Fresh out of college, Ned Berke, like many young journalists, dreamt of a career as a foreign reporter. But after a brief trip abroad, he ended up back in Brooklyn, a consequence of an inspired decision in 2008 to launch Sheepshead Bites. In editing the site, deemed Sheepshead Bay’s “only independent news blog,” Berke found himself reporting on decidedly neighborhood matters — trash problems, local ordinances, and the like — and all the while taking pleasure in his site’s ability to draw attention to issues and make things happen. Seven years later, he sold the company to Corner Media, where he is now the senior editor and associate publisher.
We caught up with Berke at his office to find out what it means to report on the changing South Brooklyn community he was born into — and once wanted to escape.
Tell me how Sheepshead Bites was conceived. Why Sheepshead Bay?
I launched it as a creative outlet. I had done some community reporting already: a couple of freelance articles for the Bay News and other local papers that are now defunct. But I didn’t care for community reporting then. I was just trying to get clips right after j-school. I went into trade journalism, writing about the buying and selling of television shows. It was boring, soulless stuff.
At the same time, there were blogs popping up all around Brooklyn, which people were referring to as the center of the blogosphere. I noticed that no one was writing about Sheepshead Bay. The closest was in Gerritsen Beach, which stood out from the rest because it isn’t a trendy place. It was just a guy writing about his neighborhood. I wrote an article about him for one of the local papers, and we started a correspondence. Right around then [in 2008], there was Blogfest, which was sort of a turning point. Bob Guskind of Gowanus Lounge, who is now deceased, gave the keynote speech. He talked about how it was incredible that all these blogs were telling the story of Brooklyn in a way that other outlets weren’t. However, he was saying, there are so many neighborhoods that are still without one. He singled out Sheepshead Bay and one or two others. I remember reading it and thinking, “You’re right!” That and doing the soulless work of trade journalism, I needed something to do anyways, and so I launched it. I gave myself two hours to pick a design, get the software online, register a domain, and write my first post.
After you launched the blog, you were let go from your job at a trade magazine and decided to move to South America to become a freelance reporter. That’s the dream gig for many reporters, and returning to Brooklyn to focus on running a community blog where the issues are so much smaller — it’s a very sharp divergence. What motivated you?
Doing international journalism was always my dream and, career-wise, the common knowledge is that if you want to get ahead, you go abroad now and leapfrog the guy working the local desk. It shows that you have initiative, that you’re worldly, and you’re doing the thing everybody in journalism wants to do — theoretically. But I got there and two things happened that made me come back.
After the economy crashed, all the editors I knew moved on, so I no longer had markets to sell to. But the other was a conversation I had with an editor from a college internship I did. He was doing international journalism, going around the world to different spots and writing. Not just being embedded in one place, like a stringer, but getting paid a bunch of money to parachute into a country and write about whatever was happening. But he was depressed. I sat across the table from him in this café and he said, “It’s terrible.” I asked, “How could this be terrible? Thousands of reporters would kill for this.” He responds, “Half the time you’re phoning it in, and you’re not always confident in your translations, but you know it’ll make a good story, so you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” which is kind of a horrible admission.
The other part was that he said, “There’s no effect.” He had come to Peru to write about these mines that were devastating the surrounding townships. I saw the work that he put into the article, the care that he had for the issue, and the devastation it was causing these people. But he tells me, “It will go nowhere. It’ll go into some magazine like The Atlantic, and it’ll make a bunch of people on the Upper West Side say how terrible it is. And then nothing will happen.” That really struck home with me. Not being able to see the effect of it.
At the same time, I noticed that the traffic of Sheepshead Bites was going up even with me being abroad. Meanwhile, “hyperlocal” was becoming a buzzword. So I said, let’s do this.
Are you able to align those old aspirations — whatever compelled you to want to be an international reporter — with what you’re getting out of Sheepshead Bites?
It’s so different. There’s something deeply gratifying about having an audience as big as the world. But it’s as broad as the world and as shallow as a puddle. Here I am, in a place where my audience is so much tinier, but it’s a well that goes to the bottom of the earth. Everything that is done, everything that we write about has an effect, and I can’t think of anywhere else where that’s true. Even the Washington press corps: the bigger your audience, the less of an effect you actually have.
Was there a specific post you did that made you realize this?
There’s no one post that really comes to mind. What I’ve found really interesting is that the posts that always had the most effect were the really simple observations. Like, there’s garbage on this corner, it was there yesterday, and it was there the day before. When you know these corners — see them day after day, month after month, year after year — and you see that it’s always there, and you finally say it out loud, even with a small audience, it’s a small audience of the right people. The next day it’s cleaned up, and that’s what happened. The garbage posts specifically, because trash is a major issue in Sheepshead Bay. Every time we point it out, it gets cleaned up, and it gets better for a little while before it gets worse again.
You’ve said before that “hyperlocal” has come and gone. What does that mean for you?
