Thy Neighbor's Worth

A new St. Louis online paper will let you know whether that family moving next door is rich and famous.

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan was wrapping up the first week of spring training with his new team, the Milwaukee Brewers, when he and his wife Dana sold their four-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom condo at 155 Gay Avenue to Robert and Leslie Prusha for $1.04 million.

Although that was $600,000 less than the Suppans wanted for their 3,750-square-foot spread, the closing price topped the $815,000 the couple had paid for the Clayton property three years ago.

The details of the Suppans' sale — available to prying eyes through an array of public records — appeared in an April 10 story on BlockShopper (stlouis. blockshopper.com). It's a new, online-only St. Louis newspaper whose founders are banking on the assumption that the average Joe craves a wider window into the real estate transactions of the rich and famous.

Since its debut in March, BlockShopper has chronicled dozens of silk-stocking residential deals sewed up in St. Louis County. Buyers and sellers include the likes of St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere and Energizer Holdings CEO Joseph McClanathan, along with other bold-faced names like mystery writer John Lutz, Washington University basketball coach Nancy Fahey and criminologist Scott Decker.

Led by co-founder and Creve Coeur native Eddie Weinhaus, BlockShopper's researchers mine records at the St. Louis County Department of Revenue and comb Web sites and newspaper archives for other details about buyers and sellers.

Like any other media outlet, BlockShopper pays for certain Sunshine Law requests fulfilled by county officials. But the newspaper has a leg up on other media when it comes to tracking down a property's original listing price: Weinhaus is a licensed real estate agent with access to the Multiple Listing Service, a national real estate database available only to industry professionals.

In collating data from such disparate sources, BlockShopperexpands on existing real estate news in the St. Louis Business Journal, which publishes short blurbs about transactions worth more $300,000 in its print edition. The new site also one-ups the Suburban Journals, whose weekly feature "What Did It Sell For?" enumerates sales only by zip code, without revealing buyers' and sellers' identities.

Co-Founder Brian Timpone says he started BlockShopperwith a mere $100,000 raised from a group of silent investors. St. Louis is the flagship; Timpone and Weinhaus hope to open similar versions in 40 markets. (A prototype already covers two Chicago neighborhoods.)

A 1995 graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Timpone describes his voyeuristic venture as a throwback to the days when metropolitan dailies included real estate, graduation and marriage announcements in their editorial content.

"People care about other people: They want to know who their neighbors are, what their neighbors do," explains Timpone, who lives in Chicago. "Journalism isn't 'go to the press conference with everybody else and write the same story.' It isn't 'wait for the PR guy to send you a press release.'"

That said, BlockShopper reporters won't be revealing neighborly quirks. "We're not looking to put a telescope in somebody's living room and case the joint," says Timpone.

Nor will the paper include all the publicly available scoop on its subjects — a white-collar crime or drunk-driving conviction, for instance. "We don't mean any harm," says Timpone. "We don't write negative stories."

Timpone himself has been the subject of disapproving dispatches in the past. An operative in Illinois GOP circles, Timpone sparked the ire of the national press corps in 2004 when the Washington Postrevealed that he had started the Madison County Record in Illinois with $200,000 in seed money from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The paper chronicles civil lawsuits filed in the county courthouse. Timpone and the Chamber have since started similar papers in Texas and West Virginia.

As for BlockShopper, "These guys are really onto something," observes Stephen Isaacs, a newspaper veteran and journalism professor at Columbia University.

Writes Isaacs in an e-mail: "Newspapers have forgotten what made them so useful. Remember the axiom, 'Names make news'? Reporters tend to report for each other, not for the readers, who really give a damn about their daughter's award in history and literature, or their son's feats on the football field."

Bill Mitchell, the online editor at the Florida-based journalism think tank Poynter Institute, agrees. "The most basic human need is shelter, which is also one of the three traditional vehicles for classified advertising in newspapers," he says. "If [BlockShopper] is executed well enough, I would think it would have the potential to connect with advertisers."

Mitchell says other cyber-news startups with a hyper-local approach are in the works. In Chicago another Mizzou grad, Adrian Holovaty, the Washington Post's former editor of editorial innovations, recently received a $1.1 million grant to start a local news aggregator called EveryBlock.com.

In January 2006 the online venture Joplin Daily began competing with Joplin, Missouri's longtime daily, The Joplin Globe. Closer to home, former St. Louis Post- Dispatch reporters and editors plan to unveil St. Louis Platform in cyberspace this fall to compete with the P-D. [See Chad Garrison's "Virtually New(s)" in the May 9 edition of Riverfront Times.]

Realtors' reactions to St. Louis' BlockShopper, meanwhile, are less than enthusiastic. "Somebody with notoriety likes to guard their privacy, especially in an incoming sale or relocation," says Candy Citrin, a Coldwell Banker Gundaker realtor who was featured in a BlockShopper story after selling the Chesterfield abode of ex-Cardinals announcer Wayne Hagin for $1.52 million.

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