We asked online local news publishers to describe their biggest challenges. Said one: “The word BLOG!!!”
Indeed. In a world that still often pits bloggers (cast as low credibility) against journalists (cast as high credibility, public opinion notwithstanding), community news publishers occupy a new space – they’re often journalists producing local news online often in partnership with members of their communities.
Our April-May telephone survey of 66 publishers of promising local news sites confirmed this.
The online community publishers in the survey told us their top priority is producing original local news content and nearly half of it comes from paid staff members. Sites posted up to 77 stories a week; the average was 33.
The publishers said local news – not opinion - is at the heart of what they do.
“Our mission, I would say, is to provide news and analysis for people who care about Minnesota, and to build a community of thought leaders and other engaged people around our coverage,” said Joel Kramer, CEO and editor of Minnpost. “We’ve learned that even serious news readers don’t have a lot of time. So it’s important for us to efficiently give them what they want to know.”
Many said that while they hope their content provokes discussion, they’re not interested in taking sides. “We promote discussion and conversation of these topics as part of our mission. As far as taking an activist role, that's not what we're doing,” said the operator of one site.
It’s not surprising that the community publishers are focused on original news content – that was one of our criteria for our list of promising community and neighborhood sites. The reliance on – and ability to pay – staff members was higher than we expected.
Overall the site operators said about 45 percent of their content comes from paid staff. Lesser but substantial amounts also came from volunteers (27 percent) or students working for academic credit (8.5 percent.)
While most sites pay for some content, their sources are mixed. Here are four examples:
- Minnpost, based in Minneapolis, has an annual budget of just under $1.2 million. The site employs 12 FTEs in the newsroom, according to Kramer. There are additional dollars for freelancers. Kramer said he and his wife, who is director of membership, outreach and special events, work without pay. Minnpost also devotes 3.7 FTEs to non-news positions, including two in advertising/sponsorship sales and operations. Minnpost is a “new traditional” on our list of promising sites.
- At The Loop NY, a micro local site in Larchmont, N.Y., about a third of the content comes from Editor Polly Kreisman, about a third from reporters and interns, and about a third is repurposed or linked to, Kreisman said. She pays a student minimum wage to compile the events calendar. A managing editor (a lawyer who decided to be a stay at home mom) and a blogger (a sports journalist who took a buyout) for the site are volunteers who sought her out. “The best people I’ve ever had have come to me,” she said. Like Tom Sawyer, she said, “they want to paint the fence.”
- Patricio G. Espinoza relies entirely on user content at AlamoCityTimes.com, a community site in San Antonio. Espinoza said he previously operated a site for which he created all the content. That wasn’t feasible without income. In order to free himself up to pursue revenue while keeping the content “rich and diverse,” Espinoza switched to community contributors. A total of 15-20 people contribute, five of them regularly, almost weekly, he said. Three of the five have their own blogs and see posting at AlamoCityTimes.com as a way to gain exposure. “We also share the belief that we’re all working in the public interest.”
- Oakland Local, a community site launched last fall, has two part-time staff members working on contract and relies heavily on volunteers. Susan Mernit, the founder and editor, would like to have two to five paid staff members eventually, the priorities being an editor and a community manager.
Online community news publishers reported mixed experiences with recruiting volunteers – although some publishers are unpaid volunteers themselves. Fewer see user-generated content as a significant or reliable source of content but most welcome contributions.
“Volunteer contributions got the (Alaska) Dispatch started and helped us find a co-owner/funder. Today, we still depend on contributions from the general public,” said Tony Hopfinger, editor of the Alaska Dispatch. “It is true, though, that without professional journalists, what we’re trying to accomplish would not be possible. It just depends on what your goals are. Could a site that depends mostly on contributions from the public be profitable? Yes, I do believe it could be. There’s no one way to succeed with online journalism. It all depends on what you want to be online and who you want as your readers.”
Another editor said start ups may not have time to invest in volunteers at first. “Working with students is fun and helpful, but time consuming; the same with volunteers who have no experience in the field,” said Anne Galloway, an editor and reporter at Vtdigger.org. “People who don't have a background in journalism need a great deal of training, and an organization in startup mode may not have the capacity to spend adequate time with volunteers. Ideally, an online news organization would have a journalist on staff or in a voluntary capacity who would manage interns and citizen journalists.”
Mernit said her young site, Oakland Local, has had good experiences with users and volunteers. “We look for people who have a story to tell and want to volunteer. We coach them one on one, and we help them with edits. We also don't let them write big, complicated stories that will fail. And we treat them like stars and provide praise and recognition,” Mernit said. “We have had users produce amazing content, some of our most-viewed content.”
Site publishers also reported relatively little use of or interest in aggregating links to other sites. “It helps round out our offering, but is not the main reason people come to the site,” one said.
We asked site operators to describe effective practices for obtaining content.
Many said being able to hire professional journalists was key.
“Having staff member helps a lot,” Hopfinger said. “When I first started this site, I started it out of a bedroom in my house with me and my wife. We started doing things here and there on the side of our jobs in journalism. Then we made it bigger by getting contributions by volunteers. This has changed so that now we have journalists and reporters that will work to help us with staff-produced journalism.”
Community connections also came up frequently.
“Knowing who to call to say, ‘I see you're on one of those boards; will you write us about X’, or ‘The developer wants to do something with this property; what do you think about his proposal?’ Knowing people in our community, reaching out and tapping them,” said Christine Yeres, managing editor of NewCastleNow.org in Chappaqua, N.Y.
“I've found that reaching out to our readers via Twitter and Facebook and asking them what's going on is a good resource,” said Andre Natta, who publishes The Terminal in Birmingham, Ala. “As far as our readers go, we try as much as possible to have a real conversation with them using communication tools. We try to talk to them about what would be interesting to the rest of the readership. We have found this to be very successful in making them into our cheerleaders. Twitter is one of our tools that is like our own news wire that allows people to go in and submit stories at a moment’s notice.”
More survey results:
Part 2: Community drives mission June 8, 2010
Part 3: Revenue streams June 15, 2010
Part 4: Toward sustainability June 22, 2010
About the survey
Reynolds Journalism Institute conducted telephone interviews with 66 local online news publishers whose sites met our criteria for producing original news, working to be accurate, fair and transparent, and developing revenue in April and May 2010. The oldest site started in 1998 but about two thirds of the sites were founded in 2008 or 2009. The sites vary widely in reach – from 1,200 to 400,000 unique visitors a month. The online publishers are predominantly white men, more than half college educated. They range in age from 22 to 68. Our goal was to learn more about their successes and their challenges in operating local news sites.
The survey was conducted under the direction of Ken Fleming, associate director of research for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Adam Maksl, a Missouri doctoral student, assisted in developing the survey questionnaire and in analyzing the results.
Kenneth Fleming Director of the (RJI Insight and Survey Center) Kenneth Fleming obtained a doctoral degree in mass communication and journalism in 2005 and an MBA in finance in 1993 from University of Missouri. His research interests include the relationship between social capital and mass media, health communication, political communication, and research methodology. He has extensive experience in social science survey research including research design, survey instrument development, sampling, data collection and complex data analysis.
Adam Maksl is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studies new media, censorship, and youth journalism. Previously, he was assistant director of workshops in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University, where he helped coordinate various scholastic journalism outreach programs and taught undergraduate courses as an adjunct instructor. He also briefly worked as a high school journalism teacher. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English education from Indiana University and a master's degree in journalism from Ball State University.