If you’ve ever stumbled upon BikePortland.org you’ll have found interesting insights into Portland, Oregon — one of the most famous and most joked about bike cities in the US — and are likely to have assumed that it's a bike advocacy organization or news site.
Despite the level of journalistic integrity, volume of unique stories and simple professionalism with which the pages are presented, BikePortland.org is, basically, the work of one man, Jonathan Maus — yeah, he had us fooled too. “It’s a common confusion and interesting part of how the site has worked over time,” said Maus. “In a lot of ways it does act like an advocacy organization. Advocacy has been a big part of the site since day one.”
It’s a blog — that doesn’t look like a blog — and is respected in and outside of Portland as a true news source. From its beginning the blog had an air of professionalism, presenting tough subjects punctuated by access issues, auto-bike conflict and the sometimes tragic consequences associated. Portland’s city council pays attention and the site is a voice for the city’s bicyclists.
But it’s more than just advocacy, it’s a clearing house for all things bike in Portland, and for a time it was a unique window into a different cycling subculture defined by commuters, fixie bikes, Critical Mass rides and Portland’s path to becoming one of the League of American Bicyclists’ Platinum cities for bike friendliness.
It was a time when Portland was leading the way in terms of bike access and advocacy, explained Maus, and his site was there to document it. “I wanted people to respect it as a news source, not as some guy’s blog,” he said. “We basically created our own news source to cover biking in our city. The central theme was making one place where all the different parts of this really diverse community could come together under a shared love of bicycling.”
The website stands today as the premier source for bicycle news in Portland, but the issues faced and stories published offer context to anyone interested in bikes, bike access or bike advocacy.
Maus working the bike beat in Portland, Oregon
Whimsical beginning and meteoric rise
BikePortland.org started as many bike blogs do — as an outlet for someone inspired by what was going on within their local cycling scene. Maus moved from California to Portland in 2004 and found himself floored by the healthy and eccentric cycling community in the city. He'd never seen double decker bikes, and maybe only heard of themed Critical Mass rides — including one where participants dressed as bunnies — through the heart of the town.
“I was naturally interested in seeing what was going on in the local bike scene,” he said. “I was just blown away with what was going on up here. Really the creativity and the street culture part of it first grabbed my attention.” Inspired, Maus volunteered some and started to integrate into Portland’s bike scene.
Although he was new to the city, he wasn’t new to the bicycle industry. He owned his own public relations firm that represented small bike brands, helping get their stories out into both endemic and mainstream media. Once in Portland, he went about searching for new local clients, “I was looking for a non-profit to work for, pro bono, or as an account,” said Maus.
Then in 2005 he responded to an ad by a local news publication called The Oregonian, which was looking for someone to write a bike-based blog on their website. “It was 2005, blogging wasn’t quite [as prevalent]; everyone wasn’t doing it,” he said. “It was still kind of a novel thing, and they wanted someone to write about biking and I got back to them right away. It was called the ‘Bike Fun Blog’ and I'd email them the text and they'd magically make it appear on this thing called a blog.”
Maus became enthralled with blogs and his own blogging as it related to his own PR business. He started an industry bike blog called Just Riding Along. “I basically just got super into blogging and saw it as amazing from the publishing perspective of how anyone can do it,” he said. “The blog on the Oregonian site was going well, it was a lot of fun and people were starting to tell me that they were reading it.”
Three months later Maus was ready to become a voice within the Portland bike scene and started BikePortland.org. “The best thing about blogging is that you’re independent and you can do anything you want,” he said, in regards to his decision to leave The Oregonian, where he felt limited, mostly, by the interface they offered him. “One night I bought the domain BikePortland.org, turned on a WordPress theme and there you go... It grew every month, from a few stories to [posting] every day, and then got to where it was breaking news and stories that nobody else had.
BikePortland.org mixes all things bike, from eccentric to advocacy, from Portland, Oregon
“Back in 2005/2006 all this stuff about bike culture that's everywhere now wasn’t really documented,” he said. “Mine was the only site where you were seeing pictures of tall bikes and bike jousting, and that was mixed in with all of the amazing bike stuff that we were doing as a city in terms of policy and projects.” In 2007 the blog evolved to a point where Maus quit his PR endeavors to focus solely on the site.
“I just said, ‘this is really awesome, I love doing it, it’s a lot of fun and lots of people are reading it — I’m sure I can make money eventually'. One of the neatest stories of the site is that I learned [how to do it; be a journalist] by doing it everyday,” said Maus. “I was a true sort of citizen journalist. I had no idea; I never carried a notebook around, never carried a camera around, but I really liked it and I had this platform to do it and people read it and I just kept going for it.”
He brought on advertisers and continued to grow, and for a time he employed a managing editor who also contributed to the site. BikePortland.org’s advertisers buy into the site as an advocacy outlet and news source. Buying an ad on the site won’t come with an impression report or a loud flashy animated ad; rather, it’s about supporting what the site does for the local bike community. “People have a spot on the site, and they own it,” he said. Those who advertize understand and support the concept.
Maus is looking for some help with BikePortland.org, so he can put his feet up here and there
Now with BikePortland.org steaming confidently into its sixth year and a new baby in his household, Maus is looking to simultaneously further expand the site, while taking a step back personally from its day-to-day running. “What I’m trying to do now is to step away from it,” he said. “I’m trying to get someone else to replace me and build a news organization around the site… I’ve been so close to the site for so long, having a major change in my role and relationship with the site is going to be challenging and interesting.”
We can only hope that Maus’s transition away from BikePortland.org’s day-to-day reporting doesn’t hamper the site’s professional coverage of bikes, Portland bike culture and the riders who love both.
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