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From Blogs To Bucks

Metro Detroit is not without its fair share of popular blogs. Names like Sweet Juniper, Supergay Detroit, Motor City Blog, Last Blog Standing, Detroit Blog, and Motor City Rocks corner their own unique niches of readership and have all become very popular local reads, some even garnering national press or becoming their own event producers.

The best bloggers the most successful ones who build large fan bases are also the ones who do it the most religiously, posting 3-5 times per week and writing with a powerfully unique voice that engages audiences with a certain sense of personal rapport.

Some do it purely for the love of their subject material, some just to make their friends laugh, some solely for the notoriety.

Others make a job out of it. A paying job.

Next gen journalists

Not long after launching The Detroitist in the summer of 2008, Jeff Wattrick fast became Metro Detroit's source for local news. The formula was pretty simple: take the days' news aggregated from various sources and whittle it down to witty blurbs that would reference everything from H.L. Mencken to The Big Lebowski. Wattrick's writing was clearly informed but filled with impossibly esoteric references that appealed to blog readers.

Less a diffusion of daily stories and more an ongoing chronicle of daily life in Detroit, the site was a hit with young locals. Sure, the line "Rochelle Riley exists for me to make fun of her" is funny on its own, but for the blog's dedicated readers it was a howler, and they keep returning for Wattrick's wit and wisdom.

Wattrick has worked in journalism, in politics, for non-profit organizations, and in advertising. The Detroitist, which eventually came to be known as Dyspathy, started as a hobby.

"For a five-year period I had to keep my opinions really close to my chest," Wattrick explains. "This is why I wanted to start the blog." And, also, "I retain the most useless fucking information."

For its first two years Wattrick mostly remained anonymous, with only about 50 "Detroit people" knowing his true identity. But when he was offered a full-time position at MLive as a news writer, Dyspathy migrated to MLive.com's site, offering their readers a taste of his wit and insight - with a bit more polish and a lot less swearing. It also required that his secret identity be revealed. Still, not a bad trade for a full time paid gig.

If blogs have given a voice to every day Janes and Joes who want to write and report, Detroitblogger John has been giving everyone else their virtual due by turning man-on-the-street encounters into well-read pixels. Over the last seven years John has unearthed everything from a cornerside street grill turned neighborhood hangout to a surprisingly, ahhhhhh, revealing piece on a home strip club business.

John's blog began as a way to entertain friends with stories about his own drunken encounters and experiences. "It was absolutely stupid," he admits. "I realized it could only go so far."

So, John branched into writing about his second favorite activity: breaking into abandoned buildings. But even that topic, he discovered, came with an expiration date. And so he gave in to his journalist instincts, driving around the city's neighborhoods and talking to the people who live and work there. Soon he was filling his site with one-of-a-kind human interest stories. And it wasn't long before Detroit's alternative weekly, Metro Times, took notice and brought him on board to share his unique tales with their readers. The partnership has been a successful one, with John earning an Excellence In Journalism Award --first place for feature articles -- last year from the Society For Professional Journalists.

No matter what range of subjects he covers, Detroitblogger John always finds an upside to his encounters. "Every story, to me, has some sort of positive aspect or a happy ending," he says. While John's stories were initially published on a "blog," he insists that what he does isn't really a blog at all, but rather a series of full-fledged articles. The Internet just happened to be his printing press.

From boredom to blog to record label

There was once a time when every Tom, Dick, and hipster in the city had a music blog. Most of them were written by people trying to promote their own bands. But Jay Carroll and Jasper S. Preston Esq. don't have bands. They just really like music.

"There's a difference in reading something from someone who's a fan of music and a fan of drinking, versus someone who's promoting," says Jasper. "As a reader if you yourself want an opinion, you don't want an 'unbiased' opinion but an opinion where there's no gain. We're just talking about what we like."

In 2005 Jay and Jasper were both writing their own music blogs, and the story of how Jay met Jasper is kind of like how Harry met Sally as written by a Clerks-era Kevin Smith. Jay was working on a podcast but didn't know what he was doing and was told this guy "Jasper" was a podcast guru. He tracked "Jasper" down, and discovered "he was a total asshole. It turns out there were two Jaspers, and I got the asshole."

