Villager photos by J.B. Nicholas
Bob Arihood, left, in Ray’s Candy Store, which he has documented over the years, has one of the East Village’s longest-running blogs. RIGHT: Musician Eden Brower, right, performed at the recent benefit for Ray’s Candy Store, and at one point, sat in the audience with the man of honor, Ray Alvarez, the store’s owner, left. Brower also blogs at Slum Goddess, A Life of Lunacy. She is one of the more photogenic of the East Village bloggers, some of whom are a bit camera shy.
New blog on block as N.Y.U., Times
team to get hyper
By Lincoln Anderson
The East Village blogosphere recently went ballistic after The New York Times and New York University announced they would be collaborating on a new “hyperlocal” Web site focusing on the East Village.
Reporting for the new site will be done by N.Y.U. journalism students, who will not be paid for their articles. Community members who contribute to the blog, however, reportedly will be paid.
Called The Local: East Village, or LEV for short, it’s set to launch in September, after the students return to class from their four-month summer hiatus.
The new blog will cover the area bounded by 14th and Houston Sts. and Broadway and the East River. Rich Jones, a former Times reporter, will be the site’s editor.
In the meantime, the N.Y.U. students recently have been making the rounds of the East Village, doing interviews and “stockpiling” stories to be used for the site’s kickoff in the fall.
Reacting to the news, the small, tight-knit army of East Village bloggers were variously outraged, annoyed, disdainful and hurt, at least at first. They feel they already have the area thoroughly covered, and aren’t thrilled about going up against the most heavily trafficked newspaper Web site in the nation.
Indeed, the East Village is probably one of the city’s more blog-intensive neighborhoods. All the blogs were started fairly recently, with none more than four years old. As for the bloggers, they span the gamut from a onetime squatter turned blues musician, to a brainy photographer with an engineering background, to a former CNN executive producer, to an unpublished novelist who had wearied of “working in solitude.” Each with their own areas of focus, they try not to step on each others’ toes; one blog concentrates on covering the local community board, another on street life in its many forms, others, dubbed “nostalgia blogs” by some, on the neighborhood’s changing storefronts and real estate. They’ve gradually built followings, seen their Web hits grow — and now along come the Times and N.Y.U. trying to muscle in on their beat.
Word of the new online effort came Feb. 22, when several of the 40 N.Y.U. students who will be in “The Hyperlocal Newsroom” course — who will be contributing to the site — sent an e-mail to a half-dozen of the East Village blogs.
EV Grieve — one of the better-known blogs — quickly posted the announcement, setting off a lengthy, heated discussion.
“The e-mail struck me as a lame attempt to appease the existing bloggers in the neighborhood,” EV Grieve posted in his comments at the start of the thread. (The blogger declined to divulge his real name, telling The Villager he would prefer to be identified simply as EV Grieve.)
“Seems like a desperate, last-gasp move to make for the Times. Can you hear the death rattle?...” posted Jeremiah Moss, a pseudonym for the blogger behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. “NYU is notorious, hyperlocally, as the reviled enemy of the EV. If they cover what they know best, it’ll be pub crawls, frat-house hijinks, shopping and eating.”
Trying to keep it real
Praising the current crop of East Village bloggers, Moss continued: “EV Grieve is real. Arihood [Neither More Nor Less] is real. Slum Goddess, etc. This just feels like another way that NYU is invading and pillaging a neighborhood they’ve almost completely sucked the life out of. They need to be stopped,” he said. “And the EV Blog Mafia can stop them.”
(EV Grieve noted that his fellow blogger chose his online name because Jeremiah “was the prophet of doom who nobody listened to until it was too late.” Asked if a group photo of the bloggers could be set up, EV Grieve said he would pass, and that he knew Jeremiah also would decline.)
In general, the bloggers just feel, well, dissed.
