Q&A: Tim Donnelly of Brokelyn.com

23 Sep

Welcome to Part 1 of several Q&A’s with various entrepreneurial journalists that I’ll be posting throughout the semester. First up is fellow Brooklyn-based blogger Tim Donnelly who, among other things, is one of the editors of Brokelyn, a Brooklyn-centric site for us poor folk that I also write for. As a recent J-school grad (’04), he has a lot of interesting things to say about what journalism has become and what it’s going to be like in the future. Also, heed his advice for upcoming graduates. Stuff is good. You can also check out his Twitter and personal blog here and here.

How was Brokelyn established?

Faye Penn, the founder of Brokelyn, found herself with an unexpected inheritance from a cab driver she wrote a newspaper profile about many years ago. The two stayed in touch but when the cab driver died, she left a large sum of money to Faye. Faye (who was also out of a job at the time) decided to do something helpful with the money — we were entering the hard times of the recession right about then, and everyone was feeling down in the dumps. The idea was to counteract all the pessimism in the world about the economic situation: everyone has plenty of places to go to gripe, but where can they go to pick themselves up and improve their situation? The money allowed Faye to create a great looking site, buy up the domain names and kickstart the whole thing with a staff of interns culled from Craigslist. From there, it was an almost instant hit.

What are you responsible for on a typical day?

Finding topics that might interest our audience (sales, budget tips, free shows, etc), monitoring Twitter to see what other folks in Brooklyn are talking about, sending out our content on social media: publishing on Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc. On occasion, I help edit posts our reporters submit, find art to go with them, and publish them to the site. Also, I will help out with daily quick-hit posts and continue working on enterprise projects.

Can you talk a little bit about the entrepreneurial side of blogging?

Since the site is self-supported, we’re constantly looking for projects and events to to do to raise some money. This has led to some creative revenue stream ideas, such as the Beer Book and our birthday party/raffle. The site is successful as an entrepreneurial effort because it filled a gap not present in the Brooklyn blogosphere: clever, sharp writing and attractive design attached to a stream of posts designed to make peoples’ lives easier. The element of service journalism is integral to the site and its success.

Do you think that this model of so-called “entrepreneurial journalism” is here to stay?

Yes, I think so, because the internet has completely leveled the playing field in terms of publishing. There are no barriers of access to anything any more: that is to say, someone can click on a Brokelyn post about cheap beer deals just as easily as they can click on a huge expose in the New York Times. As the traditional media structure continues to collapse, laying off journalists and squeezing talented people out into the streets of unemployment, more people will become frustrated with the lack of high-quality writing venues and continue to start their own. We’ve seen this not just in Brooklyn but also with Politico, TBD.com in DC and other sites where talented journalists have fled to instead of waste away in the dying old structure. It’s tricker to figure out how to make this profitable, but there have been some success stories. And it’s encouraging, because the lack of guaranteed revenue means more people are doing it out of passion, not profit.

Is it difficult balancing editorial duties with other things such as selling ads, etc.?

Yes. I for one have been wanting to spend more time focusing on selling local ads and attaching more revenue to Brokelyn, but it’s hard to squeeze it in between keeping the site running, plus all my other freelance work (aka the stuff I need to do to pay rent and eat and survive and stuff). It would be nice to have a dedicated person to handle this but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

What advice do you have for anyone going into j-school? What specific tools do you think they need to have/need to master?

Blog. Blog a lot. Pick a topic that interests you, but keep your political opinions to yourself. Most kids going into J-school today likely know way more about social media and web 2.0 than their professors ever will. The trick is to learn how to meld the distribution arm of new media with the serious reportage of the old media. Get a job at the school paper, because if you’re lucky, odds are it may be the best newspaper you ever work for. The best way to learn journalism is to DO it. You can sit in class all you want but the people who actually succeed are the ones who know how to take notes on the run or who to talk to to slip past a police barricade.

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