In honor of the new internet tradition (yes, an oxymoron), I thought I’d replay my interview with Lockhart Steele, creator and founder of Curbed, from more than four years ago. I interviewed Lockhart over lunch when Curbed was just in its infancy, and it was an entertaining meal, to say the least. Curbed has come a long way, now with a global reach of over 2 million global readers, (and so have we).
I hope you enjoy this the second time around.
LEADING THE REVOLUTION – ONLINE
The world at large is flattening and our mechanisms of communication have evolved. Not since the Alexander Graham Bell era, more than 130 years ago, have we seen this extent of innovation. The internet has allowed pioneers to navigate through unchartered territories. Lockhart Steele is one of those pioneers. In a few short years he has created Curbed.com, which has become one of the leading industry (and non-industry) related blogs. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. I sat down with Lockhart in West Soho and discussed his creation, opinions and vision.
Shaun: Where did you grow up?
Lockhart: I’m a Massachusetts native.
Shaun: Did you go to journalism school?
Lockhart: I didn’t actually. I went to Brown. I’m a little older than I look. I’m actually 34. I graduated in 1996. I moved to New York immediately, so this is my 12th year here. I’m almost being accepted as a New Yorker.
Shaun: Why did you start Curbed?
Lockhart: Well, I’m a journalist by trade. I used to work in magazines and I love to write. At my core I’m a writer and I started writing on the web. I had my own personal website back in 2001. I live on the Lower East Side at Rivington and Ludlow Streets and I started writing about the neighborhood in 2001. It was right in that period of very fast transformation. 71 Clinton Fresh Foods opened, Schiller’s was just opening and the whole neighborhood was really changing. Everyday there was a new bar, a new restaurant. Lots were being sold, buildings were going up, and I started writing about this because it fascinated me. What I found was that people in my neighborhood discovered the site and started reading it. Because the stuff I was writing about was too minor to ever appear in NY Times even on the bottom of page B7. It’s just the stuff that is happening in your block is fascinating to you. It might not be with the bigger media. So I did it for a few years and I had the idea that it would be fun, the way I chronicled the changing of that neighborhood, to do for all of New York.
Shaun: When did you start Curbed?
Lockhart: I started Curbed in spring 2004. First and foremost my inspiration for the whole site was really to chronicle neighborhoods, and of course so much of what happens to neighborhoods in New York is tied to real estate. First and foremost, Curbed is about the neighborhoods of New York and telling the stories of the neighborhoods of New York. I am now in Los Angeles, San Francisco as well. Each of these cities is neighborhood driven. We tell the stories of how these cities are evolving and changing and what are they in the process of becoming?
Shaun: So it’s not only real estate related?
Lockhart: Some of my favorite stories on Curbed are the really stupid ones. Like, there’s a guy selling meat from the back of the truck in Park Slope. You know there are certain stories that make the site fun. People love to debate absurdities about neighborhoods. There’s so much happening in the real estate world in New York that obviously there’s a lot for us to write about and the site does end up being a lot about real estate. We have 2 full time writers who do most of the writing on the site and they’re both really funny, brilliant guys.
Shaun: Who goes on your site?
Lockhart: I think real estate for a lot of people is intimidating and scary, especially for those who have never bought a place before in New York, or if you’re renting. Curbed’s typical reader is actually about 15% from the industry. So 85% of our readers are Wall Street guys, lawyers, media people, people that sit at that their desk all day with a computer in front of them. People take a break from their job and they’re fascinated. A lot about what we try to do is write about real estate from a perspective of assuming that you don’t know what F.A.R. is, or that you don’t know what a 421a exemption is. Those are the kind of things we try not to talk a lot about on the site. If you’re just an average New Yorker, you don’t care about that. You care about why a developer can build a tall tower next to me. New Yorkers are smart, so we can be smart and we can be funny. We don’t want to bore them with a lot of the gory details, which is very appropriate for a trade magazine like The Real Deal to really dig in because it’s being read by brokers and people, this is their business. Curbed is foremost entertaining. People read it because they find it amusing. They love architecture and they want to see what’s going to be built next door to them.
Shaun: Where do you get your stories from?
