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LAist Editor Tony Pierce Moves on to LA Times -- Mainstream Media Will Never Be the Same

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It’s been a whirlwind of a day here at LAist. Early this morning our Editor told the staff via email that he would soon be accepting a new job at the LA Times running all of their blogs (of which there are about 25, currently) and that he would be starting in just a few weeks.

We all knew this day would come, but so soon? Since the moment Tony Pierce began at LAist back in June 2006, things started changing: mainly, he brought a huge blast of energy and a passion for blogging about all that makes this the best city in the world. Over the last 17 months, LAist has gone from a great blog to the most popular city-based blog west of Manhattan. He’s a leader, an inspirer and, if you ever get the chance, a great mentor. From all the writers, we thank you Tony and we wish you best of luck down on Spring Street.

For his exit interview, News Editor Andy Sternberg and myself sat down with Tony and chatted up his future, the media and other fun.

Andy: So is this a new position for the Times?
Tony: From what I understand it is a new position. Currently Bettie Rinehart has been in charge of the blogs which have been built out to about 25 blogs on the Times. But it sounds like my job will be slightly different from what she's been up to.

Zach: Day one, what would you like to start doing?
Tony: On day one I would like to throw out a bunch of ideas to my new boss and find out which ones she likes and which ones she thinks are lame. And then I would like to do the cool ones that we agree on. But I'm not insane, the Times is an old, established, successful organization. Things don't change as quickly as you guys probably think. LAist was a different beast. One Monday last year Jake said he wanted Food every day. Two weeks later we had food every day. I'm pretty sure a huge organization like the LAT works a tad slower.

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Andy: Will your boss be Meredith Artley?
Tony : Yes, she's one of the main reasons why I accepted the job. Currently I have the two coolest bosses in the world, Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung. Jen is the greatest blogger who ever lived. And Jake and Jen have given me the pleasure of working unrestrained for 17 months. Trust is a huge thing for me and they gave it to me in spades. So leaving that relationship was very hard.

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Zach: A lot of people like to complain about LAT's lack of local coverage, how will you change this perception if this is a direction you think they need to go in?
Tony : One of the nice things about their blog set-up in relation to their print side is the blog can do a lot more local things that those critics are asking for. The Homicide Blog, for example, is a super-fascinating angle on murders in LA that the print side probably isn't interested in doing. But in reality the Times publishes close to 100 stories a day. My role would be to present those stories in such a way that people will say, "oh wow they really do cover LA way better than we thought, it just got lost in the design or something."

Zach: Blogs are good at covering this in the blogLAsphere, What about a City Hall Insider blog?
Tony: From the vibe I got during my interviews there, the Times is open to new ideas. If it is decided that the readers want something like that, then I'm sure it will get launched. My job is to make sure that once that happens it is successful. So if the public says that they want it, they better support it by participating in the comments, linking to it off their blogs, and driving traffic to it, otherwise how will we know that its successful? I'm sure there will be a long list of things that people say that they want, and it will be my job to evaluate those ideas.

Andy: You've been blogging passionately for many years. You've even written a few books directly from your blog posts. How different is blogging now than it was when you began?
Tony : Blogging has changed a lot just in the last year. If you pay attention to the Technorati 100, the top of the stack is very volatile. Tastes change every week. When I started, a lot of conservative blogs were far more popular than they are now. Now gadget blogs are hot. Also, people are starting to make money blogging, which has launched blogs about making money while blogging. I sorta hate those blogs. Because to me, blogging should be something you do out of love. Which is one ideal that has worked for LAist.

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Andy: You really think Technorati will be around in 5 years? Or will a major media group acquire it?
Tony: I think that list - or a newer more accurate list - will be around in 5 years. It might not be Technorati. It might be Nielsen or Google or Yahoo. Or who knows, maybe a newspaper will start tracking all 100 million + blogs once their blogs are in the top .01%.

Andy: What drives your desire to manage the "doubters" blogs, i.e. mainstream media? Can an LA Times succeed with a broad selection of blogs on a level with the Gothamists and Gawkers of the world?
Tony: I believe that newspaper blogs will dominate the Technorati Top 100 in the next 5 years. Simply due to the fact that they have the best writers, they are the ones actually gathering news, and they have the best photographers, and the tightest infastructure. They're doomed for success as long as they stop fighting the inevitable. So I am looking forward to working with real pros. Also, all links end up going back to an MSM source - not to a blog, therefore what that MSM source does with that movement is critical. Right now the buck stops there. What would happen if it points to one of its internal blogs that can provide more info? If they did that properly it would be the death of fools like Drudge who have fewer quality links, less credibility, and a clearly obvious and clownish agenda. "Hillary is a lesbo" has been his drumbeat all week. That's something even he doesn't believe, and it's proof that he's not serious about politics.

