CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Today, Gapers Block is a smartly designed Chicago blog with everything you’d expect to see on a web-specific and geographically focused publication: there’s an events calendar, as well as tabs for food, arts, music, and politics. But if Gapers Block looks typical, that’s only because of its own influence on the “city blog” genre. When it launched in 2003, Gapers Block was Chicago’s first city-wide news and culture blog, and provided the kind of forum for cooperation between bloggers that the city’s burgeoning web culture had previously lacked.
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In March of 2003, editor-in-chief Andrew Huff and co-founder Naz Hamid came up with an idea for a collaborative site for bloggers focusing on Chicago. “He and I sat down in a coffee shop one day and sketched out a really basic layout,” Huff says. “Over the next couple of weeks we reached out to other bloggers whose writing we liked and who shared our enthusiasm about the city.” By 2006, the site was making enough money for it to be incorporated as a business (“because we realized we were selling enough t shirts and ads that the IRS probably needed to know,” says Huff).
Today, Gapers Block covers the typical “city blog” beat, and its content focuses on news, food, and cultural events around Chicago. But the site doesn’t fully conform to this model; Gapers’ front page is more Daily Beast than Gothamist, and Huff describes it as an “online magazine” rather than a blog. “What we’re doing a little more now is filtering through that news and generating our own content” he says, adding that Gapers also publishes opinion pieces on local and national political issues.
A look at the Gapers front page bears out this difference between the typical, Gothamist-style city blog and Gapers’ editorial philosophy. The front page includes three vertical columns: a constantly updated blog usually consisting of short posts on local news stories, an events calendar, and a column organizing longer articles from the site’s less-frequently updated books, culture, and politics sections. The sections column definitely tacks highbrow. Gapers runs a monthly book club for its readers at a local bar, and on one week in February, the arts section included a long feature on the rehabilitation of a historic Portage Park theatre, while the politics section had a first-hand account of union protests in Madison, Wisconsin.
Even as Gapers Block has expanded its coverage to include in-deth film criticism and political reporting, it hasn’t abandoned the kind of services that readers would expect from a locally focused blog. Huff says that the site’s calendar was one of its first features, and remains one of its most popular. “The event calendar is one of the main reasons we launched,” he says, explaining that other Chicago publications would include hundreds of listings that were seldom vetted for quality, or even targeted at those publications’ core readership. “It was really hard to find what was really worth going to,” he says. “Our goal was also to become like an arbiter of that, and to really point to the stuff that was worth your time.” Gapers ability to provide practical services for their readers reached a new level during January’s Chicago blizzard–Huff says that during the storm, Gapers used its Twitter feed to organize help for motorists stranded on Lake Shore Drive.
While Gapers doesn’t command the same readership as Gothamist’s New York branch (which could be called the prototypical city blog), its traffic is not insignificant: Huff says that the site receives a half-million page views a month, and attracts enough advertising revenue to support him as the site’s full-time editor in chief. He adds that there are eight modestly paid part-time editorial staffers, as well as about ninety volunteers who contribute everything from music reviews to technical expertise. The site has no plans for major expansion; Gapers Block is remaining true to its original model as a place where Chicago bloggers can come together to write about their city.
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Name: Gapers Block