“Turning the page,” wrote David Garber in Anacostia.
“It’s a wrap,” wrote Susan Kennedy from Barry Farms.
“I’m tired, to be fully honest,” wrote Steve Thurston in Arlington County.
These are the familiar farewells that have signaled the end of many neighborhood blogs in the region. In a few reflective paragraphs, the writers abort their missions — citing reasons such as exhaustion, family changes or a move — and wave white flags of defeat.
Of the hundreds of community news bloggers that surfaced in the Washington area since 2006, only a handful have stood the test of time. They are the survivors, the strongest and the fittest, who post regularly to dedicated followers and often break hyper-local news hours before large media outlets reach it. Although there is no formula for blogging success and no way to predict which blogs will flourish and which will fail, there are a few secrets to coming out on top.
“Two words: thick skin,” said Dan Silverman, who writes the popular blog Prince of Petworth. “That keeps you going. I’ve been called a Nazi, a communist, a dictator, a genius. . . . And when I go to sleep at night, I don’t think about the guy that called me a genius.”
Silverman, who started in 2006, also had the advantage of getting in early. It was tough then to find any block-by-block coverage of the changes happening in his neighborhood, he said. As speculation about businesses and elections grew, he started a blog to resolve the rumors.
It began as a casual hobby: Silverman wrote one post a day covering neighborhood news. But things escalated quickly. In 2009, when he found himself working through the night, he quit his job as a consultant with BAE Systems to the Department of Homeland Security and began blogging full time.
“I was lucky, because I was first. I filled a void,” he said. “New bloggers have to differentiate themselves, and that’s tough today, when so many areas are already covered.”
With little competition, advertisers approached Silverman early on. Now, with an average of 35,000 hits a day, he makes enough to pay his bills.
Nikki Peele filled a different void. When she moved from Prince George’s County to Congress Heights in 2007, she saw little balance to news coverage.
“All the information I could find about the area, and really Ward 8 in general, was negative,” she said. “It seemed like the whole story about east of the river was crime and poverty, but I knew that couldn’t be the only narrative.”
Peele, 35, reached out to David Garber, who wrote the now-defunct blog And Now, Anacostia, and he encouraged her to consider blogging. She started to attend community meetings but found she wasn’t always welcome. One night in June 2008, she had an argument with an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner member who Peele said tried to prevent her from getting involved in the neighborhood. Determined, she vowed that night to attend every meeting in Ward 8 over 30 days and blog about each one.
“These meetings were covering public information that was relevant to the community,” she said. “I just figured, I live here. I have a right to know.”
Peele named her blog Congress Heights on the Rise, based on her goal to show the positive sides to living east of the river. Today, she posts up to 15 times a day and gets an average of 3,000 daily page views.
But successful blogs don’t have to be full-time gigs. Topher Mathews, who writes the Georgetown Metropolitan, has a day job as an attorney for the federal government. He said time management is key. He keeps a strict schedule that limits him to three entries per day: links in the morning, an article midday that he writes the night before and a photo in the afternoon. This structure prevents Mathews, 34, who has a 5-month-old baby, from stretching himself too thin.
“It’s like working out,” he said. “You don’t always enjoy it, but you have to keep doing it to keep the value up. But if you’re not realistic about your goals, you’ll fail.”
Matt Rhoades and Luis Gomez see more opportunity than obligation. In August 2008, the couple, who are married and live on a block that straddles Logan and Dupont circles, co-founded their aptly named blog Borderstan. Like Silverman’s site, it started small and covered crime in the community. Today, Borderstan has 30 volunteer contributors who write the blog’s six to eight daily posts about food, entertainment, politics and retail options.
“We’ve stayed with our original mission of covering this specific area, which has made it easier for us to survive, grow and reach more people,” Rhoades, 53, said.
Rhoades and Gomez, both journalism majors in college, said they had a vision for the blog long before they had the manpower. But there are some who don’t strive to be a go-to news source. Instead, they see blogging as modern community activism.
Consider Dan Reed, who started his blog Just Up the Pike in 2006, the summer after his freshman year of college. Reed, then 18 and an intern at an architectural firm, had always been passionate about urban development and wanted a place to comment on the changes happening in his hometown of Silver Spring. Now 24 and with a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, Reed’s blog gets 2,000 hits per day, although he posts only two or three times a week.
“Just Up the Pike is an opportunity for me to put my city planning cap on and discuss ways in which we can bring this neighborhood to its full potential,” he said. “I think that’s why people come back to it.”
Reed is hunting for a job in urban planning or design that would let him put his ideas into action.
Ultimately, Silverman said, bloggers who endure must be driven by a passion for their subjects — in this case, a love for the neighborhood and a sense of responsibility to the neighbors.
Matthews blogged about his 10 favorite spots in Georgetown during his honeymoon. Reed blogged through final exams week. Silverman hired a stand-in blogger during his wedding and honeymoon, and he lost 20 percent of his readers. And when Peele heard gunshots behind her building and ran to the scene, she was the first to find the victim on the ground. Although she couldn’t bring herself to blog about the incident (the victim died minutes later), she wrote a post telling readers to “stand strong.”
Peele later founded a public relations firm and launched Eat, Shop, Live Anacostia, a Web site that emphasizes the area’s dining, retail and attractions.
“It’s my personal opinion that you should use your blog as a platform for the greater good,” she said. “We’re a community. We’re all in this together.”
How to write a successful community blog
1. Develop a mission statement: “And stick to it,” said Matthew Rhoades, who co-founded the blog Borderstan, whichcovers Dupont and Logan Circles. He recommends asking yourself, “What’s the purpose of this blog?” before starting and when considering changes over the years.
2. Consider your readers: With so many blogs out there, you’ve got to have a fresh angle to get readers to notice you, said Dan Reed, who writes the Silver Spring blog Just Up the Pike. “Bring them something they don’t already have,” he said. Reed includes commentary about urban planning to give his posts a special angle.
3. Focus: Douglas Galbi, author of an Arlington County blog called the Ode Street Tribune, concentrates his content on Rosslyn and writes one post each day. “It’s never more, never less, and that keeps it fun,” he said.
4. Be genuine: “If you’re just trying to cultivate an audience because you want the spotlight, people will pick up on that,” said Nikki Peele of the blog Congress Heights on the Rise. “Who wants to feed that insincerity? Whatever you’re blogging about, you have to have a genuine interest in it.”
5. Understand you can’t please everyone: Dan Silverman, who writes the Prince of Petworth blog, said one of the most difficult lessons for a blogger to learn is how to read the comments without taking them personally. “After a while, you realize you’re never going to make everyone happy,” he said. “But once you figure that out, it’s a lot easier to keep writing.”