Interview with Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org

It’s a well-known fact that Portland, Oregon is easily the most bicycle-friendly major city in the United States. Bikes are everywhere, and seem to be woven into the fabric of every aspect of the community. In the few short years since Jonathan Maus launched it, BikePortland.org has managed to become the principal source of bicycle-related information for people in and around Portland.

In addition to Maus, BikePortland.org has another full-time employee in Elly Blue, as well as a band of several regular contributors. Together their mix of straight-up, non-biased news, advocacy and participation in local politics has led to better-informed cyclists, citizens and public servants. All of that has led to more action, which has led to many important local policy changes resulting in safer riding conditions around town.

But it doesn’t stop there. BikePortland.com gives coverage to bicycle happenings in other cities across the country, thus exerting national influence.

Knowledge is power. With it, anything is possible. BikePortland.org provides the information that empowers a community, and Jonathan Maus is at the front of that.

BT: You head up BikePortland.org, which not only chronicles the Portland bicycle scene, it’s also about advocacy, activism and passion for bikes in town. In fact, it seems like BikePortland.org is so much more than a web site. Would you say that the site is just the mouthpiece for what you’re doing for the city and for cyclists?

JM: Mouthpiece sounds like sort of a sinister word…as if I’m pushing an agenda. I’m not. The site is a news source, plain and simple. We are not a non-profit group. In fact, I have resisted becoming a non-profit in order to maintain complete independence, and to fight the perception that I am pushing a specific agenda. That being said, BikePortland.org has had a huge impact on many bike advocacy issues. By nature of our large and influential audience, the stories we publish have an impact. They get noticed, people are inspired to take action, things happen. The site is read by many important bureaucrats, politicians, planners, and local media in the city. The “X” factor in the journalism we do is the immediate response by the audience in the form of comments. We can publish an objective, balanced story that gives both sides of an issue, and then the readers set the tone by their opinions expressed in the comments. For instance, when I broke the story about a new bike excise tax that was supported, in concept only, by our statewide bike advocacy group, a bunch of comments quickly came in that were forcefully in opposition to the idea. I represented the issue in a fair way and the community was able to weigh in and let the world know how they felt. I didn’t push an agenda. I presented an idea and the community was heard.

Another way to look at it is that BikePortland.org creates opportunities for activism/advocacy. By breaking stories and covering bike news and issues that no one else covers, we give advocacy groups and street-level, grassroots activists information and a jumpstart to then go and make the lasting change that might be necessary. A perfect example of this was a truck/bike collision at a very dangerous and notorious intersection. A reader tipped me off about it and he happened to get photos of the collision. The story I did spurred the BTA, our statewide advocacy group, to contact the City and say basically, “Enough is enough…something needs to be done now!” The City heard them, saw the coverage and high volume of comments on BikePortland, and decided to finally solve the issue. A few weeks later, a couple City engineers were in front of a citizen advisory committee with their plans on how to improve the intersection. I am positive that if the story and photos were never on BikePortland, the City would not have given it as much urgency as they did. There are countless examples like this. And again, the thing to remember is that I didn’t cover the story by saying, “Hey City of Portland, this intersection is horrible, you must fix it!” I merely presented the photos and the details of the collision and the commenters and readers took the action.

On the other hand, BikePortland.org is a mouthpiece, or let’s say megaphone for what’s going on here. We can cover the good, the bad, the ugly and we can rest assured that a lot of people will read it and take note.

BT: It’s no secret that Portland has maybe the biggest bike scene in the United States. And obviously BikePortland.org is a major part of that community. You break some very important news and information on the site about local events, but do you see how your work can have national relevance?

JM: The site has a large national audience. BikePortland is like a big window into the bike scene…and it helps educate and inspire people from all over the country. By their nature, all blogs are connected…especially blogs in the same topical niche like bike blogs. So stories we do that have national relevance get picked up by sites in other cities.

I have also attended and done extensive coverage on national events like the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.—been there three years in a row—and the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. When a news or interesting story happens in other places, I will take a look at it, and if there is a clear way to connect it to Portland I won’t hesitate to cover it.