The Lo-Down blog, which focuses more on the Lower East Side, posted: “I give...NYU a lot of credit for trying to address the implosion of Mainstream Journalism. Fine, prepare your students for an uncertain future. But would it really kill you to acknowledge and support the adults who are actually reporting day in and day out in this community?”
Posters punish N.Y.U.
Most of the posters on the EV Grieve thread were not bloggers, and much of the sentiment was simply undiluted anger at N.Y.U.
“Gee, I wonder if any of the arrogant little snots reporting on ‘their’ neighborhood would have to leave their cushy wood ’n’ purple NYU ‘trolleys’ and actually intermingle with the hoi polloi (NOT the ones in the bars they frequent) to report?” fumed Lisa. “... And what are they gonna report on? The latest bar to flash their fake ID’s in? The new boutique pandering to women who wear size 0-2? What on earth could these turds possibly have to tell REAL residents? God, I hate NYU!!!”
WB — like Lisa, not a blogger — had a more moderated response. Noting he hoped the students would do “some great reporting,” he added, “To cover the neighborhood in the ‘hyperlocal’ way that all of our great EV blogs do is a labor of love. First, you’re a member of the neighborhood. … You write about it because you care, you live here, it is your life. Do you naturally get the same results from a partnership of the NY Times and NYU students taking a semester-long class? I’m not sure you do.”
On the EV Grieve thread there was recurring criticism of N.Y.U. students as transients who lack institutional memory of the neighborhood. N.Y.U. has helped lead the East Village’s gentrification, and now it’s aiming to “gentrify the blogosphere,” too, the critics charged.
(S)wipe at Times
John Penley, a longtime East Village activist who recently started his own blog, wrote: “First of all NYU students DO NOT have a connection to our neighborhood other than to gentrify it. Screw NYU and the NY TIMES. I will be organizing a protest at Washington Square Park to protest NYU’s out of control dorm expansion. At this protest we will wipe our asses with the NYT. This is a con job on the NYU students because the NYT is not adding any new reporters. They are getting rid of them and it is a scam to get students to work for free.”
In a later post, Penley added that “well-to-do white kids go to N.Y.U.,” and charged that the university’s campus “looks like South Africa in the old days.”
However, another poster referred, ironically, to “the rather awkward fact that all the anti-gentrification bloggers tend to be very well educated white people who moved here themselves.”
Still others who added to the EV Grieve thread disparagingly dismissed the bloggers and the anti-N.Y.U. blog posters as “whiners” and “whingers.”
Anonymous wrote: “So much petty hate and resentment in these comments. I am neither an NYU newcomer nor a EV fear-blogger, but when I read stuff like this, I side with the former. ... These blogs, let’s face it, are the Fox News of anti-gentrification. Lots of yelling and hate and resentment.”
Readying for launch
While news of The Local: East Village has been fomenting fear and loathing on the blogosphere, at N.Y.U.’s journalism department the main feeling is one of excitement at the new enterprise.
Around the same time the journalism students sent their e-mail announcement to the East Village bloggers, Brooke Kroeger, director of N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Institute (N.Y.U.’s journalism school), called The Villager to break the news.
A former Newsday reporter and editor, Kroeger said the site will operate five days a week, include original content by the students, as well as blogging, and will also “aggregate,” or link to, online articles produced by other media outlets.
She said she and Jones were giving the heads up to The Villager as “a courtesy, in the spirit of good faith and collegiality.”
In a follow-up interview, Kroeger talked more about the site.
She said she and Jay Rosen — the journalism department’s former head — began brainstorming about this program a year ago, specifically, “around doing something in the East Village.”
They went to “various media,” she said, looking for a partnership, and in the end, “came to a meeting of the minds with the Times.”
Kroeger wouldn’t reveal which other media they approached, just saying, “Use your imagination.”
A year ago, as pilot projects, the Times launched similar The Local blogs in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and in northeastern New Jersey. After the Fort Greene blog had been running a few months, the Times let CUNY journalism students take it over. However, N.Y.U.’s involvement with LEV represents the first time students have helped plan a Times blog’s content and design from the outset.
