By Andy Mannix
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Considering the premillennial buzz about the Internet's supposedly unmanageable morass of electronic information, you might be forgiven for suspecting that the dangers of media overload pose as imminent a public threat as South American killer bees did in the '70s. Moreover, this predicament has been dutifully reported by the selfsame media devils--an irony as delicious as a black fly in your Chardonnay.
Enter Pioneer Press staffer James Romenesko, a media obsessive who neatly bridges the distance between prototypical news hound and Web adept. His news site, www.obscurestore.com, catalogs nationwide oddities every day with the same encyclopedic eye that he previously brought to his macabre print classic, Deathlog, a collection of pathologists' reports from the Milwaukee morgue in the late '70s. Romenesko is also a diligent follower of zines like Cop Porn and Hungover Gourmet, which he lists and sells on his Web site. In the spirit of the electronic age, we spoke via e-mail.
CITY PAGES: How did the Obscure Store get started?
JAMES ROMENESKO: I've edited a newsletter for self-publishers (fanzine people, etc.) since 1989. In 1997, I decided to sell some of these publications online--zines ranging from Dishwasher, to Mystery Date, to Cometbus, to Thrift Score--and set up the Obscure Store and Reading Room. (My newsletter is called Obscure Publications.) I knew that I needed something to bring in regular traffic, so I opted for the quirky-news-stories angle. I have always gotten up early to read online papers, so I figured I'd point people to the best articles I found. The site launched in January of 1998.
CP: What initially attracted you to online journalism?
ROMENESKO: While working at Milwaukee Magazine, a monthly sort of like Mpls. St.Paul, I freelanced an Internet column for Online Access magazine--this is the early and mid-1990s--and spent a lot of time on the Net for that job.
When I started, the Web browser hadn't been introduced, so I concentrated on FTP and gopher sites. I realized that the Internet wasn't being covered enough (if at all) by newspapers in the early to mid-'90s, so I put an ad in Editor and Publisher, offering myself up as a Net reporter. I didn't get a single response. One of my editors at Milwaukee Magazine (David Fryxell) moved to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and eventually created the TECH section. He knew of my interest in the Internet and hired me in January of 1996.
CP: Who do you imagine is your audience? Are you able to get any concrete sense of who reads you online?
ROMENESKO: The daily logs and e-mails show it's a diverse audience. I have a lot of traffic from Microsoft, and other tech companies (Yahoo!, Trilogy, etc.), and a good number of military visitors. The New York Times brings in good traffic (go figure!), as does the Village Voice, and Gannett.com. I have daily traffic from Forbes, CNBC, and Playboy.
On the average weekday, there are thousands of visitors to the site, coming from 28 to 30 countries, according to the traffic logs.
CP: What makes a story seem newsworthy?
ROMENESKO: I try to find the "Holy Cow!" story that's not going to be in every newspaper that day. I generally scan the local news sections of the papers--like the one from Racine, Wisconsin, about the woman who didn't get the cemetery director's job because her boss didn't like her choice of high heels and a snowsuit as a winter fashion look. She sued.
CP: How much time do you spend maintaining your site? Do you have a team assisting you?
ROMENESKO: It's a solo effort, although readers often send me tips; they know what kinds of stories I look for. I get up early and prepare the page before going to work. At night I fill the orders that come in from the "store" part of the page.
CP: How can you tell if the information you run across is spurious? Do you think you've developed a good sense for detecting false information?
ROMENESKO: I use "reliable" newspapers for my story links. The one story that smelled false, but which I used anyway, did turn out to be bogus. It was a Miami Herald piece about a multimillionaire dog buying Sylvester Stallone's home. It was incredibly outlandish, and published on a Monday morning, which explains how it got in the paper--top editors don't work on Sundays to sniff out suspects like that.
CP: You obviously thrive on gathering and processing information, but, as technology makes more information available, do you think the public at large is developing more of an appetite for information or less?
ROMENESKO: Definitely more. The range of material out there is incredible--from public documents at The Smoking Gun to interesting diaries at Slate--and will become even more incredible over time.
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