By Jeannine Hunter, News Producer, Washington Post
Markette Smith is co-founder and half of a dynamic duo exploring the nation’s capital with enthusiasm and style – in stilettos, no less. Combining a background in interactive journalism and interest in lifestyle and entertainment, she helped develop television segments then a blog, which has been featured in the local television market, one of the nation’s most competitive. But remaining inside the Beltway isn’t the only place she and her colleague want to reach. Smith discussed the vision behind DC on Heels and the challenges of maintaining and promoting it with NABJDigital. She will moderate a panel at next month’s NABJ convention, Blogging And Beyond, on Friday, Aug. 5, from 2:15 to 3:45 in Room 115A.
NABJDigital: Are you a Washingtonian or someone who relocated to this area and fell in love with it?
Markette Smith: I am originally from Los Angeles, Calif., and I moved to Washington after finishing undergrad. I really like the diversity of the city, so I decided to stay for grad school and I’ve been here ever since. I do miss my hometown and Southern California, and I hope to return one day.
ND: How old is the blog? Gauging from your entertainment program’s Web site it appears that the blog started after you began providing segments on DCTV.
MS: We started the blog in July of 2009 – almost two years ago! It started as just video because the co-founder, Vanessa Camozzi and I both really wanted to do entertainment news, but we were stuck in Washington — the epicenter of politics. We were both pursuing TV careers, but with the economy and tight job market, there were no viable job offers coming in from L.A. or New York, so we decided to collaborate and produce a show for cable access and stay in DC.
The first few shows were only 10 minutes in length and were well received by our audience. We won the 2010 Viewer’s Choice Award for Short Form programming, voted on by more than 14,000 members and viewers of DCTV. I was ecstatic. WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi presented us with the award. That was when I felt like we were onto something good.
ND: What inspired it?
MS: The blog came about out of us wanting to partner with a local TV station to distribute our show. We had a meeting with the executives at The CW (DC 50) in Washington and they said they would only put us on air if we blogged. So we started blogging. The blog was an instant hit. We would cover local music and entertainment events and acted as entertainment correspondents for The CW and they would air promos on the station promoting online videos to viewers.
About a year into our partnership with The CW, we went out on our own — we started designing our own blog Web site (which is the one that exists now) and we started going after sponsorship. As fate would have it, less than two weeks after our split from The CW, we were invited to be weekly guests on the feature news program “TBD News: Trends” with Morris Jones [until the show’s cancellation this past winter]. Around this time we also secured a partnership deal with the Los Angeles-based accessory and footwear company ShoeDazzle.com, for which Kim Kardashian is a spokesperson [information posted on its Web site indicates Kardashian established the company and is its chief fashion stylist]. This proved to me that we could make it on our own and get compensated for what we were doing — I felt validated and motivated to keep working harder. We had built up quite a following. We had paying sponsors and several partnerships with business who agreed to donate their services or goods in exchange for us placing their logo on our site.
ND: What are goals or future projects for the blog?
MS: We are hoping to expand our blog into a multimedia TV program that will be like no other in terms of the seamless convergence of television and Web content – a lofty goal I know.
ND: Tell us more about its name and the significance.
MS: The name “DC on Heels” represents our experience of covering entertainment and lifestyle events in Washington. We are almost always in stilettos or some sort of wedge heels when covering events, so the name just seemed like a natural fit. We also feel like the name is very representative of who were are — two girls on the loose in Washington, D.C. — who are looking for fun things to do and interesting people to talk to, in one of the most diverse cities in the country — our nation’s capital.
ND: Sites dedicated to entertainment, restaurants, etc. abound. What do you think sets DC on Heels apart from the rest?
MS: There are thousands of entertainment and foodie blogs out there, but what I think what sets us apart is that we are multicultural and truly multimedia — not only do I write articles, but many times I am the one who is taking photos at events, shooting the video, Tweeting, Facebooking and blogging live for “DC on Heels” from venues.
Vanessa does this as well so I guess you can say we really put the “multi” in multimedia blogs. Vanessa and I are multicultural not only in our ethnic backgrounds, but also in the events we cover. This past year, I covered Shamrock Fest, but I also covered NABJ’s Hall of Fame awardshosted by NBC’s Tamron Hall and the National Italian American Foundation’s annual gala hosted by Giuliana Rancic of E! News.