Huffington Post showed up out of nowhere when no one asked for another political blog and is now getting more hits than Drudge mostly because they are serious about politics and they're echoing what regular Americans actually believe. Therefore if the MSM simply organized themselves a tad better, they could use that credibility and the natural flow of blog traffic to fuel their online ventures.

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Zach: A lot of traditional MSM fits in a box, how will you break their box to create better bloggers?
Tony: I don't think I'm powerful enough to break anything singlehandedly that the MSM has created over centuries. I can barely encourage you knuckleheads to give me some Neighborhood Project posts. All I hope to do is inspire the Times to continue to do what theyve done brilliantly on paper - online. In all reality, I will be just be an extended part of the Marketing department.

Zach: How much will you be writing vs. managing and inspiring?
Tony: I don't think I will be writing at all. Those are Pulitzer prize winners over there. I don't even know how to spell that award without a Firefox plugin, so who are we kidding. Yes I've written over 2,500 posts for LAist in a year and a half, but the strength of the Times is their current staff.

Andy: You've been successful as the lead editor of a group blog -- LAist. How will you motivate / approach the Times people to absorb your inspiration and ideas and go with it, considering the general resistance to change within age-old publications?
Tony : That is the big question. Can someone from outside of journalism inspire real pros? And can the MSM break through in the blogosphere. Currently there's not one newspaper blog in the Technorati Top 100, which is a challenge that I'm more than happy to take on.

Andy: Will you take a different approach? It can't be easy to just fire off a mass e-mail to a bunch of Pulitzer prize winners
Tony: Fortunately former SFist editor Eve Batey made the jump to the SF Chronicle and has been quite successful. So i hope to steal from her a lot. But I would imagine that my emails to LAist would be met with the same meh as my emails to the people at the LAT if some trust hadn't been established first. And trust is usually tied to experience and respect. I think anyone who has paid attention to the Web in the last 6 years is familiar with me and probably respects me, which is probably one reason I got the gig. It sure ain't because of my fancy clothes.

Zach: Is podcasting going under your wing?
Tony: I think so. I hope so. I know user generated content will be part of my responsibilities. The concept of The Hive is something that the LAT could benefit from in a huge way.

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Andy: Can you explain The Hive a little more?
Tony: Sure, if you look at successful sites like Digg, Reddit, Fark, Metafilter and even YouTube... you will see that when a large amount of people contribute to one site, the best stuff rises to the top. People in LA love the LA Times. And there are so many very smart very talented people in LA. If you could harness that love and talent in a real community, you could do things that no staff of even 2,000 could do. For example theres a ton of rain today. But that rain looks different in Malibu than it does in Compton, than it does on the 405, than it does in East LA. If 5,000 people took pics of how the rain has affected their little universe and put it in one place, that would tell the story very quickly and very accurately. Then if those same people voted, in a way, on the best images and videos, the ones at the top of those lists would probably be pretty awesome. That is one way that newspapers can use the Hive to help tell the ongoing story of their cities. So imagine what they could do for other events / tragedies / holidays. Imagine what it would have been like during the riots of the early 90s and 60s.

Andy: Are there any news sites that particularly impress you as far as their approach to blogging and attracting UGC?
Tony: The Houston Chronicle has led the way for newspaper blogging and user generated content. And I really like the NYT's City Desk blog - City Room. But the entire industry has only just started to really wake up because they had resisted the whole thing for so long. Rightfully. And now that they know that digital is the way to go, it's right for them to get it together. But as that Elvis record sorta said: 100 million blogs can't be wrong.

Andy: Where will you tie up your horse on Spring Street?
Tony: I started blogging with a personal blog (that I still write) called the busblog. Working at LAist, I've never even had to get out of my pajamas. So I'm very happy to announce that i will be back on the bus, actually i will be using the red line to work every day. Also the LAT is only 5 miles from my house so maybe in the summer i will omg ride my bike and utilize the bike lane that runs down Sunset to downtown.

Zach: Don't go cycling in Beverly Hills
Tony: the only thing i do in beverly hills is buy loose jewels for my monocle and diamonds for my grillz.

Andy: Will the busblog be more or less active as a result of the job
Tony: thats a really good question when i started at LAist i was really idealistic in relation to my personal blog but it really suffered. I lost about 75% of my readers and all my ads, both of which i could live with cuz Bush has proven that your base alone can keep you alive. But something tells me i will have better stories to tell with this new gig so who knows, maybe the busblog will make a huge comeback. Which if thats the case, i will have no problem if you call it a comeback. Even though I've been there for years.

