BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — In 2004, a number of forces inspired Jonathan Butler to launch popular Brooklyn-based website Brownstoner.com. He was working at a hedge fund in Manhattan, a job that was losing its luster for him. A self-described real estate junkie, he had just submerged himself in the city’s market for months and finally purchased a brownstone house in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood called Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. And he was a big fan of blogs like Curbed and Gawker.
- Read more about Brownstoner
It occurred to Butler that starting a blog would allow him to continue following the real estate market while also providing some distraction from his day job. His first site on Blogger.com, says Butler, was launched “really on kind of a whim.” In retrospect, the timing was perfect: Brooklyn was entering a period of dramatic change with an influx of new development and residents, and Brooklyn newspapers had been slow to embrace the web.
An early feature of the new blog was Butler’s chronicling of his own experience renovating his home, but he also went beyond the personal to write about Brooklyn architecture, business, construction, real estate markets, and zoning laws. Within months, the site had garnered a passionate community of fellow Brooklyn residents who were eager for information–as well as an opportunity to air their opinions in the comments section. “The soul of the site goes to there being a lot of reader participation,” says Butler. “The first couple of years, the issues of gentrification, class, and race were all over the site. The comments were anonymous so people weren’t holding back. It was one of the places where people were having honest conversations about this stuff.” (New York magazine wrote a fascinating multi-thousand word article on a Brownstoner comments spat in 2008.)
Brownstoner moved from Blogger to MoveableType in January 2005 (Butler had bought the URL when he started blogging in anticipation of such a move) and continued to gain readership and influence. Within two years the site was nearing a million page views per month, and Butler took the step of leaving his day job to commit to the site full-time. Up to then, he hadn’t tried to sell advertising, mainly because his job with a financial institution made such relationships tricky. With that job behind him, Butler could sell banner ad space. He also brought on a full-time editor, two full-time writers, and a couple of part-time writers. Butler continues to be the site’s publisher and sole full-time employee on the business side.
The site regularly lists current open houses, and profiles of buildings and their architectural histories. Sloppy construction sites or controversial developments are often a topic of coverage. The site’s tone is casual rather than reportorial, more well-informed neighbor than intrepid news source. Today, the site receives two million page views per month and 250,000 unique visitors, according to Butler. 95 percent of readers are based in Brooklyn.
In 2008, Butler launched Brooklyn Flea, a vintage market with multiple locations around New York City and hundreds of vendors, with Eric Demby, former communications director for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. BrooklynFlea.com is a place where vendors and shoppers can find schedules and locations of markets as well as read blogs on all things related to Brooklyn Flea. It was an experiment that quickly outgrew Brownstoner in scope and that now generates more revenue than the original website. Although Brownstoner and Brooklyn Flea share an owner, they have different staffs. Brooklyn Flea is now the biggest flea market business in New York City, according to Butler. There are on average three weekly markets and between five or six thousand people attend them. In 2010 Citizens Union gave the site a Community Leadership Award for “creativity in building forums for exchange–both physical and virtual–that are strengthening New Yorkers’ spirit of community.”
But Brownstoner is far from dependent on its successful younger brother. The site has the advantage of a large niche advertising market. In addition to real estate brokers, legal firms, interior designers, and contractors all buy banner ads on the site. Butler is also currently working to expand revenue streams outside of advertising. For $24.95 to $49.95 per month, real estate brokers, contractors, and local businesses can purchase a listing in the Brownstoner Directory. The site has toyed with expansion into other cities, including a brief nine-month foray into the Philadelphia real estate scene in 2010 that proved unsuccessful.
Editorially, Butler says he is focusing even more on the roots of the original site by blogging more on architecture, and the personal elements of home ownership. But real estate will continue to be a topic of passion and controversy that draws readers, he says. “In New York City [real estate] is pretty juicy. It’s hard to go to a dinner party without some story coming up involving envy or honor. It goes beyond real estate; it’s almost like a sport or something.”