Lockhart: We get our stories from three places. One of course we’re always keeping an eye on, is what everyone else is writing about. A lot of what we do is link. We want to make Curbed the place where if there’s a story about the New York real estate world published anywhere, we’re going to find the link to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the Dubai Daily Paper or if it’s on an architecture website or if it’s anywhere else. But the thing that makes the site, the second place we get our information, is our editors doing their own reporting. The third place, that’s probably the most interesting, is the relationship we have with our own readers, which is pretty crazy. We have readers who send us hundreds of emails a day.
Shaun: And how do you filter everything?
Lockhart: The way it works is: a typical kind of email we would get is “Hey Curbed, I was just walking down 11th Avenue in Chelsea and I was checking out the progress on three new developments and here are some photos I took”. And what’s amazing is these are people we don’t know who are so fascinated by the way New York is evolving. They love their city and they will take the time to take these photos and write us an email. A lot of the stuff we get is questions which become the stories for our editors to investigate. A lot of them are really great and our readers are doing the reporting for us. So our editor’s job is to track all this information, sift through and decide what we think the readers want to read today. You have to have a big bullshit filter and it’s surprising people always ask me; “How are you sure you’re getting this stuff right?” and I say we certainly make our share of screw ups (laughs). There is no question about that.
Shaun: So, how do you control the quality?
Lockhart: Blogging is a different way of doing journalism. I used to be a reporter and when I was going to do a story, I would make ten phone calls and I’d write 1,000 words and it would probably be published in the New York Times (or whatever) and that’s the end of the story. If I got something wrong, then I’d run a tiny correction on the bottom of the page a week later. The way we do it on Curbed, you get a little story tip from a reader, we hear this happened; we kind of throw it out there. We make sure if it’s something obvious or scandalous or it seems like it’s probably too good to be true we always check that stuff out. That’s what I mean about having a good bullshit filter. We have the fundamental assumption at Curbed that our readers know more than we do.
Shaun: So you think that’s a filter in and of itself?
Lockhart: Our readers know more about real estate than we do. We want to bring that knowledge out in to the open. That’s what the comments section on Curbed is. It can get crazy at times, but it’s the internet. People go off the handle, but I think more often than not the information that pops up in the comments is from people who know. Some of them will pop up and write a two paragraph comment about the entire history of the property. Obscure information that you would only know if you had developed that property or if you were so plugged into to it that you would know these crazy details. We’re never going to know that.
Shaun: I guess the genius of it is that you’re able to harness the power of all your readers.
Lockhart: That’s it. What makes us great are the readers sending us these tips and commenting. You know, a lot of ways we’re a conduit for the reader. We don’t know what we are going to write about tomorrow.
Shaun: Which I guess it’s a double edged sword, because you do have readers who have an agenda.
Lockhart: Of course.
Shaun: I guess that’s the entertainment factor.
Lockhart: Absolutely. As long as we’re always clear on what information comes from the readers, what information we’ve vetted and what information we are putting out there essentially unvetted, and we try to be good about that. Like I said, I assume people that read our site have a functioning brain. And they also have the ability. I think more often than not we get it right. That’s the power of this medium. It let’s information rise up.
Shaun: According to Quantcast, you get 2.5 million paged viewers per month.
Lockhart: That’s on Curbed New York.
Shaun: And over 800,000 unique visitors.
Lockhart: That’s right.
Shaun: What do you attribute that traffic to? I don’t think you do any marketing?
Lockhart: We never started any marketing.
Shaun: That’s amazing.
Lockhart: It’s pretty crazy. It blows my mind to be honest with you. I mean this is something I started as a hobby and it’s just grown. Now I run it as a business. But four years ago I literally started this thing because I thought it was going to be fun.
Shaun: So how good of a business is it?
Lockhart: In the last year and a half I decided, like, oh shit! I should quit my job and do this.
Shaun: What were you doing at the time?
Lockhart: I was a magazine guy then I used to run the website, Gawker. I was the managing editor at Gawker media. I didn’t do any of the writing over there, but I was mostly responsible hiring all the writers. Gawker turned itself into a wonderful business. Nick Denton who runs the show over there is an incredibly smart guy. And I learned a lot about web publishing and how to turn a highly trafficked site into something that can actually make some money. It was only a year and a half ago that developers, a lot of developers, were discovering Curbed. And we started getting emails, Hey, can I advertise with you? Sure. And suddenly the site was making some money.
Shaun: Has anyone ever offered to buy the company?
