Talk to people about Tony Botello, the 36-year-old man-boy behind Kansas City's biggest independent blog, and they inevitably ask some variation of the same question: "Does he really live in his mom's basement?"
Botello makes regular mention of living down there, constructing an image of a lair filled to the ducts with porn and campaign fliers. Readers, though, wonder whether it's just an ode to a blogger stereotype. The answer is a little of both. Botello says he does spend most nights in his mom's basement. But he also thrives on his image as a bottom-feeding outsider, even as that image becomes clouded by his influence.
Also, his parents are divorced. He spends a lot of time at his dad's.
"My dad always has, like, food," Botello says. It's a warm February afternoon. He just arrived at his dad's house from downtown, where he was covering a hearing. I had asked to meet at his mom's, but he refused. "I draw the line at the lair," he said. So instead he invited me to his dad's place, a bright-green two-story on the West Side that's neatly decorated with his father's Chicano art collection. There's a basement, but Botello works in the living room.
Over the past several years, Botello's site, Tony's Kansas City, has evolved into a surprising must-read for journalists, politicos and others in Kansas City's small sphere of civic influence. It also, many in that circle agree, has begun to seep into the homes of everyday Kansas Citians.
But spending an afternoon with Botello feels more like hanging out after school than conferring with a media powerhouse. He wears loose-fitting khakis, skater shoes and a dark thermal. His hair is matted to his head, his usual Chiefs hat taking a rare breather. He offers me a drink from the fridge and laments his dad's recent diet, which he expects will wreak havoc on the usually solid deli selection.
And he talks about chicks.
"She looks exactly like Uma Thurman!" he says. He's waving the business card of a journalist he met at the hearing. "She's 26 — way too young for me," he goes on. "I actually found myself being nice. I catch myself being nice sometimes."
The woman — "Uma Thurman!" "I swear to God!" — mentioned that she's interested in working at a newspaper. This sends Botello into one of his go-to soliloquies, about the dismal future of newspapers. I say something about the waning supply of reporting jobs; he agrees, but with one small caveat.
"If they did it based on a hotness contest, though," he says, trailing off and typing away.
Botello launched Tony's Kansas City in 2005, partly as a way to drum up freelance-writing business, he says. But it quickly became clear that his content — the tone, the trappings, the institutions at which he flung it — wasn't going to get editors lining up at his basement staircase.
"I've slung arrows at every print publication," he says.
He's the child of activists. His parents, who divorced when he was in his 20s, helped found the United Mexican American Students club at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His mom, Rita Valenciano, once ran for City Council. But though Botello worked some campaigns, he applied his activist spirit to covering Latino politics, as a freelancer for Dos Mundos and Kansas City Hispanic News.
"It was maddening," he says. "I went to all these events — you know, the press conferences — and you're just supposed to smile and accept what they say. ... You're not able to call bullshit on people."
Plus, the pay was lousy — $35 a story, a pittance by print-media standards. "I couldn't afford to do community journalism that much longer," he says.
So he quit. He set out to do freelance grant- and copywriting, and figured that a blog could serve as the bullhorn for his unhinged civic expression. When the work didn't come, he found himself blogging every day. Most of the posts were links to mainstream media stories adorned with Botello's fatalism, but he occasionally mixed in opinions about city news.
In person, Botello speaks softly, asks questions and constantly edits himself, undercutting his own theories before he even finishes espousing them. But on the blog, a persona began to develop. The Botello of TKC hated Kansas City, for one. He referred to it as "cowtown" and trashed its every institution, from the Chiefs to the art scene to the restaurants. Men were "douchebags," women "skanks" and "tramps." His sources were "KICK-ASS TKC TIPSTERS," as if they were motivated by loyalty to the site rather than their own candidates or causes. Almost every story was a "TKC EXCLUSIVE!!!"
It read, at times, like the work of a kid who had just discovered PowerPoint — every bell and whistle was in play, and no effect was off-limits. But it worked. Readers started returning, leaving comments. Many of them indicated a vague desire to stab him, but that was beside the point. He had a voice (however unbearable) and he offered a forum (however juvenile) at a time when local media outlets were shedding bodies and hemorrhaging readers.
"We're all sort of struggling to stay relevant," says Peggy Phillip, the news director at NBC affiliate KSHB Channel 41. "The dilithium crystal is local content. Yahoo can't take it from us — yet. So I appreciate Tony's content. It's another perspective. It's another set of eyes — and, in his case, breasts and other parts."