I know that my audience can appreciate diversity and that I don’t have to segment my coverage of events. I also think that our video interviews allow our personalities to shine through to our audience. When people think of “DC on Heels,” they can’t help but think of “Markette and Vanessa” as a result. So I think our blog also stands out because it is attached to real people and real personalities.
ND: How long have you and Vanessa Camozzi worked together? Who does what in terms of coming up with ideas, shooting video, uploading content to the blog and producing video segments, etc.
MS: We met in 2007 in grad school at American University while we were both pursuing master’s degrees in Interactive Journalism. But we didn’t actually start working together until the summer of 2009 when we both answered Craigslist ads to co-host a talk show in Reston, Va. The show was short-lived, but we liked the idea of working together, so that’s when we decided to approach DCTV. I started out doing most of the shooting and video editing because I had the equipment and Vanessa didn’t know how to edit.
However, Vanessa is very good at spotting potential opportunities and she was the one who suggested we partner with The CW. When we partnered with the station, they were able to take a lot of the pressure off because they provided camera people and the editing services. As far as the blog, we each upload our own articles, photos and related content. Both of us also contribute to our social media efforts by posting to Facebook, tweeting and going after potential social media and business partnerships.
ND: What are some challenges you face in gathering information and producing segments for television and on the Web?
MS: Professionally, I’m a multimedia journalist, so the blogging and Web stuff came easy for me. I have worked as Web producer, editor and broadcaster before “DC on Heels,” so covering people and events, and producing the Web site and social media campaigns was not new. The hardest part has always been finding financing to fuel this project. When I am looking for a photographer, Web developer, graphic designer, intern, etc., it always comes down to who and what can I afford. It’s hard to find good people who are willing to work for little to nothing.
That’s why this year, Vanessa and I started to aggressively pursue sponsors and business partnerships. I want to be able to afford to work with the best in the business, and I know that means putting in the time and concentrating on the business model a bit more, while also trying to maintain a content-rich Web site. For TV, the hardest part is getting your foot in the door. … Sooner or later I hope to find the right TV executive who believes in our multimedia dream as much as Vanessa and I do, and I know that he or she is out there.
ND: How does maintaining this project differ from your other experience(s) in journalism?
MS: Maintaining this project has been an excellent exercise in management and entrepreneurship. In previous journalism positions I have held, I was always a part of a Web initiative led by someone at the company who either didn’t really get the Web or were threatened by young, talented journalists with big ideas so a lot of my job entailed just managing up. I was managing personalities and trying to build trust just as much as I was producing content. With “DC on Heels,” Vanessa and I are in charge, and we “get it.” I believe that we really get how to talk to audiences online in an entertaining, engaging and informative way. I also understand that things have to move quickly — content from events has to be posted online fast, if not immediately. I also know that change is necessary to evolve and as a team we are also very quick to adapt whereas in some large media companies (not all) it can take years to absorb something new and then act in order to take a course of action.
If something doesn’t work, we throw it out. If something does work, we do more of it. We do make mistakes, but we just try to learn from them and keep going. I understand that the Web is the “Wild Wild West” of journalism and in this entrepreneurial venture, unlike a corporate gig, I am allowed to be an explorer and take risks without the fear of losing my job. It’s a nice feeling and I hope that it continues.
Smith noted that a few memorable occasions while maintaining the blog have included: Being contacted by producers of “Good Morning America” and HBO Sports who were looking to use our video footage of our past event coverage of the “Real Housewives of D.C.” and the Salahis [socialites accused of crashing a White House state dinner] in their broadcasts. This past April, several of our blog posts about the royal wedding received worldwide attention. Since then, we have partnered with a few local experts who contribute to our site as guest bloggers, but it is still mainly Vanessa and I rolling up our sleeves and doing the bulk of the work. I blog Tuesdays and Fridays. Vanessa blogs Mondays and Wednesdays and sometimes we blog on weekends for special events. Most recently, we have been working on getting back to our roots and we are currently producing a TV pilot about food, fashion and fun for a national women’s audience.