After being fed up with the reluctance of mainstream media to get online, Steve Rhodes left the Chicago magazine and started his own Web-based publication, The Beachwood Reporter. Combining dry wit with local media critique, Rhodes has managed to turn his grass-roots venture into a site that continues to gather national attention while gaining new local subscribers. In this interview, Rhodes discusses the downfalls of citizen journalism, his difficulty generating revenue from the site, and his vision for the future of Beachwood Reporter.
When you left Chicago magazine, why did you leave?
Six years had been a long time in that job, and I wasn’t sure there was much more I could do to evolve and grow. I was really frustrated with not being on the internet. Journalists should be the first people on the web, and they’ve kind of been the last.
Why were newspapers so late getting online?
I think that they felt threatened. They were just set in their ways and thought that what they did on print was so important. There was a study done by the Media Management Center at Northwestern, and they found they only institutions more resistant to change than newspapers were militaries and hospitals in the 1950s.
Did you publish anything online before you started the Beachwood Reporter?
I did a weekly online media column when I was with Chicago magazine, and it was really popular. It started getting quoted a lot of places like the New York Times and Washington Post, but the value that outsiders saw was not reflected in the magazine.
Do you think now, two years since you worked at Chicago magazine, more magazines are getting on the online bandwagon?
Yes, I think so. Mainstream print media has finally realized that the internet is the future, and is really the only thing that can save them as their revenues and traditional formats are falling.
Did you have a background in web design along with journalism?
I’m not a tech person. I was fortunate enough to have a very good friend who’s an excellent web designer, so she designed Beachwood.
How much of a problem is that in furthering the website?
That’s the biggest obstacle for me right now, especially with plans to subsidize it with other sites that are more likely to generate revenue than this one. I kind of bought into this idea that any 8th grader knows how to do it. They can do MySpace, but not a real quality website. Web designers are so highly sought after it’s hard to get them to stick around, especially since I’m an all-volunteer operation.
I know Chicago magazine was a little behind, but there were other local Chicago news websites that were started before you launched Beachwood. What did you think was missing?
A certain kind of critical journalistic eye. What I mean by that is sites like Gaper’s Block have a good design and do a fine job, but I don’t think it’s hard-edge news. I thought there was room for media critique. I think Chi-town Daily News came along before me, but they focus more on citizen journalism. I’m not interested in that hyper-local news.
So what do you think the problems are with citizen journalism?
I think citizen journalism is evolving, but when it started, I mean, I don’t care what Aunt Mae saw at the car accident, and I think that’s what a lot of it was. Also, I think there’s a real misunderstanding – maybe because the mainstream media has been doing such a bad job – that citizen journalism comes from that. Some of my writers are journalists. But many of them aren’t. Is my Cubs columnist a citizen journalist? He has no journalistic training whatsoever, but it’s funny as hell and delivers lots of great insights.
How did you meet your sports writer? How did you select your other writers?
My writers originally started out as friends. They were people I knew from the bar the Beachwood Inn, which is what the site is named after. They were people who brought their own column ideas to me that I was not even planning on doing. They all seemed to fit with the tone of the site, so the site is for sure not just me or a product of me and my imagination. Then, I started to get people who would write me who liked what I was doing and wanted to contribute.
So you now accept freelance work?
Absolutely. I hope and pray I can pay everybody one day. I’m really all about paying writers. If I was even making a penny, I would divide that penny up.
How willing have you found writers to work for free?
Most writers do it for fun and do it for the ultimate goal of the vision. There are also younger people who want to get clips, and that’s fine too. I needed to do that; we all needed to do that. It’s really unfair, though. Nobody should work for free, especially writers. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do what you have to do, but as a general proposition to the world, it’s just not fair.
What do you look for when people pitch ideas? How well it fits, or do you need examples of writing?
Samples might help, but the main thing is if it fits with the tone of the site. When I was at Chicago magazine, they did this “hottest singles in Chicago” issue, and I didn’t participate since I was working on politics. I always wanted to do “worst singles in Chicago” (laughs). That would be 5 or 6 of my friends. Can’t hold a job, commitment issues. That’s Beachwood material.
How do you support the site?
I’ve fallen back onto credit cards, but am also getting money from NBC to do a political blog for them. Finances are tenuous. I’m living like a college student again.
How, then, do you measure success?
I think editorially, we’ve been a success based on the fact that our readers are loyal. We’ve also gotten some good attention, and I feel that we’re influential in the media world. Now I’m on panels and giving presentations and being quoted. I do more television and radio now than I ever did.
Where do you want to see Beachwood go? You mentioned subsidizing.
What I mean by that is if I develop editorial content, it can generate some revenue. I think local ad markets are pretty soft and undependable, though. The model I saw that worked on the web when I started was having a bunch of sites.
Why would those other sites generate more readership than the broad spectrum of things already covered on Beachwood?
They have more natural advertising partners. A couple relate to business and health. The problem with Beachwood is that it’s a general interest site whose readers are in the media or politics, who have no reason to advertise.
What sites do you like reading? What influenced you?
I like dailyhowler.com. I like the New York Observer. I think Beachwood in some ways resembles a local Slate. I’m not a huge fan of Slate, but I like it. I think we have some similarities, quite unintentionally.