Yes: those. The more he blogged, the more Botello established himself as only partly formed when it came to dealing with women. He began complementing his city musings — inspired, he says, by Breslin and Royko and other metro columnists of yesteryear — with photos of women in bikinis.
Mostly, though, he established himself as needing very little sleep. Or money. Trying to replace a journalism job with blogging is a common affliction these days. Plenty of reporters have lost or left jobs and turned to blogging as "an outlet." But those blogs often fade into irrelevance when the journalists behind them realize they don't need an outlet. They need a steady paycheck.
Botello seems to require no such thing. He subsists on the contents of his parents' refrigerators and drives a beat-up Geo Prism owned by his mother. He has a girlfriend of six years but no immediate plans to marry or start a family, he says. His site has no paying advertisers; judging by its content, he has no interest in courting them. The site makes no money, and Botello has little other income.
"I have seen 500 blogs come and go from the time Tony's been writing his," says John Landsberg, a local media blogger and PR agent. "They realize they can't monetize it and they go, 'It's good for my ego, but I don't have many readers.'"
Botello posts almost constantly and with no obvious pattern or rhythm. Stories appear at all hours. If it's unclear to readers whether it's the start of Botello's day or the end, that's because his days have neither.
"I don't have a regular schedule," he says. "I've gotten by taking naps. That's always how I've slept."
His parents are supportive of the lifestyle, he says, in part because the family agrees on most civic issues. It doesn't hurt that the fire Botello breathes tends to singe the lapels of his mother's political enemies.
Before Valenciano announced her run for City Council in 2007, Botello trashed her eventual opponent, Beth Gottstein, making no mention of his mother's plan to run. And before Botello became known as outgoing Mayor Mark Funkhouser's most aggressive critic, Valenciano led the outrage over Funkhouser's appointment of a Minuteman Project member to the city's parks board.
Valenciano has downplayed her role in her son's politics, calling him "too big for me to spank and send to his room." But Botello is open about how his politics have been shaped. "She does have influence over me," he says, "whether she likes it or not."
There is one stipulation that comes with his parents' support: The site's minimal costs must be directly billable to Botello. It's their way of avoiding liability when the eventual libel lawsuit comes. Or as Botello phrases it: "If you have problems with this asshole, talk to him."
"It is the way people really fucking talk!" Botello is saying.
We've arrived inevitably at the way his blog treats women. Not the big-chested jpegs he tattoos on every third story. We're talking — me on his dad's couch and him clicking away — about the real women, reporters and politicians and actual members of the female species, whom Botello sometimes seems to think exist solely to decline his offers of sex.
"Female journalists in this city are skanks," he once wrote. The Star's City Hall reporter, Lynn Horsley, is an "old skank." Fox 4's Shauna Thomas is "a local TV skank" and just "one more reason not to pay any attention to the tramps that read the news." He called Star lifestyle columnist Jeneé Osterheldt a "stupid bitch," a "dumb ho" and a "broad" in the span of one short blog post. The slurs appeared next to the phrase "Be nice," a request that Botello makes of tipsters.
"It is the way people fucking talk" and "I am channeling my inner teenager" and "That's the persona I created" and "It is a character" and "It's meant to get a rise out of people," Botello says of the chauvinism, which he pairs with occasional bouts of homophobia (The Pitch harbors "burning lesbian vengeance") and anti-Semitism ("tall Israeli media") and, occasionally, just plain dickishness. After Star music critic Tim Finn's wife died suddenly of an aneurysm, Botello reported that Finn was dating the former girlfriend of a fellow blogger. Botello accused Finn of "playing the grief card" and asked aloud how that blogger's "balls taste in your mouth." (Finn declined to comment; that one, Botello admits, went too far.)
The frothing intolerance of the TKC voice would be less troubling if the rest of his profile matched the basement-dwelling vibe he cultivates. But he has hustled his sleep- and manners-deprived self to indisputable relevance.
After establishing TKC as the city's most exhaustive local-news aggregator — creating a constant feed of interesting stories and lacquering it with his unpolished outrage — Botello started hearing from insiders in city politics. He posted their tips with virtually no vetting, making the site feel fresh even to the most informed readers.
Russ Ptacek, Channel 41's investigative reporter, recalls using Botello's middle-of-the-night posts to arm himself for the station's morning story meetings. Now, he says, everyone has already read Botello come meeting time. Still, he counts Botello as a "must read."
