Karl Martino/Philly Future

Q&A with Karl Martino, founder of the Philly Future local blog hub

---When did you start the site?

In February of this year I was experimenting with blog aggregation.  I took
a look and found the Philly Future domain was up for grabs. [see below for early history of the site] I thought that was a sure sign to get moving again, but this time I planned to do so with a difference: instead of attempting to get people to write for Philly Future, Philly Future would highlight the writers already out there, encourage more to join (get their own blogs), and encourage them to read one another.  Initially, I had a front page consisting of only their headlines flowing thru.  But that's not enough.  Anyone can collect blogs and read them thru an aggregator.  I moved to highlight certain bloggers I thought were exceptional, and to point out stories they've posted that I thought should be shared.

I've changed platforms since February a few times to make it easier to
manage the the site.  Initially it was a hodge podge of various tool
sets glued together with some duct tape.  But now I've settled on
CivicSpace.  It has the right mix of features I'm looking for and has
made my job so much easier.

---What are your priorities in terms of layout, design, and functionality?

After so much experimentation, I've settled on some basic tenets: keep
the layout simple, and place the site's focus right were you will find
it loading the page the very first time.

Philly Future highlights a local blogger each week by providing a space
for their headlines where I hope you see them right away.  Having 'guest
bloggers' like this is nothing new.  I think Boing Boing used to do
something similar.

Beneath this and thru various parts of the site, you will find headlines
flowing from across the Philadelphia region.  Additionally, there will
be stories added direct to the site by folks, hopefully highlighting
posts across the community.

So priority number one is to highlight, connect, and share our existing,
and growing regional blogging community.

Priority number two is to provide an additional outlet for people in our
community, who may or may not have a blog already, to share stories of
interest.  I'm hoping these stories link to bloggers in our aggregator.

Priority number three is to be a regional resource and to get there by
leveraging the awesome tapestry woven by the Philly blogging community.

I've recently enabled the blog hosting functionality that CivicSpace
provides (we will have our first two hosted blogs shortly I think) but
will encourage users to get their own, independent blog if they do not
have one.

People want to be part of a community.  And if blog hosting will help to
foster one, than here we go.  But there are multiple avenues to get
there.  Look at Metafilter.  That's a terrific online community.

---Would you recommend the open source software you use to others who
might start similar sites?

CivicSpace, based on Drupal, and the work done by volunteers of the Dean
campaign, is a terrific starting point.  I'm very happy with it.  I'm
hoping to contribute back to it in some way.  Philly Future finally has
a platform with almost all the features it needs, right out of the box.

Scoop is another great choice.  Both DailyKos and Kuro5hin.org use it
and I'm sure their site maintainers could offer advice you couldn't find
anywhere else.

Lastly, there is Bryght
http://www.bryght.com/ .  They are a hosting
provider that uses Drupal.  Just look at Urban Vancouver
http://www.urbanvancouver.com/ for an example of what they can do.  I'm
very impressed.  It's just awesome.

---Tell me about the "walled garden" model you mentioned on the phone?

First let me share the Webopedia definition: "a walled garden refers to
a browsing environment that controls the information and Web sites the
user is able to access. This is a popular method used by ISPs in order
to keep the user navigating only specific areas of the Web, whether for
the purpose of shielding users from information -- such as restricting
children's access to pornography -- or directing users to paid content
that the ISP supports. America Online is a good example of an ISP that
places users in a walled garden."

I'm taking liberty with the phrase and am using it to label those sites
that attempt to get you to click within them for as long as possible.
I want you to come to Philly Future, see an item of interest, and then
click away to whatever and wherever that is.  That's the heart of
blogging if you ask me.  Sharing not capturing.

---Have you made any effort to market the site with ads, Google
programs, etc?

Nope. I don't know what steps to take financially with the site.  Are
it's goals counter to earning a profit?  Should it be a non-profit?  I
just don't know.  But if anyone out there wants to give some advice, as
long as it isn't counter to the site's goals and helps to further reach
them - I'm all ears.

---What's your daily traffic?

Very small right now.  We're doing around 1000 page views a day, 500 or
so visits.  Most of the traffic is coming from other bloggers. But since
the February re-launch, Philly Future has experienced slow but steady
growth.  It's readership is mostly other bloggers.

---What's the Philly blog scene like in terms of self-awareness and
organization, eg, Meetups, links between blogs, etc?

I have so little free time I can't say accurately.  But I can tell ya
this - it's thriving.  I'm finding new blogs regularly to add to the
site, and almost daily I get a request to be added to the aggregator.
When I go surfing around those sites, I see plenty of cross links and
groups of them doing get-togethers.  I wonder though, does political
identity outweigh regional identity?  At least as far as blogrolls go?
I can't say for sure without doing analysis, but I think that maybe
true.  We may have two larger blogospheres in the region comprising of
many smaller overlapping groups.  If so, then that's another opportunity
for Philly Future to bring people together.  But maybe it's my own
political bias leading me to believe this.

---How has the local media treated blogs -- have the Inquirer and other
outlets used blogs as story sources, covered them (eg Atrios,
Scrappleface, the phenomenon in general?

The Inquirer has written some good stories, and the op-ed section even
features blog posts from across the the web every now and then!  The
Daily News, a paper with plenty of attitude, should embrace bloggers,
but hasn't so far in any meaningful way.  Neither of them have used
blogs as hard news story sources as far as I know.   The Daily News *as*
a blog would be terrific!

