When Eric Richardson started blogging about his downtown L.A. neighborhood four years ago, it was just for fun. But now that his Blogdowntown website has built a monthly readership of 30,000, he’s looking to turn it into a moneymaker.

How? By doing the exact opposite of what many publications have done. He’s going to a print edition.

Starting this week, Richardson will publish a free newspaper called Blogdowntown Weekly. The full-color, 16-page tabloid will print every Thursday.

He’s developing the print edition because he expects it to sell more ads and at higher prices compared with the website. The weekly will print 25,000 copies.

“We didn’t have any money,” he said of his online product. “Print really gives us a way to kick off what we’re doing and earn significantly more revenue.”

The publication will have an emphasis on listing weekend activities for downtown residents, but will also publish entertainment-related news and features. Meanwhile, Richardson will continue to use the website to blog about area news. A three-person editorial staff and a handful of freelancers produce the website and the newspaper, tracking local issues such as a slew of shootings near 7th and Main streets, and the recent eviction of wine bar the Must.

Richardson estimates that Blogdowntown could make as much as $490,000 in its first year from combined advertising for the weekly edition and website, while online advertising would have generated only $60,000. That’s because he’s able to charge a significantly higher rate for print advertisements; the going rate is $2,500 for a full-page print ad in Blogdowntown Weekly while an online banner sells for only $150 a week.

Industry experts said smaller, geographically focused papers like Blogdowntown can still draw ad revenue from print, even in the days of declining readership and ad sales for bigger print publications.

“Weekly newspapers have done better than metro papers with advertising because they’re more specialized,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst for Outsell Inc., a Burlingame-based publishing research company.

On the other hand, it’s tough for small news outlets to find significant revenue online, he noted, because large media corporations, such as Google, drive the online advertising market and don’t pay much attention to small-circulation shops.

Blogdowntown is not the first online venture to bet that print advertising has potential. Printed Blog is a Chicago company that began publishing items compiled from a variety of community blogs in 2008. The company also publishes a San Francisco edition.

Robert Niles, the editor of Online Journalism Review at USC, predicts that such transitions from online to print increasingly will become a standard practice because of the ad sales issue.

‘Underserved market’

A blog looking to move into the print industry needs to have a niche market and provide content that readers can’t find anywhere else, Doctor said. “The biggest question I have is how unique the product is. If readers pick it up, they need to find stuff that they don’t already know.”

Richardson believes he’s found that niche: dedicating the blog to news and using the print product as a going-out guide.

“I think there’s a very underserved market for calendar and lifestyle information,” he said.

He believes he’ll stand apart from the competition. Downtown News focuses on business news in the neighborhood, while the L.A. Weekly and L.A. Times’ BrandX cover the whole city, not just downtown. Richardson believes the Weekly and Times miss items specific to his neighborhood, or don’t give them enough prominence.

But Niles warned that a popular blog doesn’t necessarily translate into a widely read newspaper.

“The thing about the Internet is that it’s got such a low-cost barrier to entry that a lot of people can get into this,” he said. “But being successful at publishing a blog online doesn’t guarantee success in the printing business.”

The true test for Blogdowntown Weekly will be whether area businesses buy advertising, Doctor said.

That’s what triggered the recent downfall of a different downtown newspaper. The Garment & Citizen, a weekly paper that distributed to 20,000 people in downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, printed its last paper July 23. Publisher Jerry Sullivan pointed to declining ad revenue as the reason for the paper’s demise.

Despite Garment & Citizen’s failure to find strong advertising support, Sullivan said that doesn’t mean Blogdowntown will face a similar end.

“It boils down to the quality of the product,” he said. “If it’s a good product, it’s got a chance to work.”

Some advertisers have already signed up for space in Blogdowntown Weekly, including Spring Street barbershop Bolt Barbers, which will also stack the paper at its shop. Another is AP Consulting LA, an event marketing firm that represents downtown residential rental buildings, such as Haas, Blackstone and Factory Place Arts Complex.

AP Consulting owner Josh Gray-Emmer said he has already committed his clients to a large group ad because he believes Blogdowntown Weekly will cater to the type of young singles who might lease apartments.

“Blogdowntown’s active consumer is right here,” he said.

Different models

Richardson doesn’t expect to have problems finding more advertisers like Gray-Emmer because his website has had more than five years to establish a reputation with downtown businesses.

He first started Blogdowntown in 2004 while he was still an undergraduate at USC. The communications major had moved downtown during his junior year and won a seat on the Downtown L.A. Neighborhood Council. He decided to start blogging about news from the council’s meetings and his experience as an urban pioneer.

After he graduated, Richardson went to work as a programmer for downtown mapmaking company Cartifact, but continued to blog as a hobby. In 2007, he invited two other downtown bloggers to add content to the site.

Richardson fully committed to Blogdowntown the next year, quitting his job and bringing on an editor and creative director. They began to look for ways to support the website. He considered adding online ads but soon realized that they wouldn’t generate enough revenue to support his expansion efforts. (He’s since added them, though.)

So he decided to find another business model. At first he thought he could find corporate sponsors or deep-pocketed donors, but that didn’t pan out.

“We started asking people for money right as no one had any money,” he said. “It ended up being too confusing to explain how they could benefit.”

That’s when he decided to launch a paper product funded by traditional advertising revenue, all the while expecting to find evidence that he’d lose money with a newspaper model.

“I went into the process expecting to find some red flag that wouldn’t make this doable because you hear all these stories about how print is dying,” he said. “But the more we started talking to people about the idea, the more we became convinced that we could do this.”

Richardson spent the beginning of 2010 looking for investors to fund the startup costs of producing a paper, but came up empty-handed. Instead, he’s relying entirely on advance advertising sales to support the production of the first edition.

“We’ll live or die by how successful we are going out and selling people on the audience,” he said.

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