"It would be the Star, it would be The Pitch, it would be the Kansas City Business Journal, and it would be Tony," Ptacek says. "The first three are much more likely to be accurate. But the fourth is the most likely to give me a story."
Some women, no surprise, feel less comfortable with Botello's place in the media landscape. Horsley and Osterheldt declined to comment. Joyce Smith, a Star business reporter, and Mary Sanchez, a Star columnist and an occasional target of Botello's, did the same.
Other women try to step from story to story without tripping on the rhetorical land mines that Botello plants between them. Kansas City Councilwoman Jan Marcason reads Botello every morning. "What offends me more than the sexism is his constant bashing of Kansas City," she says.
Phillip, the news director, says she has learned over time to ignore all that, blocking out the cleavage the way software blocks ads from a browser.
"When I first moved to town, I was like, what is this?" says Phillip, who came to KC from Baltimore in 2009. Now, she says, "I'm not a begrudging fan. He brings something to the table."
On the morning of last week's election, I e-mailed Botello. I wanted to know where he planned to watch the results of the campaign he'd covered so closely.
"I was thinking of hitting at least some of the midtown 'parties' and taking a couple of photos," he wrote back. "I never sweat the live numbers because people watch TV for that." He sounded calm, even detached, as if it might be a good night to catch up on sleep.
Later, I checked his blog: A post at 7 p.m. about the city's "DISMALLY LOW" turnout. A post 15 minutes later about Sly James' name appearing too small on the ballot ("TYPESETTING FAIL!!!"). A post at 9:09 predicting "the last days of Funky!!!" Posts at 9:26 and 9:40, each with a photo of the mayoral primary winners.
He disappeared for a while after that. But he was back by 11 p.m. with a photo montage of the night's campaign parties. Then, another break. Perhaps he's in bed for the —
3:17 a.m.: a collection of links and a photo from the Russian edition of Maxim magazine.
4 a.m.: "Mike Burke Vs. Sly James Could Be Kansas City's Most Boring Mayor's Race EVAR!!!"
5 a.m.: "Kansas City Council Stays Mostly The Same ... JUST AS TKC PREDICTED."
By 9 a.m. Wednesday, Botello had posted 30 items about the election in just under 14 hours. The last one was an 800-word retrospective of Funkhouser's relationship with the Latino community — choppy and passionate, like its author.
"Still haven't slept," he e-mailed me a minute before the story went live. "One last post before I pass out."
Buried in the middle of that run, just after 5:30 a.m., is a seemingly tossed-off post linking to a local TV story. But the subject of the story — one word, five letters, two piercing little syllables — is a source of pride for Botello and his readers: mammy.
The word wormed its way into most Kansas Citians' lives in the middle of December 2007, when it landed on the front page of their Thursday-morning Star. But Botello's fans had been reading it for more than a month by then.
Someone had tipped off Botello about a complaint filed by a City Hall employee named Ruth Bates. Bates claimed that she'd been called "mammy" by the mayor's wife and adviser, Gloria Squitiro. For weeks, as the Star presumably labored to get Bates on the record, Botello pounded the story.
TKC is built for campaign season. By early 2007, more and more gossip was finding its way from insiders' lips to Botello's ears. Unburdened by the threat of lawsuits (he has nothing to take) or an interest in credibility (he'll pass, thanks), he ran seemingly every rumor on TKC. But no story established Botello as the town muckraker more than Mammygate.
"That is when I first remember developing a relationship with him, where I was very aggressively watching what he was saying," Ptacek recalls. "He broke a lot of stuff in that Mammygate thing, and the stuff that he said vetted out."
The story caught the attention of more journalists and more sources. By this campaign season, Botello's e-mail address seemed to live in every political strategist's BlackBerry. Dirt on Missouri House candidate Will Royster was particularly bountiful, as Royster's opponents unloaded tip after tip on Botello — stories that, without TKC, would never have made their way out of the campaign minivans. This winter, Funkhouser was the main target, but every candidate had to pick out shrapnel.
"It kind of replaces the old rumor mill," says Steve Glorioso, a veteran political strategist who occasionally feeds Botello story leads. "It's almost like a newsletter for the political class."
Of course, that's a small class. In a place where many suburbanites don't identify with the city from which they've sprawled, the audience for local political news is narrow. And Botello's traffic, while impressive for a one-man show, confirms TKC's limited scope. According to compete.com, which tracks online use, tonyskansascity.com attracted about 15,000 unique visitors in January, compared with about 230,000 for The Pitch and 1.1 million for the Star.
