Getting a jump on journalism bootstrapping

A young journalist who lost his job when his newspaper was shuttered earlier this year is now the proud sole owner of that organization’s Web site. Another example of hyperlocal news, and journalism bootstrapping, has been born, and it has some built-in advantages that give him a boost starting up.

Nick Sloan, 24, purchased the Kansas City Kansan from Gatehouse Media and will be a one-man news operation, covering suburban Wyandotte County. It helps that this is Sloan’s home turf, and that he’s got an established and recognizable news brand — “The Voice of Wyandotte County Since 1921.” He’s also retained two major advertisers. Still, he’s philosophically realistic about what he’s getting into:

“I’m not looking to get rich off of this. At the end of the day, if I make enough to satisfy what I need to do, I’ll call it a success. I’m not being paid by anybody to do this. I have to earn my entire way and for now I’ll have to be reporting and selling. It’s going to be fun, but we’ll see what happens.”

There’s no story too small to cover — students of the month, thefts from cars and the fate of a library. Sloan’s clearly got the energy and background to succeed. He’s going to need it. As you can tell from the frequency and wide-ranging topics of the posts, this is more than a job; this is his life.

Earlier this summer I raised the issue of whether the prospects for hyperlocal news were overhyped. This was the wrong question to ask, as I think back on it now, and much too abstract. One of my beefs with the current discourse about the future of journalism on the Web is that it has been hijacked by utopians spouting esoteric jargon that even they probably don’t understand.

The people down in the trenches experimenting with models that fit their communities and their ideas of doing the news are being lost in the discussion, except when the sages are looking for examples of their theories in action.

It’s important to outline the possibilities for hyperlocal news, and to offer words of caution. But it’s also unfair to fold any single effort either into insanely optimistic projections of success or into a dismissive argument that they are unlikely to reach their readership or earning potential.

Each project deserves to be looked at on its own merits, in the context of the unique community and niche it serves.

Clay Shirky — a wise, but occasionally maddening guru in my book — touched on the topic of news experimentation yesterday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Dan Kennedy writes:

“And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.”


3 thoughts on “Getting a jump on journalism bootstrapping

  1. Nice to see someone young taking on something like this. There are hundreds of small-town, community-oriented weekly papers that have been doing hyperlocal journalism for years in print. Many of them don’t have the knowledge of how to take that to the Web.

    Perhaps this is what j-schools should focus on, teaching students that finding those kinds of papers and building their online presence now (and not when they have no choice) is just as, if not more, important and rewarding than pursuing a big-time glam job.


  2. JOgle’s first graf is true, but I agree that it’s simply nice to see more people of ANY age taking this on. The Web – which of course is more than “the Web,” it’s really “the stream” – is NOT just the province of the young. Some of us oldsters (50ish husband and I among them) sorta kinda get it.

    But IDK’s description is completely apropos. It is not just a job. It is a life(style). It’s the scanner in the living room with the kid over playing games on his computer and – kvetching! – that he’s probably the only kid in town who has to listen to medic calls when he takes his headphones off, or who has to check the 911 log on the iPhone on behalf of the parent who’s driving, if they happen to see a fire truck go by. It’s spending your evenings at community council meetings – and spending your days not just writing for your site but also answering countless e-mail, phone, Facebook questions that never turn into stories, because people come to know you as an information repository who might be able to help them figure out where to go with something they’re concerned about, like the car alarm that won’t stop going off down the street at 3 am. And much much more.

    And now it’s also become a battle that we are fighting here in Seattle, relevant to IDK’s note here: “The people down in the trenches experimenting with models that fit their communities and their ideas of doing the news are being lost in the discussion, except when the sages are looking for examples of their theories in action.”

    Corporate media is trying to hamfistedly bigfoot its way into neighborhood news by templatizing a synthetic version of the model. They’re not showing up at the neighborhood meetings or checking out the helicopter at 2 am – they’re just aggressively selling ads, publishing a few calendar item previews and repackaging the occasional pieces of their main product that involve the “neighborhood,” and pretending they’re “hyperlocal.” With the aggressive ad sales, the Nicks of the world may have a hard time till corporate media lumbers on to the next bright shiny object to capture their consultants’ attention; we would have if they had barged onto the scene in our early days (we didn’t even offer ads till we’d been up and running for 2 years and had been repeatedly asked to!). Maybe he won’t face that situation in his market. We wish him the best of luck.


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