Speaking of national relevance, we just did a story about JetBlue’s baggage policy that unfairly charged someone for having a foldable bike in their checked baggage. In less than 24 hours, the manager of corporate communications for JetBlue was in touch with me and had the policy changed! He even came in and left a comment on the site.

BT: I wish other airlines would relax their bicycle-shipping policies. Anyway…tell us your favorite example of how a story BikePortland.org posted helped to change or influence something in the Portland community.

JM: Two major stories (out of over 4,500!) stand out. Back in April of 2007 our then-Mayor Tom Potter made a decision to cut $100,000 of funding for the City’s effort to update our Bicycle Master Plan…an important policy document. This was a huge deal to our community and I covered it from every possible angle. Fourteen stories and two weeks later the Mayor reinstated the funding. Later we found out that the number of calls and emails he got about the issue was second only to a police chief sex scandal. I was very proud of the site and the community! The other story is how I covered two fatal crashes we had in Portland back in October 2007. Those deaths rocked our community to the core and I covered them exhaustively. The resulting outcry by the community, and coverage in the local media, was so intense that our City leaders were essentially forced into action. The result: emergency meetings about bike safety at City Hall, new policies for bike safety, and most visibly, the installation a few months later of green-painted bike boxes in dangerous intersections throughout the city. I will never forget one day in City Hall, after a big press conference about the City’s response to the tragedies, a veteran Bureau of Transportation employee came over to where I was working on my laptop. Most everyone had left and I was working on a report about the event. He told me that if BikePortland.org wasn’t around, those two tragedies would have come and gone, and that it was because of how the site amplified the community’s reaction to those two deaths that City Hall acted so quickly. I still think about that whenever I ride through those bike boxes and whenever I think of Tracey [Sparling] and Brett [Jarolimek].

BT: BikePortland.org is big enough to have you do it as a full-time gig, and you just hired a full-time staff person. How do you fund it?

JM: I worked for a long time on the site without any funding. It was a very tough road and it continues to take a huge amount of time and dedication to keep it going. Thankfully, we have advertising partners and they provide the vast majority of funding for the site. Some businesses advertise because they just believe so much in what we’re doing and they see clearly the impact we’re having. Others have found that the credibility of the site and the large, loyal audience gives them very valuable exposure. In addition to advertising revenue, we make money with our paid Job Listings. I sell photos to magazines and newspapers now and then and a few people donate every month. One of our big goals, and the primary responsibility of the person I hired, is to try and stabilize revenues and find new ways to partner with businesses and organizations.

BT: I see fledgling, new and different bicycle-news and bicycle-advocacy efforts all over the country. Some of them are working, some of them are good, and some of them are doomed. BikePortland and the city of Portland have a fantastic relationship, even…dare I say…an easy relationship. Do you think efforts in other, more non-bike-friendly cities can be as successful as you are with influencing policy and having an overall impact on their community? If so…magic question…how?

JM: Because BikePortland.org straddles a grey line between citizen advocacy and journalism, that relationship with the City of Portland is constantly evolving. In many ways it is an “easy” relationship…many people that work in City Hall and in various City Bureaus know of the site and are regular readers. I also know many of them—including elected officials like the Mayor and all the Commissioners—personally through covering stories with them over the years. BikePortland would not succeed if I didn’t have a good relationship with the City. And yes, that relationship is easier because there are many City employees that love bikes and are supportive of bicycling…the bike racks at the City of Portland building are always overflowing!

As for “how” others can influence policy and impact their community? I would just say there are many ways to have impact. I have worked extremely hard for several years to build a relationship of trust and a sense of credibility for BikePortland in this community. That is the most important thing I have going for me. There is no magic formula, it’s a combination of hard work and a good sense for what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s news and what isn’t.

My advice to someone in a less bike-friendly city would be to just start writing, start taking photos, start making people accountable for their decisions and start celebrating the culture that exists. A big reason why BikePortland works is because I’ve always focused on the fun, not just on the hardcore policy stuff.

BT: BikePortland is a raging success on several levels. But we all know even the most honest, empowering, beneficial and successful ventures have their detractors. Do you see any negative reaction around town, or elsewhere, to what you’re doing?