From the sound of it, The Local blogs are still a work in progress for the Times, as the newspaper figures out how it will use these new “platforms,” how much they will be community portals, exactly who will be operating them, and so forth.
At N.Y.U., Times staffers have been busy helping prepare for the launch.
“Their tech people have been very engaged,” Kroeger said. “Their uber editor, Marianne Giordano, is here all the time. She’s sort of in charge of all their Web sites. Jim Schacter, the Times’s digital editor, has been here.”
N.Y.U. claims its turf
Asked why they decided to concentrate on the East Village, Kroeger said it stems from where N.Y.U.’s journalism department is located.
“Because we’re in the East Village,” she said. “We’re at Cooper Square. It’s our neighborhood. And we wanted to do our own turf, our own locus.”
In a recent interview about LEV with Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Rosen also hit on the “turf” angle. Yes, he said, the collaboration with the Times will certainly create an opportunity for N.Y.U. students to hone their local reporting skills, while the coverage will benefit both the Times and the East Village.
But the idea also made sense, Rosen said, “[B]ecause this is a community that N.Y.U., the university at large, has a big stake in; it’s a big land owner and expects to own more land here.”
Kroeger denied that the Times, by using free student labor on the blog, will be putting working reporters out of jobs.
“There was no one at the Times concentrating on the East Village in a penetrating way,” she said, “so no one is being displaced.”
As for why the N.Y.U. journalism students are already out reporting in the East Village, Kroeger said it’s because school will be out on April 28.
“I’m sure they’re doing profiles that will hold up [until September],” she said. “They’re stockpiling.”
Kroeger said they will be producing “an internal dummy” blog as a test run.
Among those who told The Villager they’ve already been visited by the students are Clayton Patterson, the Lower East Side documentarian; Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3 district manager; Billy Leroy, proprietor of Billy’s Antiques & Props on E. Houston St.; and Eden Brower and John Henegan, of the East River String Band. (In addition to being a musician, Brower is also an East Village blogger who goes by the name Slum Goddess.)
The department director said that while most LEV contributors will be graduate journalism students, there might be some undergraduates, too.
Mind the gaps
Kroeger admitted the blog faces some challenges that have yet to be resolved. For one, initially there won’t be any advertising on the site, so it won’t be producing revenue. Also, there are the “gaps” — the extended breaks over the winter and summer when classes aren’t in session; they haven’t figured out who will provide the blog’s content at those times, Kroeger said.
“We can’t turn out the lights — a Web product, it’s only as good as its last post,” she said of the dilemma.
As for the East Village bloggers’ skeptical-to-hostile response to the news of The Local’s impending launch, Kroeger said, “I think that’s a normal reaction. I don’t have a problem with it. The more coverage, the better coverage is good.”
Jones, The Local: East Village’s editor, is being employed as a consultant to N.Y.U. In training to be a journalism professor, this is a perfect part-time job for him while he pursues his own graduate studies.
Asked about the bloggers’ wary reaction to The Local, Jones, in a lengthy e-mail response, put it in context of the current state of journalism.
Competition a constant
“We’re living in a moment where the old barriers to entry for producing journalism have been obliterated by the Internet,” Jones wrote. “But the Internet hasn’t changed those feelings of being competitive, being territorial — we all want to be the one to tell the story first, right? So, no matter whether you’re an amateur or professional or have a lot of training or none, I think competition can be a large part of what we do.”
Jones said, as he envisions it, the competition between The Local and other local media — including the blogs, as well as The Villager — will be “a collegial, positive competition that helps us all to raise our games and ultimately ends up better serving our readers and our community.”
Having the Times join the East Village blog mix also has a major upside, in the form of linkage, he pointed out.
