Online news startups grow, tackle tough odds

Online Journalism Review this week is taking an in-depth look at the growth of independent local news websites, asking the critical, but thus far unanswerable, questions about their possibilities:

“Might someday we look back at this moment and see in sites like Voice of San Diego and the New Haven (Conn.) Independent the birthplace of a new kind of journalism that would find its Web financial moorings? Or will the Internet dynamic of fragmentation work against the newspaper model of presenting a grab-bag compendium of community interests?

This is a good overview of what’s happening in metro areas throughout the country. But be sure to read the Q and A toward the bottom with the co-executive editors of Voice of San Diego, which has led the way after being founded nearly three years ago. Like many sites that have followed in its wake, it has been led by and featured the work of journalists who’ve been shed from mainstream newspapers.

And like the others, it hasn’t tried to be all things to all readers. Finding a local news niche has been the driving force behind these startups. Most of them, unsurprisingly, skew toward local policy, politics and government news and issues.

The budget remains tight and compensation to journalists remains low — there aren’t a lot of full-time jobs here — but keep this in mind:

“One thing we’re noticing is a lot of people think there’s a technological answer to what’s happening in journalism. I don’t think what we’re facing is a technological problem. We contribute greatly to this community without every having a fulltime IT person. We’re going to see more aggregators. But the people who put money into content are going to stand out, and that’s why we’re excited about this alliance for other nonprofits.”

Translation to displaced journalists who don’t have the sharpest Web skills: Relax. By all means, do learn to understand digital media and how it differs from the print editorial product you’ve been used to most of your careers. But the basics of good journalism apply to all platforms:

“We push our reporters to report so well that they write with authority. There’s never writing with an agenda, but we do feel writing with authority is the way to go.”

Read the entire piece, which summarizes other sites in other cites and regions in the country. Some will be profiled by OJR during the week.

While the business models for such enterprises are still in their infancy, what about maintstream media outlets that continue to dump their journalists? The Los Angeles Times has laid off 75 more in its newsroom, and may not be close to being finished cutting staff.

Last week in New York, assorted online entrepreneurs and journalism futurists gathered to show and tell their ideas on new business models for the news. The conclusion: We don’t know what’s going to work out, but it’s imperative to keep plugging away.

Despite the challenges, and especially given the economic times, there are still plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future of journalism. Taking the long view is imperative. For many of us in middle age or refocusing our journalism work after leaving newsrooms, this experimenting will last the rest of our careers.


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