way online media functions, and while we provide a fantastic platform for local journalism, our audience is shrinking and our opportunities for revenue are too.”

Gapers was an original in Chicago, a space for bloggers and independent writers to congregate and muse on the city, writing about culture and the arts, politics and the Cubs. It was alone when it launched in 2003. A year later, the site Chicagoist, which is published under the Gothamist franchise, joined the scene.

What made Gapers Block unique was Huff’s vision that bloggers could form a community, that outside of the virtual newsroom they could meet for beers. Blogging didn’t have to be simply a solo act (even if, as he wrote in his farewell post, Huff remained by far the site’s most frequent writer).

The trouble for Huff and for Gapers is that, in the end, he could not find a way to make money—or at least, not enough money that it could persist as a sustainable business, rather than his passion project.

Mike Fourcher, publisher of Aldertrack, a Chicago political news site, captured it best in a blog post on Monday, noting the financial difficulties of sustaining a site like Gapers—an independent local outlet that grows out of one person’s vision. “The Struggle: On the one hand, local readers love your site and brand,” Fourcher wrote. “On the other hand, they’re just not willing to pony up money pay for it, and your local take on things doesn’t really extend beyond the region you’re in. You make enough money to keep the enterprise going, but not really enough to expand to a full staff. And how would you grow, anyway?”

I talked to Huff by telephone about his decision to put Gapers Block on hold—or end it. Either way, it won’t be back next year under his stalwart leadership.

In your letter to readers, you called this a hiatus. The Chicago Reader speculated that you couldn’t bring yourself to call it what it was: that you were closing. Could you explain?

To a certain degree, that’s correct. I don’t know if it will return. But the main reason I called it a hiatus is that it’s possible I will bring it back or somebody else will bring it back. I really need a break, and I think that if Gapers Block returns it will be in a different format. It will be something not so heavily reliant on daily content. But it’s unlikely to return as it is now.

You noted that the internet has changed. Why is the Gapers Block model out of date?

Gapers Block has basically had the same format since 2003, the multiple sections of things divided up similarly to a newspaper. That format is less and less workable on the web especially as it moves to the mobile web. When people are on their phones it’s harder to navigate between sections. That’s one factor. The daily content that we produce in Merge, where it’s one or two sentences with lots of links, we developed that before Twitter existed. It translates kind of oddly to Twitter and really to Facebook as well. [And] Gapers Block is not responsive, which is a very big issue especially now that Google is penalizing websites in search if they don’t have a site that is responsive.

What has filled the space of Gapers Block?

Twitter, Facebook. They connect you to stories that are often geographically located and something you’d be interested in your community, whatever that community would be. Over the years there are just so many new sites. Some of them are here and now. Some of them have come and gone. I think DNAinfo has done an excellent job. They benefit from the fact that they have billionaire benefactor. But they aren’t alone. Since Gapers Block started, there have been other sites that cover the entire city, but there have been smaller sites that cover their area better than we could and fill in those gaps that have been left by [the daily newspapers] the Tribune and Sun-Times essentially sacrificing their local coverage.

It’s interesting that you noted the foundations and other [potential funders] wanted you to remain involved. Why is it such a big challenge in the journalism start-up world to build something that lasts beyond the founder or founders?

In this case, [it’s] because Gapers Block never lost money but it never made much. I couldn’t afford to pay somebody full-time, and that really limited the ability for someone to take it over. I made about as much as a [recently graduated] journalist for the last 12 years. It’s really difficult to keep that up. The fact that I had to freelance and that I had all the Gapers Block stuff on my shoulders as well meant I couldn’t take on projects that were more interesting. I couldn’t innovate or concentrate on fixing the back end because I was a slave to the daily grind.

What is your plan for going cold turkey from the internet?

I can’t go completely cold turkey, but I am planning only on engaging social media on my phone, and in the evenings I won’t be online. I’m pretty much in front of my computer all day and all night.

Love news about local news? Then sign up for the United States Project weekly email.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.