Something about “rowhouser” didn’t sound right to Jonathan Butler.
So today, the founder of popular Brooklyn real estate, renovation and restaurant blog Brownstoner, launches a Philadelphia edition under the same brand. That expansion, Butler says, will dictate greatly the direction of the five-year-old site.
Launched in October 2004, Brownstoner is no small force, pulling roughly 200,000 unique visitors and 1.5 million page views a month, Butler says — see the always debated public traffic figures for the site from Quantcast and Compete — and it just so happens to not be the only blog born in New York to open up shop in Philadelphia this year.
Like Midtown Lunch, Brownstoner brings a brand name with a decidedly New York tone to a city not known for a healthy appreciation for its younger brother to the north. So, its expansion just might make for a hell of a conversation on authenticity and the future of growing hyperlocal news. And it all came about because one of the site’s contributors wanted to move.
“Gabby Warshawer, who has been writing for Brownstoner in Brooklyn for the past three years, recently fell in love with Philly and announced she was dying to move there,” Butler, 40, says. “I had been chewing on the idea of expanding to Philly for about a year, so the timing seemed right.”
Warshawer, with the help of four freelancers, will run the Philadelphia edition from her Center City apartment, the local bureau to Butler and his team of two part-time writers and interns. (Butler and Warshawer will also run a weekly column from Ken Finkel, the Temple University American studies professor and architecture writer.)
Housed on the stand-alone Philly.Brownstoner.com, the site will feature the same collection of pieces on development, real estate and renovation news as its New York counterpart. It will focus to start on neighborhoods in West and South Philadelphia, in addition to Fishtown and Northern Liberties to start — which doesn’t offer the same identifiable stretch of Philadelphia as Brooklyn is in New York — but likely find editorial overlap with the original site on stories related to larger regional or national real estate trends, Butler says.
“Also within a few months of launch, the forum, which has grown to be the largest online community for homeowners in New York, will also start sharing content on topics that are not geographically specific, such as how to remove paint from antique doorknobs,” he adds.
The Manhattan native with a Princeton degree and a New York University MBA quit his job on Wall Street to work full time on the site in February 2007 and now lives in a home in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill that he first launched the blog to write about.
But the former business journalist, venture capitalist and real estate investor says he approaches Philly architecture and communities with “reverence.”
Below, he talks to Technically Philly about his expansion plans, the Brownstone brand and more.
I started Brownstoner on a lark in the fall of 2004, while trapped at a desk job that was less than creatively fulfilling.
I had recently purchased my brownstone in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and was gearing up for a big renovation on a shoestring budget. I blogged that renovation while offering commentary on the real estate market and observations about a Brooklyn that was undergoing massive demographic changes and housing price escalation.
It was also the first local blog in New York to really embrace commenters and engage readers as sources. The blog now gets more traffic than the three local Brooklyn newspapers combined.
Below watch Butler talk about the renovation project that he first chronicled on his site.
Why expand to portions of Philadelphia and not elsewhere in New York?
“Brownstoner’s success thus far has had a lot to do with being based in a place where people feel a very strong connection to their community, both in terms of quality of life issues and its history. This sets the stage for a level of engagement and activism that is key to the success of any online hyperlocal effort. I feel like folks in Philly share a similar sense pride and investment in their communities and city and hope that brownstoner can play a role in bringing more exposure and transparency to both local issues and matters relating to real estate and development.
In a craigslist ad looking for bloggers, Brownstoner spotlighted the big pockets of West and South philadelphia, in addition to the neighborhoods of Northern Liberties and Fishtown. What is the draw of those parts of the city for your coverage?
Certainly much of what Brownstoner has chronicled in Brooklyn has been the changes that neighborhoods have gone through and the issue that these changes have raised. We’ll devote plenty of coverage to the more established areas in the center of the city, but a lot of the drama and fun is bound to come in neighborhoods where younger, creative people are putting down roots, renovating houses and starting businesses.
Give us some stories we might expect to see from the Philly edition.
There’s bound to be some overlap and cross-pollination with some of the topics already covered by PlanPhilly and the many blogs that cover the restaurant scene. We also will be seeking to engage directly with the civic organizations that are so crucial to the city’s community fabric.
On top of that, we will seek to bring the same level of transparency and discussion to the real estate market that we have in Brooklyn. We also hope to shine a light on preservation and development issues on a building-by-building level. It’s amazing how much ground a half dozen reporters with bicycles and cameras can cover and how effective the medium can be for getting public officials to pay attention to things they may have tried to sweep under the rug before.
What is the plan for revenue? Anything different here than in Brooklyn?
I’m not even going to think about revenue for the first few months. I just want to make sure the editorial is the best it can be — plus it’s not really worth it to try to monetize the site until it has a critical mass of readers. I’ve actually given away some free advertising in the beginning to some community groups and nonprofits whose missions I think are enhancing the city.
Are there other markets you see expanding to in the future? Where do you want Brownstoner to be in five years?
Really hard to say. Frankly, it depends a lot on how well received the blog is in Philly. Other obvious cities include D.C., Baltimore and Boston, but nothing’s even close to being in the works.
Did you consider different branding for a city that doesn’t really use the word ‘brownstone’?
I certainly thought about it and have heard from some people who don’t think the name is right for Philly, but I’ve spent five years building a brand and, while I certainly understand why ‘rowhouser’ or something along those lines would be more literally appropriate, the blog in Brooklyn, like many publication names — Plain Dealer, hello? — long ago transcended literalism.
Probably less than 10 percent of the content on the Brooklyn site deals with brownstones. It’s just a brand now. I’m operating under the assumption that good content will rule the day and that over time the name won’t be an issue. Of course, I could be wrong, but I think as people see the reverence with which we approach Philly’s architecture and communities, there won’t be a problem.
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