But whatever his stats, consumers of everyday news eventually get a taste of Botello's offerings. In December, when he reported that a nonprofit run by Funkhouser didn't have a business license, the Star investigated and quickly reported that Funkhouser didn't actually need one. But without Botello, readers wouldn't have known about the mayor's business to begin with.
"In the world of opinion leaders and politicos, it's probably read as much as Prime Buzz," Glorioso says, referring to the Star's political blog. "I don't know any media people who don't go back to it all day. That's how, eventually, his impact reaches the citizenry, from the mainstream media who either pick up leads or whose thinking is impacted."
"When bloggers are consistently engaging on a topic, there's a pressure to report on it," adds Jeff Roe, another political strategist. "He's got probably a couple stories that he helped shape the narrative around an issue or a candidate."
Even stories juicy enough to go directly to TV or newspapers sometimes wind up on TKC. Roe, who worked on Funkhouser's campaign, says he reads the site to see what dirt his opponents have shoveled Botello's way. If he thinks the dirt is destined for actual voters, he uses the lead time to shape his candidate's response.
"Your opponent will dump out what they're thinking because human nature doesn't allow them to keep it quiet," Roe says. "Mainly because they can't help themselves. They send him something, and 20 minutes later it's on his blog."
Correction: Before he starts inner-teenager channeling, waving around Uma's business card and offering beverages from his dad's fridge, Botello talks on the phone. He's setting a meeting. Something important-sounding, maybe for the blog or maybe for a side gig.
Lately, he's been leaving the basement more. As sources develop and traffic grows, the world embraces him — at least the shitty little world that Botello and his subjects exist in, a world of finger foods and 8-percent voter turnout, where a gangly auditor can rise to mayor and a lumpy blogger can help take him down.
Like many of the people Botello covers, Marcason, the city councilwoman, went years without meeting him. But in 2009, someone from the city invited Botello inside the City Council's suite at the Sprint Center. He accepted and repaid that generosity by taking an unflattering photo of Marcason and posting it online. The Greater Kansas City Women's Political Caucus also invited him to an event. He obliged: "Come see these bitches." (They were "kind of offended," he says.) And last month, Botello was invited to be the moderator — the official voice of electoral reason — for a City Council debate at UMKC.
"It was the first kind of serious deal," he says. He showed up five minutes late.
Wading into the public eye, Botello says, he has managed to avoid getting his ass kicked. "It's kind of like being the toughest kid in Catholic school," he says, referring to the media and political circles he orbits. "You're the toughest person out of a bunch of pussies."
That said, he admits that this new engagement with the outside has complicated matters. Marcason is an example. He has never called her a skank, perhaps because he actually met her. Before I met Botello, he had mostly written off The Pitch, dismissing the paper as "a glorified blog guilty of wasting a lot of paper," arriving at the conclusion that "everybody who works at The Pitch is a homosexual." But the day after we meet at his dad's house, he'll laud The Pitch in his weekly Kansas City power rankings.
"I try not to meet people," he says. "It's harder to take the hatchet out when I've met someone."
How long he can keep that hatchet sharp is another question. How long does this go on? he sometimes finds himself wondering, presumably while surfing cleavage.tumbler.com. What's the endpoint?
He has bigger plans for the site, he says, but nothing will happen until he has more money, and he admits that he'll never attract advertisers or investors without toning down the site. Besides, he says, ads couldn't save him anyway.
"I don't think advertising is going to carry websites in the future," he says, reciting a common refrain among skeptical media obsessives. "I don't believe in it as a profit model." Besides, "If you really want to do unique stuff, if you really want to be cutting-edge, and even combative, you're not going to be able to pick up advertisers. Especially not in this town."
As the afternoon wears on, Botello's eyes stray less and less from his screen. It's obvious that he's itching to post something. It's been a few hours.
He walks me out. We linger on his dad's front porch, which overlooks Southwest Boulevard and Interstate 35, an appropriately bruised view of the city for a guy who spends so much time swinging at it. I remind him about a photo shoot scheduled for the next week.
"Are there really going to be models there?" he asks, and for a moment, I worry that he'll back out, that some fleeting sense of legitimacy will overtake his inner teenager.
"Yup," I say, hoping to cut off any reservations.
"That's fucking awesome."