I don’t think the word “hyperlocal” matters. Anyone who has heard it described cringes. The fact of the matter is that Bay News was hyperlocal before it was even a word. They wrote about local parades and business openings. The only way I had an in was that they stopped doing that. But, they very much did it, the block-by-block nitty gritty.
From an industry perspective, everyone was ringing a death knell on this stuff for a very long time. They’d say advertising can’t support this, but the only thing they had to go by was stuff like Patch. But there was a period in Patch’s demise when everyone was talking about it, optimistically. I’d like to think that was because we — I am also a founding board member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers — wanted to change the narrative: show that there are a lot of one-man bands and small shops that, staffing-wise, don’t need to be as large as your community paper and get the returns from advertising. All the people who comment on this industry started to accept that, and, during the demise, they looked at us, surveyed the field, and moved on. As a buzzword, it came and went. As an industry, it came, and now, it’s here and the status quo.
Why has Sheepshead Bites lasted, then, while other Brooklyn blogs and local media have fizzled out?
Patch had a big shareholder issue problem. There’s a big pressure when you have to show returns now. It’s not the same as a private company. I think Patch could have survived if they were willing to make a 10-year investment. In terms of the other neighborhood websites, a lot of them were run by enthusiasts. They didn’t care about having something out there every day. It was just a gratifying experience to speak and be heard. A couple factors come into play. There are other outlets, like Facebook and Twitter, that do this much better. It’s easier to reach people without having your own domain. The other one is burnout. Blogging was this new toy that was fun for a while and then it became a grind. I don’t think any of them were interested in making money.
For a Curbed post, you were asked to comment on gentrification and ended up talking about how in your neighborhood, gentrification is affluent Eastern Europeans pricing out blue collar residents. Some new media types you were with, you said, couldn’t see it when they visited. This characterization doesn’t fit into the popular paradigm perpetuated by larger media outlets. Do you feel like you’re able to see stories that they aren’t able to?
Regarding gentrification, I think that I simply have a different experience. I’ve read what the dictionary says; I look around me and say, “This fits perfectly into that.” The way people are using it commonly, it doesn’t fit at all, and a lot of what is being called gentrification is just consumerism gone mad.
I definitely get stories that people don’t get because I’m a part of the community. I go into a pizzeria and start talking to the owner, who tells me a story. Through 30 years of living here, I can realize what’s important to me and my neighbors. Someone from outside the community, they might not see the context. If they come to a community board meeting and there’s a vote on XYZ property, it’ll seem like a routine thing. But I can see that it’s the house that was once owned by Winsor McCay or the founder of the Circle Line. There’s historical value and everyone in the neighborhood knows this.
When we spoke previously, you said that you’re writing of the community, about the community, and for the community. What does that mean?
It means that I’m part of the community, and there’s no way of getting around that. I can try to impose a veneer of objectivity and speak pedantically, but the reality is that I do have a stake here. Up until recently, not only was I a resident of the community, but I was a business owner in the community [Corner Media, where Berke currently works, is located in Ditmas Park]. I have to cast a vote, I have to deal with the new 17-story building going up next door, and I think that gives me both insight and compassion. It’s really easy when you come from outside the community to find a controversy and fan the flames.
A really good example of this is the mosque issue that came up in 2011. It first surfaced before the World Trade Center mosque, and the issue was that they were building a mosque in a residential community and wanted it to be taller. All these local people were freaking out, some because of their prejudices and others because of bona fide building and parking concerns. They were going to bring a lot of people there, weren’t building a driveway, and asking for a variance.
When I approached that story, it was very important to me — everything I write, the subjects and the stories are my neighbors and they have to be able to come together and talk it out at the end of the day. So I can’t just focus on the most extreme things and tell this really explosive story because it makes for a good read. I have to tell the story that actually helps, and I think that’s what it means to be writing of the community.
The way you talk about this reminds me of my friend Michael Max Knobbe, who’s the executive director of BronxNet. He’s very adamant about portraying the Bronx accurately and its residents as complete individuals, and he takes it personally when the Bronx is misrepresented. Do you feel the same way?
One thing that really drives me crazy is how everyone describes Sheepshead Bay like “way down in.” We’re less than 40 minutes from Midtown by train. We’re not way down there. Are you from New York? You’re going to go to a show, and what do you say? You’re going to ‘the city.’ I stopped referring to Manhattan that way. We are the city — we are more of the city than Manhattan is. More of us live here in the other boroughs, and this is where more economic activity happens, besides Wall Street, which is like four blocks. I don’t say “outer boroughs”; I say other boroughs.
How many of your friends come down to Cortelyou Road, which isn’t all that far? How many of them would be likely to go to Bensonhurst? New York has always been very parochial like that, and it’s one of the cool things about it. Four hundred years in, we’re still just villages that don’t want to deal with each other. The problem is when you do try to encapsulate entire things. Like this whole idea that Brooklyn is cool now. You’re talking about one chunk of Brooklyn, so stop it. Maybe some areas don’t want to be considered cool. I think that’s where media is screwing up, in the depiction of these monolithic cultures. It’s not a melting pot it’s a tossed salad.