From Online to Paper: blogdowntown to Publish a Weekly for Downtown L.A.

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Sample editions of blogdowntown Weekly in front of the 3rd Street tunnel | Photo courtesy of blogdowntown
It's not often you hear about an online publication announcing its transition to print. Because it is — although hackneyed — usually the opposite: "print is dying." But that's not true. At all.

And to prove that point, downtown's most well-known blog this morning announced that it will begin printing a weekly. blogdowntown Weekly will join LA Weekly and other papers on downtown news racks on Thursday, August 5th. To start, 25,000 tabloid-size, full-color papers will be produced.

The 16-page or so publication will mainly feature calendar and lifestyle content, leaving developing news to the blog, and each month will produce a special edition for the downtown Art Walk, which draws an estimated 12,000 people.

blogdowntown began in January of 2005 when Eric Richardson, now 27, took his computer programming skills (he programmed the blog from scratch), interest in news and Communications degree from USC — he never took a journalism class — and combined them as a hobby that followed downtown's renaissance. With the help of volunteer writers, including Ed Fuentes who is now the paper's Creative Director, the site grew and matured over the years, eventually finding its place as a sought-out voice for downtown residents.

The transition to paper got a kick start earlier this year when Richardson was approached by a local developer seeking to fund a published product about the neighborhood. When all was said and done, they had different visions and move their separate ways, but it got Richardson excited enough to continue on his own.

As the inaugural issue approaches, LAist dropped a handful of questions to Richardson about his thoughts on how he got to where he is, publishing online vs. print and more.

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Eric Richardson
When you started this five years ago, did you ever think you'd be where you are today?

Absolutely not. When people ask me how I got started with blogdowntown, I tell them it happened by accident. I was just a kid from USC who had moved Downtown and started to write about meetings I was going to and pieces of neighborhood trivia I happened across.

As I kept writing, the content gravitated toward news because that was what I was interested in. I consider myself a bit of a nerd when it comes to planning and transportation issues, and I always enjoyed just diving into an issue and trying to make sense of it for people. Those interests set the tone for how the site would grow. Even as we added writers, that tone carried over.

I still don't quite understand how we got from that point to where we are now, where we're reaching 30,000 readers monthly and writing stories that are making a difference in how Downtown develops. We just kept writing.

Maybe I should have known all this was coming, though. When I was 10 or 11 I was producing a newspaper called The Sumter Chronicle on a Commodore 64 and charging family friends a quarter for a subscription. I would sit there and listen to the BBC World News on shortwave and recap stories for the paper.

Like I said, I'm a bit of a nerd that way...

The print edition is going to focus on lifestyle and calendar. How important is news to that mix and how will you balance those in print and online?

I think you need to tailor your content to the strengths of each medium. News is best suited to the online world, where a story can evolve quickly as new developments take place.

We will certainly have some news in the paper, but it will be more a recap of what we've been talking about on the site or a high-level feature story that digs into an ongoing topic.

Ideally, the news content that we do pull into print will help draw readers to the website where they can be kept up to date throughout the week.

What were the challenges of trying to run a sustainable and profitable news organization that was online only?

It's just hard to find serious money when it comes to the online world, especially when you are more of a niche site without the big traffic numbers that come from targeting a wide audience.

Our first attempt was actually to be a non-profit. We set out to model ourselves after NPR, positioning the site as a community resource and looking for those who wanted to support what we were doing. I still think that's a model that is really interesting, but it just turned out to not be one that could work for us. It made things more complicated instead of making it easier for people to support us.

When we decided that we needed to change course, I started to seriously dig into the numbers. I put together projections for how I thought we could grow online, and it was certainly possible. It was slow, though. The more I started to look at the print model, the more I saw that as something that really had a lot of potential to accelerate the process for us. Despite what everyone says about print dying, it's still just a much more tangible medium for advertisers and that helps them put more money into it.

blogdowntown-weekly-edition.jpg What are five non-obvious things to do or places to check out that people must do when visiting downtown and why?

1. The City Hall observation deck. Everyone should take a trip up there. Just visit the building during business hours and tell them you want to go up to the observation deck. It's one of the best views of the Downtown skyline.

2. Take a trip around the walkway that circles the Disney Concert Hall. It's easy to miss it, but if you walk up to the garden level you'll find stairs that take you up around the front of the building. Cool views and a chance to get inside the skin of one of Downtown's most iconic buildings.

3. Go wander the tunnels below the County buildings in the Civic Center. There are a couple of corridors that are just amazingly long and straight. It's pretty bizarre, and I usually think I'm going to get lost. They're open to the public, though, so you don't even need to feel out of place.

4. Take some time to appreciate the Central Library. It's such a classic structure, and you can always find something interesting if you wander down to a section on L.A. history and just start looking through random books. Just don't go on a Sunday or Monday...

5. Go shop in the Flower District. You'll end up with a more colorful day, and you won't spend much money in the process. It's not just for Valentines Day.

Here at LAist, we love solid neighborhood blogs like yours. Any recommendations for those inspired to start a blog about their neighborhood or city?

It can be a heck of a lot of work, but that won't matter as much if you're doing something that you're interested in. Find your niche and write about that.