August 13, 2012

Panel at AEJMC convention examines wide range of local, online news start-ups

“Startling Start-Ups in the Business of Journalism,” a COMJIG panel at the AEJMC convention, explored a wide range of new local-news outlets, from Chicagoland to the intermountain West to rural Kentucky, and ended with a project specialist for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation explaining what the foundation looks for as it funds news start-ups.

Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Northwestern University, discussed his 2010 Chicagoland study of 206 “micro-publishers,” which he defined as those not affiliated with “legacy media.” (Including the legacy-media sites, he found a total of 449 in the area.) Of the 206, only 36 were focused on particular neighborhoods or towns, which 170 were aimed at a niche audience or interest. Those included 15 run by local organizations, and many sports blogs, which “are huge” in the region, he said.

Gordon discussed several sites, including Gapers Block, which he said is a key link in the region’s “new news ecosystem” because it both links and gets links from many other sites; Evanston Now, which covers that city well and is critical of its spending; Progress Illinois, owned by the Service Employees International Union, which he said is becoming influential in the state’s political discourse; and Brown Line Media (named after a northern commuter train route), which has been the most successful at generating revenue but only breaks even.

Gordon said not all the owners want to make a business out of their site, and most are so small the will never have a dedicated advertising sales person. He referred the audience to a study by Brown Mine Media owner Mike Fourcher of why a regional advertising network for local sites failed: a long sales cycle, relatively small number of impressions and rates that were too high. But with increased networking among the sites, Gordon said, “I am quite confident that more linking will raise all boats.”

Heidi Kulicke of the Orange County Business Journal updated the audience on her September 2011 Editor & Publisher articles about six “Newspaper Trailblazers,” three online and three print.

She followed up on the latter and found that the Great Plains Examiner in Bismarck, N.D., is now selling paid subscriptions after starting as a free monthly; the Flathead Beacon in northwestern Montana, which is still subsidized by owner Maury Povich; and Eric Buskirk, who isn’t making money with the Henderson (Nev.) Press but is with another weekly in Hemet, Calif., which he rescued from closure.

Kulicke’s package of stories also looked at the Bozeman (Mont.) Magpie, the Pulaski County Daily News of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and The Faster Times of New York City, all online-only publications.

Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, reported on a study that identified and analyzed local online news sites in Kentucky that were not affiliated with newspapers. He and student Richard Yarmy found 28, 18 of which were active, posting almost daily, with eight of those operated by one owner in what Cross called “a homegrown Patch” (Google map)
Yarmy’s analysis of the sites’ content found that about half the stories were from press releases, about half of those governmental; that local-government reporting was spotty; that publishers placed much importance on obituaries, especially in markets without a daily paper; and that the chain's sites tended to have more daily posts than the independent, solo sites, some of which are simple blogs not operated with the intent to make money.

Yarmy’s interviews with the owners found that most were motivated by a desire to provide a public service, and some wanted an alternative to Topix, the nationally operated network that aggregates news about localities and provides bulletin boards for local comments.

The CEO of Topix said Kentucky was the No. 1 state for traffic to the site, and Cross hypothesized that stems from the fact that Kentucky has dozens of small counties that cannot support “a newspaper worthy of the name,” so local residents turn to Topix in an effort to voice their concerns and hold local officials accountable.

Cross and Yarmy said the study should be expanded to define best practices for online community news sites, perhaps including development of a manual for them.

Amy Starlight Lawrence, a project specialist with the Knight Foundation, said Knight likes to fund community news projects that are sustainable and supported by the community, with advertising, subscriptions, single-copy sales or money from local community foundations.

Lawrence said those seeking financial support for local news sites should look to individuals for help, because only one in 10 of the philanthropic dollars in the U.S. come from foundations. She discussed a collaborative project in Macon, Ga., involving The Telegraph, Georgia Public Radio and Mercer University. UPDATE, Sept. 16: Here is a New York Times story about the project.

The PowerPoint presentations from Gordon and Cross, and a PDF of Kulicke’s article, are in a PPTX file (13 MB) that can be downloaded here.

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