Let's build a database of independent news sites

Ever since completing some reporting this fall on the status of community news Web sites, I’ve wanted a better sense of whether these new startups have a realistic chance of surviving and ultimately thriving. Last week I got my chance to ask an expert – my OJR colleague Robert Niles.

The answer, said Niles, is yes – though I should note his response came after a long pause. Not surprisingly, he had some caveats. The main one is that startup operators need a back-up way to pay the rent and buy groceries for as long as a year after launch. It can take that long for most sites to build an audience and advertising base, Niles said, and the duration seems to be growing, as Internet users’ options grow. Even then, Niles said, operators need to know that costs have to be kept “as close to zero as possible,” and profits are going to be modest. “But yes,” he said, “it’s possible to make money.”

The anecdotal evidence I’m seeing convinces me that a lot of people are trying, and more are going to follow. I can only imagine how difficult a challenge this is. The people who succeed are going to need a very wide skill set, a passion for success and a tolerance for very long hours. Not only that, but people starting now are launching against Depression-like conditions that will make matters much, much worse.

And yet…

Last week, at the University of Missouri conference on the Information Valet Project, I ran into Bob Gough, who runs the eight-month old QuincyNews, a Web site in Quincy, Ill. Although he’s going up against established hometown media, Gough said he’s already turning a profit on the strength of 30 local businesses advertising on his site. And, said Gough, he’s thinking about expanding.

Beyond that, these days I’m seeing increasing references to some of the people I interviewed for my reporting on community news sites. Last week, for example, Romensko linked to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, a husband-wife team who are trying to make a go in Michigan.

Another thing I’ve been eager to know is how many of these sites are up and running. They, of course, come in all kinds of sizes and blends, so counting them is an inexact science. But I’d like to try to get a better fix, so I’m going to continue expanding the list I began a couple of months ago. You can see it at the end of my first OJR piece on independent news sites.

Send me an e-mail ([email protected]) if you operate one of these sites or know of someone who does. As in the earlier list, here’s the information I’m looking for (using the Ann Arbor Chronicle as an example):

Ann Arbor Chronicle (Michigan)
Launched: September 2008.
Target audience: Ann Arbor area.
Content: All local content. Daily postings of local news, features, public meeting coverage, opinion pieces, cartoons.
Staff: Two full-time, plus more than a dozen “correspondents” contributing to a feature modeled after Twitter.
Key leaders: Mary Morgan, David Askins.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 4,000 unique visitors for the first month in operation.

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. Dave:

    How do we put all this together in a useful package? . . .

    . . . J-Lab at American University has a downloadable list of community web sites, not all journalistic. You can find it here:

    . . . The Media Giraffe Project has a partial list of local online news community sites — not at all comprehensive, but some good stories. Review from here:

    Neither MGP, because it’s not at all comprehensive, nor J-Lab, because it carries little contact information on each entry, does the trick very well.

    . . . There’s also Placeblogger.com, which just relaunched this month. It’s a database driven, self-contributed searchable directory of news and community blogs: http://www.placeblogger.com run by Lisa Williams outside Boston.

    . . . On the Journalism That Matters Google Group (an outgrowth of the http://www.newpamphleteers.org event in Minneapolis in June), we’ve been kicking around a way to establish a best-practices resource for local online community builders. Here’s the list:
    http://groups.google.com/group/jtmlist/topics . . . and here’s the JTM website:

    . . . FINALLY, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is working on a site that might aim to be a resource and listing of local online news community services. Here’s an inside page at New News Media, which refers to a study of local news sites:

  2. says:

    A database of Indie news sites is a great idea.

    Due to time constraints and strained funds many of us publish news sites of very specific interest.

    Google is good, but a database would categorize and help people find our information more easily.

    In Vancouver Canada we are currently trying to build an Indie Media Centre to cover our 2010 Olympics. The centre will support indie journalists from all over the world when they arrive next year.

    It is privately funded and not controlled by Olympic organizations, which will be a first of its kind.

    A database could include information like ours that links journalists and readers together easily.

    Maurice Cardinal
    Editor: OlyBLOG.com

  3. David Westphal says:

    From Guy Snyder of Michigan Construction News:

    In 1973 I graduated with a degree in journalism from Wayne State University and pounded the pavement for the next nine months, enjoying the “Nixon Recession.” Then I landed a “temporary” job with the publisher of a regional heavy construction trade journal.

    The magazine, the Michigan Contractor & Builder, has been published weekly since 1907. I stayed for 25 years, serving 16 as editor in chief.

    Quitting the magazine — for the usual reason, a big company buyout — I ran a public relations company for a few years (Snytco Inc.). Then, in November 2003, I launched my web site, Michigan Construction News, which has been online ever since. It’s usually updated every Tuesdays and Fridays with fresh content, with a minimum of 15 news stories and an editorial, called the “Dragline.”

    The web site is supported by advertising that, this year, should bring in just over $87,000. Enough to pay my light bill. I get from 22-25,000 page views per month and about 6,000 visitors (1,989 unique visitors in November 2008). I’m fully advertiser supported. Access is free.

    The web site is augmented by an e-mail summary that’s dispatched before each site update to over 1,800 “free” subscribers.

    You can visit the web site at:


  4. says:

    Placeblogger is already something of a database, but I’m sure you are quite familiar with that, and of course not all of those sites are truly NEWS sites. Ours is.

    We have quite the thriving community of these sites out West here. In Seattle, we are the first to make our living doing this. I am a 30-year veteran old-media journalist turned fulltime neighborhood news site editor/reporter/photographer/videographer etc., and my husband works as our business development director, community relations manager, also sometime journalist (he has old-media experience too), plus we pay freelancers for assignments, AND we have a part-time reporter/editor job posted.

    Just a couple days ago, I celebrated my one-year anniversary of quitting (yes, voluntarily, with – at the time – no job danger in sight) a high-salaried TV newsroom management job, to take a chance on this, and it has been an incredible year, thanks to an incredible community. (Our site started two years before that, but did not originally launch as a news site.)

    Since midyear we have had half a million-plus pageviews monthly (and if we published in newspaper-site format, headline links only, rather than blog format, it would certainly be higher, but we don’t jump many of our reports).

    I’ll send you our info in the format you request, but wanted to be part of the comment stream as well, since the West Coast doesn’t seem to get as much love/attention as the East and Midwest!

    Tracy Record
    editor/co-publisher, West Seattle Blog
    (Seattle, WA; westseattleblog.com)
    West Seattle’s only 24/7 news – information-discussion source

  5. Larry Pryor says:

    I agree that this model has promise. But in online journalism, a gap always seems to exist between thought and execution. For 20 years, the news industry has been incapable of enacting fundamental reforms.

    It might be useful to revisit earlier options available over the last decade that, for various reasons, were rejected by publishers or partially realized. I could nominate two: personalized news and public journalism. Both concepts speak to the issues of loyalty and utility, and, ultimately,