“Right now, the main competition is for attention and eyeballs,” he continued. “And one of the wonderful aspects of this time for journalism is that it is very easy to acknowledge the good work of others: If you see a great story somewhere else, you credit it and you link to it. So, in that sense, our arrival is a very positive thing for places like The Villager and blogs because we fully intend to point out great stories in other outlets and drive traffic to our colleagues’ sites in the neighborhood. I don’t have to tell you, nytimes.com has millions of visitors and if we can bring a fraction of those visitors to The Local: East Village and a fraction of those to other sites in our community — that could end up being a lot of eyeballs.”
Editor can empathize
On criticism of N.Y.U. as both a physical gentrifier and now a soon-to-be “cyber gentrifier,” Jones said he’s sensitive to the issue. He noted he grew up in North Philadelphia.
“For an analogous New York neighborhood think of the South Bronx or parts of Harlem,” he said. “I spent much of my childhood in public housing, watching the way the media — often inaccurately — portrayed my neighbors and me. That played a huge role in my decision to ultimately pursue a career in journalism and to tell stories about places like where I grew up with a sense of context and nuance and fairness and balance and accuracy. ...
“I am familiar with the issue of gentrification in a neighborhood that is also home to a large higher education institution,” he continued. “In North Philly, many people questioned the role of Temple University — which has a huge campus on North Broad St. and has played a significant role in efforts to redevelop that area. ... There was an almost reflexive suspicion — founded or not — about the university’s motives.”
‘Give us a chance’
He said he hopes The Local won’t be prejudged, but rather judged on its actions.
“There’s no question that we’re sensitive to the existing community of bloggers and that we’re starting this site with a great deal of respect and humility and a real appreciation for our neighbors in the Village,” he said. “We’re here to be a positive part of the existing ecosystem.”
Regarding the N.Y.U. journalism students not being paid for their articles, Jones said that’s true. However, he added, “We have talked a great deal internally about the importance of setting up a payment system for community contributors [to the blog].”
None of the existing East Village blogs, on the other hand, pay for content, which obviously could work to the Times’ advantage.
Speaking of the community, things may already be thawing a bit with the bloggers, even before The Local’s launch. In one case, the idea of tons of Times “eyeballs” seems to be helping.
Referring to the N.Y.U. students who recently interviewed her and Henegan, Brower told The Villager in an e-mail, “We decided to do the interview because we really need publicity for our band and it is The NY Times after all. In the interview I spoke about the benefit for Ray’s [Candy Store] and how chains are ruining the ’hood. I was hesitant to answer them but we need some press.”
However, Brower noted she was careful not to tell the students about her blog or give them any story ideas.
EV Grieve said that The Local: East Village thread was the most commented on in the three years of his blog’s existence.
E-mailing The Villager a few days after the thread’s start, he said, “That is a record thread for EV Grieve: 60 comments and climbing (previous highs were 52 in a post on best EV eateries; and 43 for the infamous pink shirt at the Mars Bar...). I think it was the most passionate thread, though the pink shirt post from last May was the most intense and angry.”
EV noted the e-mail announcing the new blog definitely brushed him the wrong way. But he subsequently had some positive e-mail back-and-forths with three of the N.Y.U. students who will be working on the project, and is feeling less worked up about it now.
“I was originally annoyed, in part, by the chirpy e-mail that one of the editors sent to me...like, ‘Hey we’re starting this...any advice? Love you to be part of this! Thanks!’ Seemed like a drive-by compliment,” EV said. “It struck me as typical NYU arrogance... .
“Plus, I’ve been working hard on EVG for three years,” he continued, “watching it go from 5 hits a week to 4,000 a day. So my initial reaction was that of the mom-and-pop grocer who suddenly finds a three-level Whole Foods opening next door. (And I do all this on my own when I’m not at my 8-7 job...) Hey, here comes NYU! Make way!
“Anyway,” EV said, “she assured me later that she was sincere, that she understood where I was coming from, etc. I promise to keep an open mind.”