Both the Inquirer and Daily News have staff posting to their own public
blogs.  But they are so hard to find, which is a shame.  This question
has me wanting to give a call to my former employers.  At the very
least, I'm going to hunt down their various efforts and highlight them
at Philly Future.  I love the teams at both the papers and at Philly.com
and have so much respect for them.  How often does a former employee say that about a former employer?  There is so much idealism among newspaper folks. It's something you're liable to miss if you are on the outside.

---What would your advice be for us in Greensboro -- both at the N&R as
it tries to set up a community web presence involving bloggers, and for
bloggers who want an independent online alt-media?

I notice you already have some great advice shared to you by folks who
know far more than me.  But I'll try my best.  Take it with a grain of
salt. It appears you have two camps: those that think N&R should host
blogs, and those who think it should aggregate the independent
community.  There are some that say do both and I'm with them.

* Aggregate your existing and growing local blogger community.
Encourage folks to join it.  Provide them with pointers and advice on
how to do so.  Get them to publicize their feeds. Greensboro101 us a
great start.

* Host blogs for those that are not comfortable to go elsewhere.  Your
paper is a brand that inspires trust and some folks will be far more
comfortable using tools you host. Empower these folks and watch what

* And here is the most important point, right from Dave Winer's "How to
make money on the internet":  use editorial staff and the community
itself  to find the very best writers and posts within your hosting
solution and within the larger community.  Highlight what they do and
stories they have posted.  Put these posts of yours in a place where the
community will see them.  In the paper.  In the sidebars of your
newspaper's online edition.  Right on it's front page.  All over the
place!  It will encourage participation.

--Tell me about the early incarnations of Philly Future and your major influences?

Philly Future started way back in December of 1999.  It's kinda sorta
celebrating its five year anniversary.

I'll try my best to make a long story short.  Originally, Philly Future
was to serve three purposes:

* I wanted to experiment with EditThisPage.com; a Manila hosting
service.  Manila, by UserLand, is a content management system with
terrific blogging functionality.  I had already used another product of
theirs (Frontier) to manage my personal blog.  Dan Gillmor, columnist
from the San Jose Mercury News, was running his eJournal with Manila.  I
was a software engineer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News,
but being the only known blogger in Knight Ridder Newspapers at the time
(if there's another out there - say hi), and had experience with
UserLand software, Dan contacted me for various questions. I wanted to
be as familiar as I could with Manila.  Watching where Dan has gone and
accomplished has been inspirational.  "We the Media" is having a great

* There is something about the potential of certain tools to empower
people to communicate and connect that get my braincells - hell, my
heart - jumping.  This is especially true of blogging toolsets.  Dave
Winer would post daily back then about the "read-write" web.  He was on
to something.

* The last, but most important reason - I already had my own personal
site - and had a difficult time growing up (a long story for another
day),  so I wanted to give something back to the city.  I focused this
new effort on Philadelphia. On it's growth and health as a city; hence
its name.

Note that while one of the reasons I started Philly Future was related
to my work, I started it without approval from my employer.  It would
have to be maintained during off hours.

During the early months, I would scour morning newspapers on my train
into work for interesting bits.  When I got into work (early, very early
in the day), I would hunt down their URL's and then post.  It was oh so
manual.  Now you have Google News
http://news.google.com/ and Yahoo!
http://news.yahoo.com/ to search the major media for any
interesting stories, and better yet, you have Technorati
http://www.technorati.com/ , Feedster http://www.feedster.com/ and
http://www.daypop.com/ to peer into the blogosphere.  DayPop
doesn't get enough credit if you ask me - they came first and rarely get
mentioned by the press.  But I digress.

Over time, with work pressures, it became too much to maintain, so I
asked for additional help to come on board.  Three great people joined
and posted stories.  Well, a couple stories!  The problem being, these
folks already had great blogs in their own right
http://www.dangerousmeta.com/, http://www.ahawkins.org/, and
http://www.phoenixtrap.com/~mjg/).  I found attracting people who have
their own blogs to post at Philly Future to be difficult. Why should
they after all?  I would leave my own best work for my personal site and
so did they.  Asking people to double post didn't make sense.

I kept migrating Philly Future to different platforms.  One of the
things I believe is tools influence content.  You empower people and
interesting things happen.  I thought if I found the right content
management system then maybe I could attract more users.  Wrong.  The
traffic and links didn't come.  It's just not that simple.  "If you
build it, they will come" is propaganda.  You need to promote.  You need
to push.  And you need to have something worthy of both.

When I looked around, I saw other bloggers that were far better at this
than me.  I'm a terrible blogger.  You need to really put yourself out
there to do a good job of it.  You need to be personal.  Philly Future
didn't have enough personality (a problem it still has I think) and I
didn't put my heart on my sleeve the way I do off the web.  Look at
http://weblog.burningbird.net/.  She has a community because her online
voice is so authentic.  I'm still too reserved.  Part of that is
appreciating my job I guess!  When you have a blog that isn't approved
by your employer, you need to be careful.  None of my efforts are
endorsed by my current employer (Comcast).  But hopefully they provide
me experience to be better at what I do.

Then September of 2001 hit.  I say September because that entire month
is nothing but a blur.  Three days after 9/11 my brother's son passed
away from S.I.D.S.. I became disillusioned with my personal efforts.
There was no reason to keep Philly Future running if it did not make a
difference in anyone's life.  I made offers for others to take over the
site.  No one did.  So I let it go.

When the domain expired, a porn site took it. I didn't care anymore.  I
was done.