Lockhart: We have had someone, but not that big. My mom has offered $20 for the whole enchilada. The summer of 2007 I started this full time and we built a team and we took a little bit of investment money last summer and this year we finally feel like we are set up now. 2007 was about turning what was a hobby into a business and now 2008 is a lot about getting out there in front of the industry in New York. I went to L.A. for two weeks. Curbed L.A. is not as big as New York. It’s about half the size.
Shaun: You have San Francisco, L.A. Is Miami one of the target cities? Are there any other cities?
Lockhart: We want to do Chicago next, because it’s another great neighborhood city. People in Chicago are obsessed with their neighborhoods. You know Miami, I love Miami. I think what we are going to do there is what we’ve been doing this site in the Hamptons in the summer, called The Beach. I think we’re going to re-do it – we haven’t even announced this – but you can put the information out there. We’re going to do a new version of it and launch it on Memorial Day. Cover the Hamptons really obsessively in the summer and then in the winter it’s going to be sort of like high end resort spots. Aspen, South Beach, Hamptons, you know kind of like Jason Binn’s magazines.
Shaun: Do you think blogs and online media is killing print?
Lockhart: I don’t think it’s killing print. So much of what we do is symbiotic with print. If we didn’t have all these print things to link to I think Curbed would be very diminished. I see the two of them kind of merging. I think print is dying on its own.
Lockhart: It costs a lot of money to buy paper to run these giant presses. Then you print this thing and then it has to be delivered all over town. You have to put it in the mail and spend postage money. To get a new magazine for profitability you have to be making from 3 or 4 million bucks a year to cover your cost of printing and marketing. On the web we spend 5 grand a year on our servers. We’ve compressed that entire thing to 5 grand, which means we can run a lot leaner. Curbed is a small business obviously, but we run really lean. We’re sort of at that hungry boot strapping stage of any business. I’m sure you’ve been there.
Shaun: Yes I have.
Lockhart: You’re obsessed about your expenses. You’re obsessed that every penny really matters. You can’t eat lunch at fancy places like Giorgione 508.
Shaun: In order to have credibility in journalism, you have to be impartial. Once you bring advertising into that equation does it change? If a developer is paying you $10,000 to run a banner ad is there a conflict of interest?
Lockhart: I think there is. You can say the same things about magazines and news papers. Any media that accepts advertising has the potential conflict of interest if you don’t build your company the right way. We’re obsessed with making sure our editors have the right to write whatever they want. The first magazine I ever worked for was run by an entrepreneur who made a lot of money in the business. He said you serve your readers first and if your readers start to feel we’re pulling punches or that we’re favoring one guy over the other guy, readers are going to be like, “Fuck you Curbed.” We’ve had some big developments advertising on Curbed where we’ve gotten emails from someone moving in complaining, “Hey, the roof leaks here,” and we run that. I’m happy so far that the developers that have advertised with us kind of get that. Blogs are happening.
Shaun: You’ve grown exponentially very quickly. Where do you see yourself in two years?
Lockhart: I think a lot of what we have to do right now is expand what we started. I don’t think we’re going to see Curbed in twenty cities. We want to focus on the big cities where there’s enough going on everyday to warrant a daily news segment.
Shaun: Are you interested in venturing out internationally?
Lockhart: I think Sydney we’d love to do. That could be a couple of years out. I’m a news guy. If we could afford twice as many editors right now, I have tons of ideas of things we could be doing.
Shaun: What daily news do you read, watch or listen to?
Lockhart: I’m a newspaper guy. I’m the one that buys newspapers. I read The Post and The Times religiously every day. I can’t start my day without a newspaper. I use a piece of software that lets me follow about 400 blogs everyday if you can believe that.
Shaun: How do you think the web has revolutionized our world? We are clearly in a revolution as powerful in my opinion as the industrial revolution?
Lockhart: First of all I think it’s a hell of a lot of fun. In my world the web has brought so many people together. I met so many friends through it. I chafe at the idea when people say oh, the web is making us all hide in our rooms alone. I think it’s helping us be more social than ever.
Shaun: What’s next?
Lockhart: Here’s what I would really like Curbed to do next. I have a vision for the next few years. I don’t know exactly how we can do this, but something we’re thinking a lot about is finding ways to let people interact with each other on the site more than they do now. Right now we’re kind of topped out. We’re kind of old media in that we have writers that do all the writing and fact tracking, which is fine. I don’t want to lose that. What I can see is the site getting deeper. What if we can create some better tools?
Shaun: I look forward to seeing it.