Gapers Block founder Andrew Huff discusses a new look for his hyperlocal blog

11 04 2011

By Lisa Klein

Hyperlocal blog Gapers Block, the first city blog to hit Chicago in 2003, is overhauling its website to look better, especially from the front page, according to co-founder Andrew Huff.

Huff hopes the redesign will bump up readership, helping to generate enough ad revenue to allow him to work on Gapers Block full time. The site currently has about 250,000 viewers a month – 90,000 of them unique.

“I have to worry about the business side too,” said Huff, who writes a lot of the content on the site.

The blog relies on both advertising and t-shirt sales to pay the bills. They’ve also received two grants – one for $35,000 in 2009 and another for $17,000 this year – from the Chicago Community Trust that they use to pay freelance writers for stories.

Andrew Huff discusses his blog Gapers Block at DePaul University on April 4 (Photo by Mike Reilley)

Huff survives on freelance writing jobs, spending up to 16 hours a day on the computer. He’s blogged for companies such as American Express and Kenneth Cole and also writes copy for websites. He is also teaching a course at Loyola University on writing for the web.

Other local blog sites like Chicagoist, Windy Citizen and EveryBlock (now available in several cities) have popped up over the years, offering different styles and formats for hyperlocal news in Chicago.

“It’s a pretty rich news ecosystem right now,” said Huff.

Large internet-based corporations are even trying to break into the local scene, like Aol with their suburban-centric, multi-state Patch. Huff doesn’t think they’ll be able to break into Chicago’s market though.

“You really need people who know a city to report on a city,” he said. He’s resisted expanding the blog to other cities for that very reason.

The mainstream media, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, are starting to pay more attention to website startups too.

“We know they read us,” said Huff, pointing out that the major newspapers have run stories that were broken earlier by Gapers Block.

“When I left journalism school there were no jobs for journalists,” said Huff, who spent about 10 years working in public relations instead.

He started sending a weekly email newsletter to family and friends, what he said would “normally be in someone’s blog.” He then entered the actual blogosphere with his personal blog me3dia.

Eventually he and partner Nas Hamid, who left Gapers Block in 2008, drew up plans for a website dedicated to “capturing the cool and interesting things” happening in Chicago.

About 15 other local bloggers helped with the initial writing, and the site “developed basically by word of mouth.” Now writers from students to people simply bored with their jobs flock to the site with article ideas.

For other journalists, Huff’s advice is to “find a niche. You never know – it might become your business.”

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