I have decided to put Gapers Block on hiatus on January 1.
The site will not go dark. Instead a large black banner will appear above the masthead with the following message for visitors:
"As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block is on indefinite hiatus. The site will remain up in archive form while we evaluate our options, which may include a redesign or sale. Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years."
Staffers may be able to post last little bits for a couple of days after the 1st, but I hope that all activity ceases by Jan. 7. I'll keep funding hosting for the site for the forseeable future, so the articles will remain online.
I have not come to this decision lightly. In fact, as many of you know, I've spent much of the past couple years struggling with the future of GB. I've lost a lot of sleep, and gained some stress weight and grey hairs.
Factor Number One
There are several factors that caused me to reach this decision. First, the one I told you about earlier this year. I'm in the process of taking over my father's business, Glendale Communications Group. We have spent much of the year working out the details, and this is the first of a multi-year succession process -- but the transition to me being the principal operator of the company is happening much sooner. As a result, I am under considerable pressure to spend less time on GB and more on Glendale.
This was the catalyst of my hiring Mike Ewing to take over day-to-day posting duties for me this summer. That took a huge weight off my shoulders. I was able to get a lot of day-job work done uninterrupted, and I was able to go out at night without worrying about making it home to edit articles and schedule Merge posts. I took a weeklong vacation in June and for the first time in a decade I didn't work on the website at all. I've read more books in the past six months than I had in the prior six years. On the other hand, I still did a lot of copyediting, took over management of Book Club, and continued to write the majority of Slowdown entries and the weekly newsletter. Still, having Mike's help was phenomenal.
I paid Mike for his work, with the understanding that he would need to help generate income for the site in order to keep the arrangement going. Unfortunately, GB ran out of funds to pay Mike at almost precisely the same time as he landed a new job working the second shift at TouchVision. I wish him the best of luck with the new job and appreciate all his help this year -- this decision is in no way his fault. But unfortunately I'm back to writing nearly all of Merge, which eats up a lot of time each day, and continue to edit, copyedit and everything else.
Factor Number Two
There's a secret page that shows contributor posting stats, created by founding staffer James Allenspach. If you look, you'll find that other than a couple months this summer, I write more than anyone else on the staff, usually by a huge margin.
Once upon a time, it didn't bother me that much. In the early years cofounder Naz Hamid was my equal partner, sharing the load of site work and being a sounding board for new ideas and frustrations, stress and joy. Ater he left, David Schalliol took over that role to a great extent, and I can't thank him enough for all his work, advice and confidence over the years.
Having Mike Ewing's help over the past year and especially this summer showed me just how much I've been missing over the past decade. My life is pretty small in a lot of ways, despite all the projects I work on to escape it, and I don't get to see many of those friends on a regular basis. And now that I'm back to the daily grind after a taste of freedom, I find that I don't have the passion for it that I once did. I'm tired. It feels like a chore. I started GB when I was 28; I'm now 40, and I'm ready to move on.
Factor Number Three
Truly, I was ready to move on a couple years ago, but I couldn't bear the thought of GB going away, so I kept going, all the while boring friends and family with my vacillations on what to do. I spoke with local media folks, with foundation representatives and journalism department chairs. I explored the pros and cons of every option for transitioning GB into someone else's control, as well as keeping it and changing the corporate structure. Most proved impossible, improbable or unrealistic, and some of the others, such as converting GB into a nonprofit, proved to be so expensive that I'd have to go into debt to make it happen. The way Gapers Block is structured -- a nearly profitless for-profit company with an all-volunteer staff and only one semi-part time employee -- turns out to be fine for muddling along but almost impossible to sell or convert or give to a university without it being radically altered.
The other issue I encountered was that lots of people, at foundations and at large, told me that GB was super important and should be saved, but they all seemed to expect me to continue to run it, to be centrally involved. And that's the one thing that has to change, no matter what the site's future is.
Factor Number Four
So, couldn't I just step back and let the editors or some other volunteers run it? Well, yes. I mean, it's all doable, but getting volunteers to do it and do it for the long haul is just hard. The site needs a major technological overhaul -- we're running on a six-years-out-of-date version of Movable Type with a damaged database -- and you know how finicky it's become. GB also needs a conversion to a responsive layout so it stays in Google's good graces and follows the web onto mobile devices.
And someone needs to pay for hosting and other services. If that money comes from ads, someone needs to sell them. And someone needs to take over tackling the hundreds of emails we get every day, someone needs to run the social media accounts, someone needs to write the newsletter, someone needs to copyedit... I fear that nobody will want to do it in my place, or at least not for very long. I honestly don't know how I did it this long.
At this point, I think Gapers Block's model is just out of date. The site structure is out of step with the way online media functions, and while we provide a fantastic platform for local journalism, our audience is shrinking and our opportunities for revenue are too. Facebook continues to vacuum up attention and ad spending. Meanwhile, other sites are fulfilling the role that GB was founded to serve -- surfacing interesting news in the city, and covering stuff that doesn't make the major media. (The event calendar situation still sucks, but that may be an unsolvable problem.)
All of this leads me to believe that it's time for Gapers Block to end. While this will leave a hole in the local media landscape, I have no doubt that something else will rise up to take its place and fill that gap, partially or in full. (More on that below.) It may even be a new version of GB. A small part of the decision to put the site on hiatus is to force the hand of the people who say they want to help it survive. You want to help, great. But a plan that "saves" the site only so it continues on as it is now is not salvation.
Gapers Block will continue to publish until Jan. 1, although Merge will likely be pretty quiet while I'm out of town for the holiday next week. After that, who knows.
In January, I'm probably going to spend as little time on the internet as possible, as a sort of detox from spending so much time looking for Chicago stories and events to post. I think cold turkey may be the only way for me to stop. But I'll also plan one last GB staff party so we can all get together and celebrate the great work we've done; more details soon, but you should keep Jan. 9 open.
In terms of other projects, Mike Ewing plans to keep the Stars Align music series going, and I will continue to host Tuesday Funk and 20x2, which were only nominally sponsored by GB. I also look forward to continuing to organize events like the Hot Dog Cookoff and our microbrewery crawls, too.
Several GB editors and staffers are putting together a new arts and culture website, Third Coast Review, which is expected to launch sometime in January. Chances are other new sites will arise as well. And you'll of course continue to spot familiar names of GB alumni in other publications in Chicago and beyond.
Finally, thank you.
Thank you to the staff, both current and past, for everything you've done and continue to do for Gapers Block. Thank you to our colleagues in the media for taking a volunteer-run webzine seriously, and occasionally even acknowledging when we scooped you. ;) And a huge thank you to the readers and advertisers who have stuck with us over the years, who have come and gone, and who just found us. This was all for you, and I hope we succeeded in getting you to slow down and check out this amazing city.
I am truly humbled by what this little site started as a side project by a group of local bloggers has achieved over the years. None of this was possible without the hundreds of writers who contributed in big ways and small. I'm forever in your debt.
Comments are off on this post, but feel free to email me. Happy holidays, and may 2016 bring wonderful new beginnings to us all.
Editor & Publisher