“What’s it like being the new editor of DCist?” I asked Ben Freed one spring night when I met him at ChurchKey.
“I’ve been at it one hour,” he responded. “Check back with me tomorrow.”
It will take more than a day to assess how Freed does at the helm of the news website devoted to all things local in and around Washington, DC. But he knows where he wants to take it.
“It's an interesting time for local news,” he says. “The Washington Times seems to be packing it up. The Examiner is closing down its newspaper. It leaves a big hole to fill. Why shouldn't it be DCist?”
I had to ask whether he was daunted by the Washington Post’s battalion of local news and culture reporters.
As Freed explains, “I can’t go head to head with the Post. But if I see an angle the Post is missing, a fresh hook, I’ll take it. That’s what we’ve been doing. There’s a certain advantage to being small and scrappy.”
Since DCist, an arm of Gothamist, debuted in 2004, it has staked out solid ground in the capital city’s blogosphere. It serves up a daily dose of local news, from crime to politics to food and theater, and draws loyal readers who, Freed says, “want us to curate the city for them. It’s a tall order.”
Especially for Freed, a full-time reporting and writing staff of one. There's a whiff of the Wizard of Oz behind the DCist curtain. The 29-year-old Freed runs the blog from his Columbia Heights apartment. No news truck, no producer, no editor—not even an assistant on his first day as top dog. He gets around by bike—when he can. (It was in the shop when we talked.)
He grew up in Albany, New York. At Brandeis he worked on the school newspaper, The Justice, and caught the journalism bug. When he graduated in 2006, he couldn’t find a job in news so he moved to Chicago for a brief stint at a law firm and a ride on the Obama campaign. He came to DC to work for a climate control organization. When it folded, he had been freelancing film and arts criticism for Washington City Paper, and he devoted himself to writing. In 2011 he became Martin Austermule’s assistant editor at DCist. When Austermule moved on to WAMU last month, Ben Freed moved up to editor in chief.
DCist has been a reliable rung on Washington’s journalism ladder. Founding editor Mike Grass moved on to Huffington Post DC. Aaron Morrissey found a place at the Atlantic. Sommer Mathis made a short stop at The Washingtonian and is happily ensconced at Atlantic Cities.
Former editors say they were able to increase the site’s traffic back in 2007 in part because City Paper was slow to take its readership digital. Adding a dose of irreverence to news and reviews, DCist scooped up readers who wanted a quick digital fix. The site’s traffic has been rising ever since.
“Our currency is pageviews,” says Freed.
According to Quantcast, DCist attracted 1.8 million pageviews in the past month. Gothamist’s internal analytics showed just over 2 million pageviews in April, publisher Jake Dobkin tells me.
In addition to DC, Gothamist has offshoots in LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, London, Shanghai, and Toronto. The business model relies on advertisers who want to reach the millions of digital visitors, and on keeping down expenses with a few paid staffers who work at home. It relies on freelancers across the board to cover news and write food and theater reviews.
For DCist, Freed endeavors to write profiles and practice watchdog journalism, but he says he spends about half of his time aggregating and linking to other articles.
“Some days I do more original work, some I do more aggregating,” he says. “I can be very selective on what I cover and how I write it. When I get out and report and write, that’s what keeps me sane.”
It can make for a manic life alone in front of a computer, but Freed says, “We can take approaches other people can’t.” (Like his satiric sendup of the rash of flower thievery that lit up the Cleveland Park listserv.)
Dobkin says Freed is about to announce his assistant editor, and that Gothamist has also increased DCist’s freelance budget.
“We may hire a third full-time editor this year,” Dobkin writes by e-mail.
Perhaps the Post will soon need to keep a closer eye on DCist.