...claudine ko

The Trendspotter
Page Six Magazine, 2008

With popular Web sites covering real estate, retail and food, Lockhart Steele has his finger on the pulse of NYC. And with a new $1.5 million deal, he's not going anywhere anytime soon. By Claudine Ko

It's the midday slump at Schiller's Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side, and Lockhart Steele is about to disclose "the best-kept secret of New York City." And even though the boyish, 33-year-old is being somewhat facetious, it's hard to resist leaning in closer. After all, Lockhart is the brains behind the Curbed Network, a collection of blogs that have infiltrated the lifeblood of the city -- property (Curbed.com), food (Eater.com) and shopping (Racked.com). The man is privy to insider information that makes you feel like you're talking to Donald Trump, Mario Batali and Marc Jacobs all at once.

"I've never put this on Eater," he continues, swiveling in his chair, as if looking for eavesdroppers. "Free donuts. At five o'clock on any weekday, they bring around the leftover tray of sugar donuts, and they're free."

It's this kind of whimsically off-kilter but useful information that draws so many New Yorkers -- and their daily tips -- to Lockhart's Web sites. "We're discovering what is valuable about the way blogs can do journalism," he says. "You can put news out there, and people who know other angles will start e-mailing in. The story develops in real time." Could it be that blogging is truly on the verge of revolutionizing old-school journalism? Considering the Curbed Network closed a $1.5 million financing deal in October to expand its current lineup of eight blogs,which include Los Angeles and San Francisco sister sites, it's possible.

Pam Liebman, CEO of real estate brokerage the Corcoran Group, calls Curbed "more relevant" than the New York Times. "[The Times] is traditional information presented in a traditional way, with a one-sided view. Curbed is more radical. I tell brokers, if they want news on new developments, they should go on Curbed."

Meanwhile, Lockhart's model has “definitely changed food journalism,” adds restaurant publicist Steven Hall of the Hall Company (which has represented Fiamma, Suba, Bouley and more). “Eater is incredibly influential -- it keeps people on their toes.” Says one of those people, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow: "[Eater does] a phenomenal job of digging into the restaurant scene. I can't imagine how he's able to get so much info so quickly."

“Lock,” as he often goes by, grew up in idyllic Manchester, Mass. before majoring in history at Brown University. His senior year, he pulled in about fifty grand when he self-published a fan book about the band Phish, which ultimately sold 50,000 copies over four volumes. After Penguin purchased the fifth volume in 1998, earning him an additional cut of $25,000, Lockhart lived in Paris for awhile. Then, in 2001, he moved to a 750-square-foot one-bedroom on Rivington Street where he still resides. That same year, he started his blog, lockhartsteele.com, blogging about his Lower East Side neighborhood as it evolved into a “complete shitstorm that it's become now.”

 “If you had told me that anyone would know the word ‘blog,’ or it would be a widely used word, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” he says.

In May 2004 (while serving as managing editor at Cottages and Gardens magazine), Lockhart started Curbed.com as “an aggressive hobby,” derived from the pleasure he got in chronicling the LES and “the feeling that it would be cool to do it for the entire city.” A few months later, blogging impresario Nick Denton offered him the managing editor position at Gawker. (It was there he met his girlfriend, former editor Jessica Coen.)

“He was an inevitable hire,” Nick says. “Most bloggers are congenital outsiders. Lock understood the new medium, but could function within an organization. That's a rare combination.”

Lockhart served as conduit/buffer between the staff and, as one former employee puts it, the “mercurial” Nick for two years. Nick admits, "Lock kept my craziness in check,” and in turn, Lockhart is quick to credit his former boss. “Nick has incredible journalistic instincts," he says."His take is, 'Serve the reader. We’re going to be honest with our coverage even if it costs us advertisers.'” 

This past summer, Lockhart left to pursue Curbed full time, backed by investors that include Nick and Web-related execs from power players like Connected Ventures and business software company NetSuite. According to Lockhart, the $1.5 million influx allows him to expand his vision (look for the Chicago versions of Curbed and Eater in 2008),

Curbed has an office in Tribeca, but as long as his 11 employees hit their daily 12-post quota, they can from work wherever they want. A newspaperman’s blogger, he likes writers to be out in the field. They obsess over scoops, competing against "everyone who reports on news in New York City"—the papers, the weeklies, other blogs. And it matters if they’re first by 15 minutes, as evidenced by their rabid posts on the recent Muji store opening in Soho.

But even if the city’s top chefs, brokers and developers are willing to cozy up to Lockhart Steele, don’t expect him to play along. “Nick Denton has always said that Gawker, fundamentally, is an outsider’s Web site,” Lockhart explains. “Because when you’re inside, you tend to get a little smug. My writers might fuck up some of the time, but at least it doesn’t feel like it’s got a deeper, secret agenda.”