JM: I don’t really see a lot of negative reactions around town or in person. Of course, it probably exists, but I’ve just never seen it displayed. On the site, every once in a while I get negative comments from folks who don’t like the way I write something, or who don’t agree with my perspective. That’s why I put a lot less opinion in my stories these days. As the audience has grown, so has the diversity of opinion in the audience. I want the site to be a place where as many people as possible feel comfortable not only with what they’re reading, but also with joining the conversation. I always use this analogy of a “big tent.” I am trying to get a huge crowd inside the tent, without any signs on the outside that would prevent them from coming in. Then, once they’re inside, they can hear what’s being said and then decide if they want to leave.

The other thing is that my personality is pretty open. I can see a lot of perspectives and I try to write in a way that reflects that. Because I rarely take a side on an issue, the site tends to stay quite civil compared to many other sites where the comments regularly get out of hand.

BT: Do you model, or get inspiration for, BikePortland.org after any group or organization, bike-related or not?

JM: I take inspiration from everywhere. At first, the idea of blogs themselves was a huge inspiration. As I studied them—this was in 2005—I quickly saw how revolutionary they were as a publishing medium. One of the first blogs that really made me have that lightbulb moment about a community bike site was a blog about cycling in Longmont, Colorado. It was run by Richard Masoner, now the proprietor of the Cyclelicio.us blog. It had all sorts of info about this little city in Colorado. It really struck me how valuable that must have been for people who lived there. More recently, I’ve been inspired by the impact on politics and the media that sites like Huffington Post, DailyKos, and DrudgeReport have had. I also get inspired on a journalism advocacy level from the Streetsblog folks in NYC. On a daily basis I try to model the content I create with the most respected news sources…like NPR, the NYTimes.com, etc. I have always thought that the way to succeed in anything is to emulate the best in the business.

BT: How did you get started with BikePortland.org? What’s your background?

JM: BikePortland morphed from a bike blog I started doing on the website of The Oregonian newspaper. It started as a casual thing…rides I would do on the weekend, events coming up, what this or that non-profit was doing. It slowly evolved and grew as I found more people liking it and I became more in love with doing it. It’s interesting because I truly learned journalism and photography by doing it…and all my early readers have sort of seen me grow up and mature over the years.

As for my background, I studied art history and architecture—history, not practice—in college and my degree had a writing emphasis. I have to admit, the backstory with my major is that I was so focused on bike racing I almost dropped out of school…but my girlfriend, now wife, sort of made sure I got more serious and graduated.

Professionally, my background is in marketing, media relations, and publicity. In some ways, my past—while I have no experience in a newsroom—is actually pretty well suited for what I’m doing now. I have a good grasp on how ideas evolve. I know what’s news and what isn’t, and I have a good grasp of how the media business works.

Cycling-wise, I first got serious about it as a mountain bike racer back in the mid-’90s in California. I then started racing road bikes seriously in college…only started riding them because the trails in Santa Barbara were too muddy to ride. And now that I’ve moved to Portland mostly all my riding is just done around the city, you know, commuter style…although I do race cyclocross now and again.

BT: Where do you see BikePortland.org in three years from now?

JM: In three years, I see BikePortland.org playing an even larger role in communities throughout the Portland region. I see an expanded team of editors and contributors on various topics and more coverage of bike issues and news in more parts of our metro area. I see us doing even more coverage of how national issues impact the northwest and a more integrated editorial focus on typically non-bike issues like public health, the economy, etc.

I also hope BikePortland.org can be known as more of an off-line entity. We want to do more events in the city (both large and small) and more social gatherings to emphasize the face-to-face connections that are so important in building community (online or off).

Each month I feel like we build momentum, respect, and impact in our city and all we need to do is keep our tech (as in the site design, features, etc.) and human infrastructure solid enough to handle—and capitalize on—that growth.

On a different note, I hope in three years I have a good enough team assembled so that I can step back from the day-to-day grind of stories. This site takes a lot out of me. I am extremely in love with the work, but it takes me away from my family both physically and mentally much more than I’d like. In three years, the site will be strong enough standing on its own so that I can be the dad, husband, and friend I really want to be.

[Ed note: This interview conducted by Jeff Lockwood, originally appeared in Bicycle Times issue #1. Illustration by David Poe.]

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