Online Extra: New York's Real Estate Know-It-All
Brokers might tell you about the two-bedroom co-op boasting panoramic city views from Lower Manhattan's 275 Water St. But for the inside scoop on the developer who may be floating plans to erect an eight-story building next door, potentially obstructing that view -- and wreaking havoc on your property value -- turn to Lockhart Steele. His Web log, Curbed.com, dishes the dirt the brokers don't. "In our special little city," writes Steele in a post on the property, "today's vistas are often tomorrow's brick walls."
Steele, 31, has made a fledgling business out of an obsessive hobby: collecting New York real estate gossip. His blog details Gotham's neighborhood secrets -- from where the city's largest rats are (reportedly in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section) to the future of the Apple Bank building on the Upper West Side (it may be going co-op). The tidbits he gathers often rankle realtors. Jonathan Phillips, for example, who represents 275 Water St. for Halstead, says brokers don't misrepresent properties, and he's quick to point out that Steele never contacted him for comment.
But disregard for traditional media mores is in keeping with bloggers' craft. Steele never claimed to adhere to the standards of old-world journalism. Rather, he bills himself as a scavenger. He culls through 150 other blogs and dozens of readers' tips daily to update his blog, posting photos, rants, and queries. The onus is on readers to shape the conversation by sending him tips, notes, and responses.
Steele's blog has become a must-read for real estate purveyors and enthusiasts alike. Since Curbed.com launched in May, 2004, its traffic has grown to a million page views each month, leaving businesses clamoring to advertise.
"It reaches the right audience," says Daren Hornig, president of residential real estate company DwellingQuest. Hornig reads the site daily and frequently sends Steele tips to post. They're right now negotiating an ad deal. NYTimes.com became Curbed.com's first paid advertiser when it began running a banner on the site Mar. 24.
As part of Steele's professed get-rich-slow scheme, he left his day job as an editor at luxury real estate magazine Cottages & Gardens on Jan. 31 to become a professional blogger. Since Curbed.com is still far from profitable, Steele took a job with the blogosphere's most successful business prototype to date, Gawker Media. Its sites commanded 35 million page views in March.
As its new managing editor, Steele oversees 11 Gawker blogs, including New York media gossip site Gawker.com and the Washington news and gossip blog Wonkette.com. Gawker Media is not a big-budget operation, but publisher Nick Denton is able to pay a small staff to keep sites up and running, and he hopes to launch six more this year. A big perk to a job with a less-defined schedule, says Steele in his characteristic fast-paced banter: "I get to devote a lot more time to Curbed.com this way."
A sandy-haired guy with large blue eyes and a prominent nose, Steele has nurtured an entrepreneurial spirit since his Brown University days, when in 1995 he collaborated with classmate Andy Bernstein to self-publish a book on the rock group Phish. The pair called their masterpiece The Pharmer's Almanac. Five editions later, they sold it to Penguin.
Upon graduation, Steele headed for New York where he has spent the last decade working in startup media ventures -- from newly launched magazines to dot-com projects since gone bust -- before landing a job with Cottages & Gardens Publications three years ago.
PLAN OF ACTION.
Steele has been blogging for five years now. On his personal blog, Lockhartsteele.com, readers will find photographs from a recent vacation, a link to the lyrics of a favorite Christmas song, and endless chronicles of the Lower East Side. These latter posts -- restaurant reviews, overheard remarks, development plans -- attracted an early following, giving Steele the idea for Curbed.com.
Unlike his personal blog, Steele began Curbed.com with a business plan. Early on, he enlisted Alexis Palmer, a high school friend from Vermont's St. Paul's Academy, to manage the marketing side. With a Harvard MBA, Palmer is a finance person by day. Each night she spends several hours on Curbed.com work: developing a marketing strategy, putting together press kits, and incorporating the site as a small business. Meanwhile, Steele develops the site's editorial voice.
A journalist by training, Steele is emphatic about making the distinction between Curbed.com's content and traditional journalism. "I don't have time to do the fact-checking you do," said Steele of BusinessWeek's traditional journalistic model. Sometimes this leads to problems.
Case in point: Last fall, after receiving a tip from another blog, he reported that a Williamsburg man was advertising phony memberships to a bogus gym. Curbed.com had broken a similar authentic scandal earlier in the summer, also from a reader tip. As it turned out, no scam existed this time. The gym owner, a legitimate business operator, sent a furious letter to Steele. "What can you do?" Steele shrugs. He added a correction to the faulty post immediately and put up an apology along with the letter.
This combination of hot insider news and just plain wrong information defines much of the blogosphere. "People trust blog posts more because they sound like e-mails from a friend," says Steele. But he puts the responsibility on readers to read "with your eyes open."
This attitude has troubled some, and Steele has even had an angry broker threaten to sue him over a posting she believed reflected negatively on her. A powerful lawsuit could quickly bring down a shoestring operation like Curbed.com, but Steele has a power card to play as well: "I just told her, look, if you sue me, I'll post about it on my blog." With so many of the broker's customers reading Steele's site, that could pose a real threat to her reputation.
While Steele describes Curbed.com as a money-generating hobby, he would like to eventually see a hefty profit. With an equal mix of ambition and bemusement, he says candidly that he hopes to make five figures by the end of the year. With barriers to entry extremely low -- the cost of his domain name, site construction, and logo totaled just $2,000 -- he has only time to lose.
As for Steele's personal real estate endeavors, Curbed.com has yet to score him any personal property perquisites. He continues to rent the same Rivington Street one-bedroom apartment he has occupied since spring, 2001. Says Steele: "I got a good deal." He should know.
By Jessi Hempel in New York