Andy: Will you be restricted by any Times policy from what you can write about (aside from the obvious)?
Tony: Probably. I'm joining a huge corporation. Something that I am used to. I've worked for huge places before. And even being editor of LAist I toned down what topics I wrote about on my personal blog, so i have no problems with that. Since 8/11/01 when I started blogging, I've written about 7,500 posts. I've had plenty of time to rock the mic. Now I'd like to help others reach the blogosphere, because it's a great audience.

Zach: Will it be a nice change to not be wearing pajamas everyday, all day?
Tony: Wait, I cant wear pajamas?

Andy: Is there anything specifically interesting that you're charged with off the bat in your job description? What is your proper title?
Tony: The title is still being worked on. i hope theres a team of people on that right now, actually. and to be honest, that was one of the biggest things Meredith and I discussed. She's really open minded as I am. Hopefully it will say Blog in there somewhere. But that word has never been on a business card at the LAT so it will probably be something far more general. Titles don't interest me much. people usually just point and say, yep thats the nutball I was telling you about yesterday.

Andy: So with such an open directive as a new hire -- considering the many assets of TribCo/LAT -- does any of the following excite you: multimedia / video / talk shows & roundtables for Internet only.... creating and training staff to blog about a plethora of topics/industries, etc. or opening up the site to the public like the Chron did... diggifying interesting blog comments like USAToday?
Tony : All of those things excite me a great deal. I enjoy being the first person in a very dark jungle. and to have a machete as large as the LA Times to wield is a huge advantage. I was able to do so much leading a web site that many people in LA didn't even know existed, so I am very excited not to have to explain things for the first ten minutes before my pitch.

Also, the USA Today is one newspaper that maybe didn't get the respect it wanted as a paper within the newspaper biz, but if you ever go to the Pop Candy blog by that hottie Whitney she gets 1,000 comments on many posts, which is proof that newspaper blogs can be very very very successful and increase prestige to its brand, as opposed to tarnishing it, like many fear.

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Andy: Which is why I wonder why The Globe and Mail doesn't co-opt [New Media reporter] Mathew Ingram's blog so they can share in the traffic like The Atlantic does with Sullivan.

Tony: Sullivan was there at the beginning of the blogging boom and he never left it. He's also one of those rare birds who might be better known in blogging circles than in newspaper circles. Not because he's disrespected in journalism, but because hes such a damn star in the blogosphere. You can do that with columnists. I seriously believe that if Mike Royko was around today he would have adapted to blogging quite easily and he could have been encouraged to write a late-night blog after he had knocked back a few at a tavern.

Andy: Do you have any plans to create blogs of general -- not just localized -- interest? For example, NYT has things like an Open Code blog, WSJ has All Things D....
Tony: The one thing that blew my mind while I met with the Times is that they really are open to many many ideas. One of the things that we were very successful at on LAist were expanding our coverage to things outside of LA. That pissed off some readers but sometimes you just have to shrug and say fuck the haters. So yes I hope the Times continues to think outside the box and continues to trust new perspectives, because now they are on a huge playing field - the web - that has a lot of wide and varied competitors who aren't restricted to certain boundaries or rules or pasts to live up to. So to compete with them you really have to play a slightly different game to a point. But the Times has had no problems going outside of LA for a lot of their best stories They are a leader in International news, therefore they should continue to learn from that success in regards to blogging about things outside of LA. Believe it or not I think that will be easier to do at the Times than at LAist.

Andy: What about hyperlocal?
Tony: Likewise they can do hyperlocal better than even the LAist because they have a full time staff of people who are used to covering the metro beat and they know who to talk to, how to get there, and how to get it written in a professional manner. At LAist I couldn't get anyone to go to that lameass Hollywood Santa parade even though a few of us live a few blocks away. So there are pluses and minuses to an all volunteer blog staff, and that night was definitely a minus.

Andy: I remember quoting some Times guy as saying something like: "There are 89 cities in LA County and we cover none of them well."
Tony: I remember that quote too. which is where the Hive comes in. But I would still disagree. The Times covers a few of those cities pretty damn well.

Andy: Can you get them to blog the first run and open comments to readers?
Tony: First run? not all of us went to J-school bro.

Andy: You know how they say -- reverse the process and get the news online immediately and save the paper for further analysis which can be beefed up by citizens on the street commenting their photos, etc.
Tony: If you saw how they handled the fires many of those stories broke first online and then they ended up on the paper. thats a semi-new trend for all papers.and actually that example is a great one. I can enjoy the fire coverage on Sunday night online and if I see an amazing picture on the Times' site, I can actually clip it and put it on my wall when I get the paper in the morning. There's still nothing like newsprint. However it's still pretty tough to copy and paste it and send it in an email. Fortunately I don't have to figure out how to save the paper part of the newspaper. But if I did, I would start with thinking about printing it on hemp. You might get that 18-34 demo everyone seems to be concerned about if papers were slightly more green, no pun intended. Fine, it was intended.