Sites on the rise: Business models remain elusive

[Editor’s note: Today OJR begins a week-long look at the state of independent local online news start-ups. Each day’s report will include a feature article, as well as a Q&A with one or more of the day’s sources. In addition, at the end of today’s entry, you will find links to and information about many of the websites we’ll be examining this week.]

SAN DIEGO – The 10 reporters, editors and photographers working out of a small office on a former military base here represent some of journalism’s brightest hopes.

The nearly four-year-old website they work for, the nonprofit Voice of San Diego, is doing some of the best and liveliest muckraking reporting of any Web-only news staff in the country.

Mostly former newspaper reporters, the Voice’s staffers have rattled off a string of exposes that has grabbed the attention of the city’s power structure. They think their site will prove not only that local journalism can thrive on the Web, but that their enterprise can grow many times over as mainstream media continue to decline.

There’s just one thing missing: a business model. Even with a small operation like this – 10 people reporting about the nation’s eighth-largest city – it’s not clear whether sustained funding will materialize.

Buzz Woolley, the San Diego businessman who created and still bankrolls a large chunk of the operation, says advertising is unlikely to fund more than 10 percent of Voice of San Diego. The rest of the site’s budget, about $780,000 this year, will have to come from small contributions and philanthropy, he said.

“How exactly is that going to happen?” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know. But nonprofit journalism is starting to strike a note with people. They know something like this is going to have to be done.”

The Voice of San Diego is at the leading edge of a growth industry – online-only news sites that in some places are establishing themselves as players in their hometown media landscapes.

They come in all sizes and shapes, from mom-and-pop shops focused on a single community concern, to seven-figure operations that reflect wide civic interests. While nearly all of the sites struggle to find advertising dollars, the number of communities served by online-only news staffs continues to grow.

Most are nonprofits, though some are testing the waters of commercial viability, convinced that opportunities will widen as mainstream media continue to struggle.

Some, like the $1.2 million-a-year MinnPost and the brand new St. Louis Beacon, cover the meat and potatoes of traditional community news – city hall, politics, education, the arts, crime, mass transit – mostly using professional journalists as reporters.

Others, like the ChiTown Daily News, are deputizing “citizen journalists” to write about their neighborhoods – territory most newspapers have been forced to scale back in recent years, or never really achieved. The Daily News has carved up Chicago into 77 neighborhoods and is recruiting a citizen journalist for each.

One newspaper company, GateHouse Media Inc., is trying the citizen approach by starting a website, the Batavian, in a community where someone else owns the local paper – a possible sign that the newspaper competition that used to exist in most communities could return, in a new Web form.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the new-media center J-Lab at American University in Washington, D.C., says many of the new sites are taking an entirely different approach by focusing on a single topic, and by reporting as participants in that topic as opposed to journalism’s traditional outside-in approach.

“People may not necessarily be looking online for cover-the-waterfront sites, or geographic or regional sites,” said Schaffer in an e-mail. “Instead they want ‘picky’ sites that offer them stuff that they like knowing because it’s useful and interesting and doesn’t waste their time with must-cover stories.”

Some of the sites winning Knight Foundation grants this year as part of its New Voices project attest to the specialty trend: Digital Journalism in the Nation’s Birthplace of Aviation; Green Jobs Philly; Immigration: The View from Here; Voices for Veterans; Family Life Behind Bars.

But one thing unites nearly all of these experiments. Profit or nonprofit, they’re struggling to make ends meet.

“Some day, just like General Motors, we too might make a profit,” said James Macpherson, who with one other paid staffer operates the Pasadena Now site. Macpherson stirred up controversy a year ago by disclosing plans to outsource some of his community reporting to India – a plan he is now carrying out. (A recent transcript of a City Hall press conference cost him $1.70, he says.)

He complains that merchants in Pasadena are “antediluvian” when it comes to the Internet. But Macpherson says, “I don’t give up easily,” and he’s experimenting with a Spanish language companion site.

Sites like Voice of San Diego and Pasadena Now are fascinating because they represent first-generation experiments to find a local-news alternative to the newspaper and television powerhouses that dominated their hometowns for decades.

Often, as in the case of the St. Louis Beacon and its roster of Post-Dispatch alums, staffs are made up largely of experienced journalists who took buyouts from the big local daily. Some of the reporters and editors who recently left the Palm Beach Post, for example, are now talking about setting up a community news site.

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?

Some of the Web editors I spoke with say part of their optimism comes from an assumption that legacy media have only begun to fade. It’s certainly not hard these days to find new-media thinkers predicting their outright collapse.

Karin Winner, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, says those prognosticators are way off. At her office a few miles inland from the Voice, she told me she has every expectation that the combination of a newspaper’s printed sheet and website will continue to be an unbeatable and superior source of community news. “It has the brand and the resources to maintain that position,” she said.

