The Other Legacy of Gapers Block

December 21, 2015
Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

When I first met Andrew Huff, I half thought of him as “the enemy”. An incredibly stupid idea, I know, but it’s true.

In the summer of 2004 a small group of Chicagoist writers had gathered at Wicker Park’s Handlebar, for an evening of cheap beer and planning how we’d run our nascent blog. As we schemed in the back patio, at one point our editor Rachelle Bowden stopped the conversation, pointed and said, “Hey, I think that’s Andrew Huff. From Gapers Block!”

The rest of us tried to casually look over–maybe leer a bit–and check out “the competitor” team. There sat Andrew with his trademark pompadour and sideburns, accompanied by a small-sized group of Gapers writers, also drinking cheap beer and scheming, so it seemed.

Back in the pre-social media days, blog links were how you found out what was cool and trendy. And in Chicago, Chicagoist and Gapers Block were it. We knew it was true because ABC7 had done a profile on us.

Eventually someone from one or the other group sauntered over to the other and we began to talk. Cautiously, but in a friendly manner. We were “competitors” after all. We took goofy pictures to commemorate the momentous occasion.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phones X. Jones.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phineas X. Jones.

For professional reasons I stopped writing for Chicagoist after a couple years, but also got to know some of the other Gapers Block writers. At some point I was invited to a Gapers party–they were constantly having them it seemed, and usually with cool invites.

I met Andrew for real. He invited me to write. So I did. And then we talked some more and became friends.

The weaving of a friendship is always more complicated than can be explained in words, of course. And our connection had a number of waypoints along the way, including an experimental ad network I managed, his support of my hyperlocal news site, some foundation-funded training weekends and the Chicago Media Softball League he was commissioner for.

Through it all though, was the presence of Gapers Block. Andrew was Gapers, and Gapers was Andrew.

He knew this of course, he has said as much to me during our many conversations about GB, in a half-lament, half-pride kind of way. I could sympathize, because I felt the same way about Center Square Journal, my neighborhood news site. The weight of it all. Knowing that people counted on you to tell you something they didn’t know. That there probably wasn’t anyone else in the world who cared nearly as much as you. If you stopped caring, who else would?

While Gapers Block, founded in 2003, was one of the first local “news and culture blogs” in the country, there are actually many like it, although each one is somewhat different. I helped found an organization, The Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) in 2012, of which Gapers Block was a charter member.

The vast majority of these sites are either run by one person, or largely driven by a single personality. They are true mom & pop businesses that express the interests, care and integrity of the founder down to the last detail. Not surprisingly, in the last two years, a number of the earliest sites have winked out, as the founders grew tired of the grind, went broke or just lost the fire. New ones have sprung up too, but those too are mostly driven by one person.

I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say that overcoming this “one-personality” problem is something Andrew struggled with. Indeed, it was something most of the LION members I knew struggled with. I did with Center Square Journal, and it was one of the reasons I shut it down in 2013.

The Struggle: On the one hand, local readers love your site and brand. On the other hand, they’re just not willing to pony up money to pay for it, and your local take on things doesn’t really extend beyond the region you’re in. You make enough money to keep the enterprise going, but not really enough to expand to a full staff. And how would you grow, anyway?

One group has been successful. Chicagoist, and later SFist, Shanghaist and more grew out of Gothamist in New York City, creating the Gothamist Network. Each city’s site has its own local take and flavor, but from what I saw from the inside as the network grew is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, taking hold of an audience and gaining brand equity before social media became predominant.

To become sustainable–and that’s a tricky word since twelve years of operation for Gapers Block could be argued by some as sustainable–you need to either create a huge national audience that brings in lots of ad revenue, or a local audience that’s willing to pay a great deal for your work up front.

This may seem elementary, but it was hardly the case in 2003, when Gapers launched. In fact, the I don’t think Andrew and I discussed the idea together until a couple years ago–and boy we talked about a lot of stuff.

In the last twelve years, the business of media has changed radically multiple times. And through it all, Andrew and Gapers Block has adapted and been open about those adaptations.

While most talk about Gapers’ closing has focused on its immense cultural contribution, I’d like to thank Andrew for helping me and so many others puzzle out the very difficult business challenges. Thank you for that lasting contribution.