What hyperlocal site The Bold Italic can teach journalists about storytelling, humor and risk-taking

byDena Levitz
Apr 21, 2015 in Digital Journalism

The gig was just supposed to last three months.

At least that’s what the higher-ups at The Bold Italic could guarantee to Jennifer Maerz. Still, it seemed like a dream job, so Maerz took a chance and accepted the job as the experimental San Francisco publication’s editor.

She was its editorial leader for nearly five years -- up until two weeks ago when The Bold Italic unexpectedly and abruptly shut down, saddening longtime readers and sending shock waves through the digital world. There hasn’t been an explanation for the closure, except for a note on the site on April 7, thanking supporters of the project and saying that “we have made the difficult decision to cease operations.” That decision went into effect immediately.

Before the end, in a recent column soliciting contributors, Maerz described the publication as “an ongoing conversation about life in the Bay Area.” Through essays, graphics and all sorts of atypical content, TBI tried to live up to the “bold” part of its name. It wasn’t a news site, covering city council meetings, but a hub for insights, conversation and even merchandise that the public could snatch up related to San Francisco phenomenon.

The Bold Italic -- which was owned by one of the largest U.S. newspaper companies, Gannett --  also took a nontraditional approach to making money, holding events and opting to have area businesses sponsor happenings and content as opposed to relying on standard ad placements.

In the wake of TBI’s closing, Maerz spoke to me about the many lessons that individual reporters, established news organizations and those new media companies trying to forge their own path covering communities can glean:

Feature unique storytelling that has a tone and point of view

The homepage of The Bold Italic right now is a blend of the last posts to go live as well as a few all-time staff favorites. This isn’t an accident. Maerz says, just as the site aspired to publish daily, there’s a healthy mix of styles, topics and formats represented.

For instance, midway down the page is an article that particularly resonated, “How to Survive Living With Your Burner Roommate.” It’s, in Maerz’s mind, bitingly funny, quintessentially San Francisco in subject and speaks to a higher truth about living conditions that residents of the City by the Bay face.

It’s obviously not five-paragraph, quote-after-quote objective journalism. But it’s very typical of the sorts of essays that appeared in TBI. Made-up charts that delved into everything from turning 30 to being obsessed with podcast “Serial” also were wildly popular among readers, as were image-heavy posts like an ongoing series that had a 4-year-old reviewing chic eateries.

Many sites with columns and opinionated storytelling skew snarky, Maerz says.

“But we wanted to be funny and also inclusive,” she says, “and through the humor get at what life is like.”

One of the most popular - and last - stunts that The Bold Italic pulled was its April Fool’s Day article, which claimed the whole staff had worked naked for a month.

“Into that next week people were still asking us how we did it,” Maerz says.

And then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the site also pushed boundaries on serious topics like race through its essays and articles including “I’m Not Your ‘Black Friend’” or “Are There Fat Asians? Yes. I’m One of Them.”

“These were really great pieces. They are individual writers’ experiences but they open up the experiences for others [and readers thought], ‘Oh my God, this is speaking to me,” she says. “There are not a lot of places where people are talking about race in this personal way. And I’m really proud of that.”

Maintain an atmosphere that’s conducive to risk-taking and fits with the city’s vibe

Some of what made TBI work was just how San Francisco-tastic it was.

Many tech cities are experiencing gentrification, for instance, but The Bold Italic’s take on gentrification was specific to the local dynamics around tech startups.

In a larger sense, though, this concept of keeping an ear to the ground in a publication's coverage area is transferable anywhere. Maerz stresses the need to have feet on the street -- writers, artists and designers who live in a city and know it inside and out.

Often staff members would get ideas by tapping into what fixated San Franciscans on Facebook or by overhearing conversations in clubs and bars.

“Relevance” was the number one quality that Maerz aimed to hit day after day. This meant tracking traffic numbers and revenue figures and ensuring that each grew over time. Intriguing writing or graphics is one thing but people need to be consuming and caring about them.

“You can put out a precious site that a few hundred people love. In the beginning we were maybe too precious,” she says. “But you really need to show your relevance and show it constantly.”

Bold Italic staff also paid attention to the coverage of Bay Area peers and media companies well beyond their geographic area, so they knew their spin was different.

“We didn’t want to come too close to what other sites we doing,” Maerz says. “We had lists but we didn’t want to be too much like Buzzfeed. We had guides to the city but we didn’t want to just be another city guide. We were constantly trying to push the envelope.”

Use a healthy amount of contributors and sometimes let readers be writers

Half of TBI’s staff began as interns and then worked up to full-time slots. Maerz says many interns came with fresh ideas that went “way beyond what we would have thought of.” They came to the site excited and simply wanting to pitch in.

Half of the site’s posts came from freelancers and contributors. Maerz says, at any given time, she’d have a stable of 30 freelancers and the contributor list grew to 200 at one point.

“We wanted to keep bringing in a diversity of ideas,” she says.

When the editors sensed staff shared similar beliefs about a key issue, they’d seek out someone from the other side. For instance, at one point everyone on staff seemed to be anti-landlord, so Maerz sought out a landlord who could craft a piece about being in charge of San Francisco buildings.

Other times, on a hot-button issue, TBI editors would consult the comments section and ask someone who was actively taking part in the discussion to write a whole other essay representing their take.

And all of this can happen within a legacy media company

Going back to why Maerz took her job at the helm of The Bold Italic, she says she was especially encouraged by the promise that job titles weren’t strict and that the team had the freedom to experiment -- even within a big media entity.

During the past five years, she edited content yet also had her hands in events because she was passionate about it.

If anything, being a special project within Gannett offered the best of both worlds: financial support to pay contributors and great ideas from corporate leaders, yet also independence to try something more out of the box than a standard newspaper product.

TBI frequently tried something called design jams in which two people from different departments got together and quickly put together a piece of content that responded to something happening in San Francisco that day -- say, a visual riffing on the rain.

They made for playful, immediate posts while adding a spirit of collaboration and trial and error that she wants to see long beyond The Bold Italic.

Main image CC-licensed on Flickr via Nicolas Raymond. Secondary image is a screenshot of the Bold Italic