The new websites certainly are starting from far back. MinnPost, with one of the more robust audiences at 150,000 monthly unique visitors, still has less than 10 percent of the traffic of the Twin Cities’ dominant daily,

But the playing field is changing quickly. Nearly all of the nation’s metropolitan dailies are in the thick of major staff cutbacks caused by advertising declines.

Winner’s own paper has been forced to reduce its news-gathering force because of the Internet-induced loss of advertising, and she’s part of a management team that’s supervising the likely sale of the newspaper by the owning Copley family.

Others say that even if newspapers and local TV outlets maintain strong news-gathering positions, their staffs will be so depleted that windows of opportunity will only grow for new-media players.

These forces are prompting discussion at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where I work, about arming journalism students not just with traditional and new media skills, but also with entrepreneurial proficiency that will help them in a world populated with new-media startups.
Still, where will the money come from?

Woolley, the Voice of San Diego founder, makes a case for foundation funding, which he expects to provide 80 percent of his site’s future revenue. One hopeful sign: The local San Diego Foundation has approved two grants for the site – one to assist with fundraising and the other to sponsor reporting on citizens who overcame challenges in contributing to the community.

The Knight Foundation, journalism’s dominant philanthropic funder, has multiple irons in the digital revolution, and one of them is to encourage community foundations to support Internet news startups. “We’re trying to convince foundations that a core need is not just health, education and welfare, but also information,” said Gary Kebbel, journalism program director at the Knight Foundation.

But like Schaffer, Kebbel is skeptical of prospects for websites that essentially try to replicate the community-wide coverage of newspapers on the Internet. Television and radio, he says, are more likely to fill the role of community unifiers.

In any case, Knight Foundation is generally not going to provide more than startup funding.

Knight’s main role, Kebbel said, is to “fund startups, and see what startups work.” The beneficiaries, he added, “should not build their sustainability plan on the fact that when the money runs out they can go back to Knight Foundation for more.”

Joel Kramer, whose MinnPost site celebrates its first birthday in November, got a $250,000 Knight Grant, and he accepts that sustained foundation funding will be hard to come by.

He’s more hopeful about the individual-contributor model, noting that MinnPost will meet its first-year target of having 1,100 member-contributors. The example of Minnesota Public Radio, with 94,000 members, suggests there’s vast room for improvement. “We think we can get more,” he said.

Meanwhile, everyone is hoping that, someday, local Web advertising comes around. But these early adopters don’t think it will be anytime soon.

Kramer said there are both supply and demand problems now. Advertisers are in short supply, and those that do business are on the Web often don’t want to deal with small operations like local news websites, he said.

“What really makes things difficult is the high volume of publishers,” he said. “There’s just a tremendous number of publishers offering advertising to a still relatively small volume of buyers.”

While MinnPost some months reaches $20,000 in ad sales, that’s only 20 percent of overall spending and less than projected at startup.

James Macpherson, who operates the Pasadena Now website, says his plan is to become an all-purpose e-commerce consultant to advertisers as a way to subsidize his website.

“I don’t think news sites can be in the business of just selling online business,” he said. “That’s not a proposition that will keep anyone alive.”

Howard Owens, a new-media veteran, says it’s way too early to assess the future of his startup, The Batavian, or of the general world of online-only news.

Acknowledging the trends toward Internet niche sites and fragmentation, he expressed optimism about finding the business model for local news sites.

“We simply must, must – for the sake of a free society – find a way to make local journalism pay in a digital world.”

Q & A

More on the Voice of San Diego from my interview with co-executive editors Scott Lewis and Andrew Donohue:

Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis
Andrew Donohue (left) and Scott Lewis, co-executive editors of the Voice of San Diego

Q: Give us a bit of history of Voice of San Diego.

Andrew: Neil Morgan was almost the grandpa of journalism in San Diego. He worked as a reporter in town and was the editor in chief of the Evening Tribune a long time ago. Later he became Metro columnist when the papers combined. He knows absolutely everybody in this area. One day in the fall of 2004 he showed up at work and got a pink slip. He was such a beloved guy in the community. He got together with Buzz Woolley, who had been interested in journalism for a long time and was unhappy with what the community was getting from the Union-Tribune. I think Buzz had always been interested in starting a newspaper, but it was way too expensive. Buzz said to Neil, I don’t want to lose your voice in this community. They came up with the idea of an online nonprofit, which right now makes a lot of sense but in the fall of 2004 it was pretty revolutionary.

From there we just sort of established ourselves. The site launched in February 2005.

Scott: We took a more investigative look. We came up with the basic philosophy that we wouldn’t cover anything unless we could cover it better than anyone else, or no one else was covering it. So our stories need a lot of context and depth and an investigative focus.

Andrew: The key was there was a gap identified by our founders when we started. And that gap has grown farther and faster than anyone imagined since then. We’ve been fortunate to fill it.

Q: Would you talk a little bit about metrics? Audience, funding, staffing and so on.

Scott: Last month, 61,000 unique visitors. Time on site averaged more than 8 minutes. The traffic is all from San Diego.

