SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — The Bold Italic is an experiment. Slickly designed but still in “beta,” the Gannett-owned San Francisco website has an image-heavy layout, an alt-weekly feel, and a focus on helping its readers find new places to spend their free time. “It’s not meant to replace anything” in the San Francisco print media, says Michael Maness, who, as Gannett’s vice president of innovation and design, founded the site and directed its operations until leaving to become a vice president of the Knight Foundation. Rather, the site is the result of research Gannett conducted with design and innovation consulting firm IDEO, examining the “unmet needs” of media consumers. One clear pattern Gannett and IDEO observed was that people connect to their cities through merchants, so they set out to create a publication that would solidify that piece of a city’s cultural identity. “You vote on citizenship by spending dollars on places that you like,” says Maness. (Laura Ramos now holds his position at The Bold Italic; she also succeeded him as Gannett’s VP of innovation and design.)
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Gannett picked San Francisco, a city of “digital natives” where it owns no other local properties, to test out a site whose content and business model are based on that idea. Since 2009, The Bold Italic’s stable of freelance writers–now numbering over eighty-five, branded “Bold Locals”–have focused on the backstories of local establishments like bars and vintage shops. The site carries no advertisements. Instead, it gets revenue by posting offers for deals around the city–25 percent off a walking tour and pizza tasting in North Beach, say–and by organizing events, independently or in partnership with local businesses. The Bold Italic recently hosted a speakeasy in the basement of a furniture store, for example, and regularly organizes events dubbed “microhoods“, in which readers are invited to explore what businesses amid a few square blocks of a given neighborhood have to offer.
In that sense, the site is less focused on newsgathering than on being the cool friend who drags you out to hip locales you wouldn’t otherwise know about. Indeed, The Bold Italic largely shuns breaking news, as research turned up reader irritation with media that tried to get readers to “look at it” all the time with constant updates. The site features one new story a day, linked through a graphic that takes up half the homepage. Design is as important as content; freelance designers craft a colorscheme, layout, and graphics for each individual story. The site’s full-time staff of five involves three “producers” who coordinate the process in addition to organizing the site’s events. “We purposely use designers that can storytell through the design,” says producer Jennifer Maerz.
A recent story called Grizzly Man, for example, delved into a hairy subset of San Francisco’s gay scene, complete with a visual guide to chest hair patterns. One of Maerz’s own recent stories was a photo essay about the DJs of KUSF, a community radio station owned by the University of San Francisco. It was a big local story when the university sold the station frequency to a classical station in January 2011, but Maerz’s objective was to show the faces of the DJs accompanied with a graphic that showed the number of years they had spent at the station. “We can take a story that a lot of people have been writing on and make it really visual,” she says.
Writers also make their stories really personal. Each writes in the first person with “authentic, transparent, subjective voices,” says Maness. “People want to understand the city through experiences.”
The Bold Italic Data
Name: The Bold Italic
City: San Francisco