JOURNALISM

[Blog] Observing L.A. Observed: 10 Years and Counting?

L.A. Observed screenshot

First thing each morning, I read the L.A. Times. (Yes, the actual paper. More on that another time.) First thing when I get to my computer, I check my email and read the latest from L.A. Observed. Among the dozens of e-newsletters landing in my inbox daily, L.A. Observed is the only one I’ve opened almost every day for the past several years.

The much respected L.A. news blog will turn 10 years old in 2013. It’s a major accomplishment for a site whose founder and lead blogger, veteran journalist Kevin Roderick, once said, “I didn’t set out with any path in mind. There’s no business plan.”

In the nine years since Roderick’s first post, our city’s traditional print media have been forced to cut resources. Meanwhile, L.A. Observed has bloomed. It began as a blog about local media news, but now also covers L.A. politics, business, history, culture and the arts, mainly via aggregated sources. Guest columnists have joined too, bringing distinctive voices and viewpoints. The site’s redesign last April has boosted the quality further, making the site attractive and easy to browse.

The secrets to L.A. Observed’s longevity and success? (L.A. Observed has 13,156 followers on Twitter, and at least that many readers, I assume. I call that a dedicated readership.) I see a few factors at play…

Niche

“L.A.” may seem like a vast, cumbersome niche. But Roderick knows his audience. Or, maybe it’s that he tailors the site to appeal to people like himself: Middle-class adults with established careers who are educated, intelligent, and curious. (One thing’s for sure: I bet every professional journalist in L.A. reads L.A. Observed’s media news.) The site compiles the most interesting and notable news from L.A., gathering from a variety of sources.

From what I can tell, L.A. Observed was the first site to meet a need for fast, brief, local news from a reliable source. The site’s independence from any company or organization – just a single soul at a keyboard — gave it the freedom to adapt and reinvent itself quickly. Now, L.A. Observed has risen to the top of the local blog scene, even as others proliferate.

Smart aggregation

L.A. Observed is fueled almost entirely by aggregation. There’s just one main blogger, after all! Roderick doesn’t run around the city chasing stories. (Plus, he has a day job. You know, with a salary.) Occasionally L.A. Observed breaks news, but that’s usually thanks to a reader tip.

Often, Roderick posts news that comes from the L.A. Times. Also often, the New York Times. Sometimes, the L.A. Weekly. After that, community newspapers (such as The Daily News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Glendale News Press, Downtown News), local news sites (such as Blogdowntown, Patch sites) and independently-run blogs. Roderick always credits these sources, and provides links where readers can get more information. The aggregation is a way for readers to find news without clicking through 20 sites, or dredging through topics with little relevance to L.A. The posts are kept short so that readers can browse through a bunch of items in a short period of time, picking up just the essentials.

Plus, the aggregated items on L.A. Observed pick up extra value from Roderick’s commentary.

Tone

An item on L.A. Observed’s FAQ page asks, “Why isn’t L.A. Observed snarky?” (I’m amused that readers these days expect blogs to be snarky. Is the internet turning into a snark-fest?) In his response, Roderick writes, “We think the blogosphere is big enough for all manner of personalities and writing styles. LA Observed is written to inform and occasionally entertain, rarely to advocate, anger or persuade.”

Still, it embodies a distinctive style, letting us know there’s a person behind that screen, not a robot. Dry humor often asserts itself. And opinion? Almost always. Especially when it comes to media news. (The L.A. Times is a frequent target, to the irritation of some staffers.)

Another 10 years?

It might not hit you right away, but…there are no advertisements on L.A. Observed. Gasp! How does the site make money? One guess: It doesn’t. However, L.A. Observed has become a recognizable brand with clout. That has its own worth. And it continues to occupy a niche that other blogs do not.

What could be next? A mobile app seems like a reasonable step. And perhaps more original reporting. (Although I suspect much of L.A. Observed’s success lies in the aggregation model — it’s quick and easy to do and to read.) But most likely, the next achievement for L.A. Observed will be a monumental party. Kevin, won’t you send me an invite?

Written as part of UCLA Extension’s “New Media Reporting” course.

Featured Image Credit: LA Observed’s Native Intelligence page

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