Tag Archives: online news

Taking a major leap of faith starting a local news business

I meant to post this here at the time, but perhaps a nearly six-month gap between launching my own local news site and reflecting a little bit about did some good.

Frankly, I’ll admit I’m in way over my head. I’ve spent most of these formative weeks trying to cover the hell out of my community, and I’ve had some successes. But I’m nowhere near where I want to be with this, content-wise, and this is the product I need to build up to get the eyeballs to deliver to advertisers.

My fellow indie publishers say it takes at least a year to feel as though you have any traction, so I’m not getting too panicky.

Mostly, I’m working up the gumption to ask local businesses to support an emerging news source before I have the traffic they might expect. Building some relationships has been helpful, but I’ve barely scratched the surface there.

Why then? This seems nuts, and there are times it does to me. It’s been more apparent to many of us that “we can’t leave the news business to the business side anymore.” I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time, but honestly, I’m absolutely frightened.

Not of failing, I’d like to think. Quite often my biggest fears have come about from having nothing stand between me and the things I want the most. After 30 years in corporate media, there’s nothing more I think I can offer that declining, transforming section of my industry.

No, what I want to do more than anything is to create something for myself—my own news business—as well as for my community, a place where I grew up and that doesn’t have a solid news source of its own. There’s some local and Atlanta media, which are stretched thin and show up for big stories. There are lifestyle magazines that have the advertisers and social media numbers I envy, but sell their readers mostly grandiose consumption.

I know I’m crazy to push the notion that local news still matters, even in an affluent, wired community, but I’m learning from pioneers in this field that you have to be somewhat crazy to take a stab at this in the first place.

I’ve never run a business nor have I attempted before, but I’m giving this my best shot, believing as leaders in my new industry assert that it’s going to be community-minded journalists with an entrepreneurial bent who are going to save what’s left of local news.

We also need to convince those with investment dollars that the one-off, truly local models we’re building are worth funding. Nothing against non-profits, but the critical thing is business development:

“We need money backing business builders because that’s how new engines of prosperity are assembled. This is how dynamic, aggressive competitors are born, how markets change and how jobs are created.”

In 2017 the subject of local news became a frequent topic in the journalism profession, but there’s still precious little investment or patience with rebuilding it online as community newspapers emerged over decades starting in the late 1800s.

Digital advertising is being swallowed whole by Facebook and Google, and even successful web ventures like BuzzFeed are facing grim prospects. Whether the digital media bubble bursts as is being predicted or not, those of us on a much smaller scale have a chance to establish more of the necessary foundation.

But as I learned at a conference this fall for indie online news publishers, most of us are truly on our own. There is money to be made at the hyperlocal level, but getting advertisers to go with us, instead of Facebook, or fading legacy plays, is brutally difficult.

I’ve also spent far too much time making technology fixes and trying to figure out Facebook’s byzantine publishers procedures. So following that first-year-in-hell notion has helped my perspective quite a bit.

These six months have been like dog-paddling, trying to keep my head above water, but I’ve got to splash more decisively in the new year. The first half of 2018 has to be where the big push takes place if this project is going to have the success I’m still bullish about.

 

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The key ingredient for the new news emporium

Mathew Ingram, an online news evangelist at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, admits that the printed word still has something over the Web that may not be changing anytime soon:

“I realize that there is far more content — from a vast diversity of sources — available on the web than there is in a newspaper. But who will filter and condense and aggregate it for me the way a newspaper does? I still haven’t found something that does the job quite as well. Perhaps someday I will, but until then I will keep reading newspapers.”

This notion is especially relevant for me now as I am creating a specialty sports news site that will be populated in part by aggregating and curating news stories. I’m largely on top of the stories in this particular niche, but there’s no way to collect everything of importance to our intended audience.

The person who’s overseeing our project asked me if there was a good existing RSS feed for this particular topic. It would certainly save time that I could spend on the stories I’ll be writing for this site. But I told him there isn’t, not for the readers we’re trying to attract. I advised it would be best to hand-dip the news, as at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, to provide the best value. This will require additional work, but I think it’s well worth it.

Especially after I noticed this morning a six-year-old story in one of my news feeds. Automating the news via keywords is a wonderful thing. It can permit a few extra winks of sleep for an online editor or curator. If one is aggregating on a high-profile subject, it makes perfect sense and adheres to the best slogan about the news that Jeff Jarvis has ever come up with: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

But like fishing, this practice occasionally pulls an old rubber boot out of the water. I know I’m not saying anything new here, but I’m learning more and more each day about the necessity of employing my best news judgment — and an appropriate human touch — to presenting the news for others.

And it ought to be a relatively easy concept for print-oriented journalists to embrace since it’s an old newspaper technique gone to the Web:

“This sort of picking, choosing and assembling from a wide range of sources—curation and aggregation—is precisely what modern editors should be doing online, not just regurgitating the limited content they get from their parent organization. It leverages the strength of the editor’s skills: the ability to divine the best content, deep knowledge of a subject, and the ability to shape it into a compelling package for readers. That’s what good editors have always done: curate.”

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.