Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remembering Peter Sklar

One day during the late summer of 2006 I woke up to find that my obscure and little-noticed blog was suddenly getting a big spike in traffic. A look at my stats log showed that all of that new web traffic was coming from a quirky little local website called Edhat, which had linked to my post about the sudden departure of one of KEYT's meteorologists (a "weather babe" as I referred to her back then.)

After doing a little asking around about who was behind Edhat, someone told me, "Oh, That's Peter. He's at all of the local events with a camera taking photos." I remember thinking to myself about how the person behind Edhat ought be named "Ed" and not "Peter." Anyway, I would meet Peter soon enough and I can tell you; sometimes it was hard to tell where "Peter" left off and "Ed" began.

As you probably know by now, Peter Sklar the creator and mastermind behind Edhat, passed away over the weekend finally succumbing to complications from brain cancer. He was only 50.

We both enjoyed drinking coffee at a leisurely pace in local coffee joints and shared a passion for talking about the best way to leverage the power of the Internet locally. And we would often get together over the former to talk about the latter. Back when I was blogging on a regular basis Edhat gave me a wide reach by faithfully linking to my posts.

Peter told me back then that he started Edhat (which he suggested might be an acronym for "every day happenings around town") because he was interested in creating an online community. And boy, did he ever succeed! He never lost that community focus. Five years later, when I interviewed him for my now defunct Montecito Messenger column, he noted the difference between Edhat, which he considered to be a community and Facebook, which he noted (with some derision) was "not a community builder," but was rather, "a group of friends."

Edhat in some respects is difficult to describe. Peter despised the idea that it was merely an "aggregator" of local content. He would point out that most of the content on Edhat was original and contributed by its community of readers. However you choose to describe it the bottom line is it has become the go to website for all things Santa Barbara.

A mathematician by training and a dedicated runner, Peter always struck me as being quirky (kind of like Edhat) and he could at times be temperamental. He liked numbers (as in, "we counted the number of horses in the Fiesta parade") and he liked rules. (Ever notice how many rules there are about posting comments on Edhat?) He could fairly have been described as a my-way-or-the-highway type guy. But you could also say that about Steve Jobs. But like Jobs, Peter was a genius at what he did. Never mind that guys like me didn't like some of his rules about what kind of stories Edhat would link to (he would link to news stories but not "opinion pieces" or newspaper columns) or the fact that the comments section on Edhat often seemed to be in need of some serious adult supervision, Peter always knew what his community of readers wanted and he made sure that they got it.

With newspapers on the decline, Peter was a champion of "citizen journalism" and Edhat was a place where a lot of breaking news in this town first got (and still gets) reported. And many times that reporting is done by the Edhat community of readers. Skeptical of mainstream media, he once told me, "Remember, the word 'professional' only means that they are getting paid."

The last time I saw and spoke with Peter was last May, when he and I were both attendees at a presentation on bolstering local journalism. The effects of the cancer he was fighting were evident. He moved slowly. One of his sons was at his side to assist him. But he was upbeat, enthusiastic and engaged in the search for the next big thing in online journalism.

What Peter understood is that for a media outlet to have staying power, whether it be a website or a newspaper, it needs to be bigger than the individual who created it. In other words, it needs to be the product of a community. Although the vast majority of Edhat's readers were unaware of Peter's serious illness, Edhat continued to grow and to thrive during the last 15 months of Peter's life. Although Peter is gone the community he built lives on. I'm confident that Edhat will continue to be here for many of us to check several times throughout each day to see what's going on in town. Like I said, sometimes it was hard to tell where Peter ended and Ed began. And that turned out to be a good thing.

My thoughts are with Peter's wife Sue, his two sons and to the staff of Edhat.