Jay's blog was called Five Three Dial Tone, and he always meant for it to be a music label. (He used to book bands for the Lager House.) Jasper's blog, Web Vomit, evolved from funny links he wanted to share with his friends to an impassioned music blog, where he posted tracks from bands he liked. Local readers flocked to both.

When it came time for Jay and Jasper to buy a domain name for their sites they decided to join forces. Thus Eat This City was born.

Drawing about 1,000 readers per month, ETC is clearly a labor of love, something to kill the tedium of the duo's desk jobs. "We do it to entertain ourselves," says Jay.

"You won't catch us taking ourselves seriously about blogging," adds Jasper. "Real music journalism is a bummer; I can't read it. I've always had a problem with sentences about songs."

The duo officially launched Five Three Dial Tone records in May 2009 and have had 10 record releases since. They also produce live shows (record release shows, acoustic sets with a roster of different Detroit musicians, DIY Fest after-parties, etc.), which puts them a lot farther ahead than so-called record-label owners who never seem to produce a record. The records they put out are geared to their comrades in music geekdom.

"We obsess over how it looks, what the inserts are going to be, how they are going to be related to the song title and band name," says Jasper. We're talking all unique colored vinyl, people at the merch booth trying to trade and ripping them open like animals."

They put a lot of money into the first 50 pressings, which appeals to the rabid collectors and nerds. They also don't charge any extra for them. "It's probably the worst business model ever," Jasper laughs. 

For now the duo intend to keep putting out records, putting everything they've earned into the next release. "We haven't added to our bank accounts," says Jay, "but we're still putting stuff out. Instead of going 'We have THIS much money,' we say, 'We can make TWO more records!' We're not quitting our jobs, but if we can fund more records there's a lot of records to be released here and elsewhere."

Funny sells

If you've ever wondered about the man behind those Pure Michigan spoof ads, just know this: he's exactly what you would expect from the man who's earned the ire of many and laughs of many more.

John Kerfoot gained quite a bit of notoriety this past summer when he posted his series of "Pure Michigan" send-ups. Irreverent, profane, and very very funny, once his Royal Oak video went viral, Kerfoot began to receive threats of both the legal and physical kind not to mention 2.5 million hits (and counting) on his YouTube channel.

While Kerfoot is still trying to make sense of his new-found fame and figuring out how best to take advantage of it, in September, when his U-M football video hit the net, he received $1,750 from his Google AdSense account. Not a bad take for what was meant to be a joke for friends.

"I really didn't plan on doing this many videos, but people keep watching them," he says. He certainly has us all wondering, what next?

Kerfoot and Detroitblogger John both started out with the intention of making something funny for their friends and discovered bigger and bigger audiences. Which exactly mirrors the experience of Ben Bator and Lauren Leto, the creators of Texts From Last Night.

"We both had a bunch of texts that were hilarious that we would bounce back and forth so we decided to put them online," Bator explains.

The site launched in February 2009 when he and Leto were in law school. They sent the link to everyone in their email address books. Two months later they redesigned their website and attracted over one million page views. Today they have nearly four million unique visitors per month with 2.5-5 million page views per day. Suffice it to say, they are no longer in law school.

"I like to call it my accidental MBA," Bator jokes. "Basically, we had to learn how to run a business." He admits they learned their limits pretty quickly and hired people to tend to various operations, from web development to ad sales. Now Bator splits his time between Detroit and L.A., dealing with contracts, meetings, and interviews. Texts From Last Night has apps for the iPhone, Blackberry, and Droid, a book that came out last January, and a sitcom in development with Sony and Fox.

"My parents always told me to make good decisions at the bar!" Bator laughs. So next time you're afraid to look through your phone the next morning, just remember that you're helping the local economy.

As a relentless blogger Nicole Rupersburg knows of what she speaks when she speaks of blogging. Her main gig is pixeling diningindetroit.blogspot.com but she's also a freelance writer. Her previous article for Metromode was Macomb Innovates Too!

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski

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