Andrew: Six beat reporters, plus two editors. Scott does the column and blog. I do the investigative projects. We have a multimedia photography specialist. And then we have Web content producer, plus a development director that does the fundraising. So that’s 11 full-time. Our annual budget is $780,000 for this year. We’ll come in a little under that.

Revenue comes from four major sources. We have major contributions. Buzz continues to support us, this year supplying about a third of our budget. We also have a couple of others like Irwin Jacobs who give more than $15,000. Then we have 715 individual donations from different people. These are people who give between $35 and $5,000, and that’s growing rapidly. Maybe $70,000 or $80,000 this year from that. Then grants and foundations, which have been growing this year. And then we got a grant from the San Diego Foundation for the first time this year, to spur our fundraising , and a year-long campaign to talk about community heroes who have overcome challenges. Then advertising and sponsorships, which are coming on. We do Google Ads, but they’re bringing in less than $10,000 a year. We’ll never sell products on our site. But advertisers will use our site to send messages.

Scott: It’s only in the last year that we’ve ramped up foundation grant money. And that’s our top priority going forward.

Andrew: We’re getting a lot of attention from these foundations. They realize if they care about certain things in the community like science and environmental issues, if they care about these traditional philanthropic efforts, there needs to be an information delivery system. If the newspaper falls apart, or no journalist around to tell important stories, the effort to tell your story is a problem. That’s why I’m excited about what Knight is doing to educate foundations. The newspaper industry has been cluster-bombed; something’s got to replace it.

Philanthropists don’t want to mess with the editorial product. We’ve had no problems with donors wanting to change our message. But they do want to be recognized for having brought about some specific additional coverage. So over time we will have “sponsored by”ads.

Scott: At first we thought we could pitch people on the high-minded idea of saving journalism. But then we realized you actually had to touch these people emotionally – what is it this person cares about? Well, they care about science, so talking about science is where you have to be.

Individual memberships will be a big deal, but that will be slow. The big growth area is foundations and grants.

Andrew: We’ve found people are quite invested in us – more so than you get invested in newspapers. We were nervous about people trying to interfere at first. But that wasn’t a problem.

Q: What are the content areas you focus on?

Andrew: Our big deal is quality of life issues in San Diego – the things that really drive change here, that have big impact. We do politics, education, environment, public safety, housing and jobs, and science and technology. That’s our core.

Scott: We’re really well known for our government and City Hall coverage. Stories we’ve broken this year have changed the city more than anything else. But we also have been strong on housing – without the boosterism in the way it’s covered elsewhere.

Andrew: We try to see an issue all the way through. We don’t hit on something and leave. We keep hammering to see how it plays out.

Scott: We used to get happy and excited when we scooped the Union-Tribune. But they’ve lost so many of their strong reporters and editors, now it’s just sad to see what’s happening. I think they’re particularly bad at a particularly bad time.

Q: Do you have a gut feeling of how this plays out?

Andy: The newspaper franchise is going to have to define itself. What are we going to be in the future? They’re still trying to be everything for everybody. And, yes, we’re going to see more niche publications. We’re not going to do reviews here of concerts downtown or other entertainment.

Scott: 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.

Q: Does Voice of San Diego have the potential to grow substantially or will you continue to be small?

Scott: I think we could have a budget as high as $10 million some day. A lot of newspapers are making that much from the websites these days. I could see us having 40 reporters. But we’ll grow slowly.

Q: Have you thought about citizen journalism?

Andy: We’re not big believers in citizen journalism. We don’t see them as being the answer. We do use them in a different level of engagement. We’re always soliciting their ideas. We tap into our everyday readers more than most publications would.

One of the early mistakes we almost made, we almost made as our first hire a very expensive Web developer, almost because we were intimidated by the technology. We stopped at the last second and realized we could hire two reporters. And we thought let’s just have a simple site and hire these two reporters. And we were lucky; Scott learned how to do the technology. We learned this stuff isn’t that tough. Scott’s our IT department.

Q: Aren’t these killer jobs?

Andrew: You should see how young we looked like three years ago.

Scott: It’s long hours, but everybody likes being here at the start of this. We just have a job opening now and we have 80-90 applications.

Q: What do you tell journalism students about the future?

Andrew: I just spoke to high school students recently, and I said we are very optimistic. We feel there will be plenty of opportunities. There’s a massive upheaval now. But we feel we’re fairly confident there will be jobs.

Scott: I take a little different tack. I might be a little worried. Maybe there will be more opportunities at places like ours. But I am a little worried about what’s happening to our industry. Only in our dreams would we have 40 reporters.

Q: Many people are thinking that the way to go on the Web today is to have passionate voices who are invested in this or that cause or activity and to write from a point of view. Are you tempted by that?

Andrew: 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.

A sampling of community news websites

Here’s a look at some of the players in the community-news Web world:

Voice of San Diego
Launched: 2005
Target audience: San Diego County.
Content: All local. City hall, development, real estate, education, science, environment.
Staff: 6 reporters, 2 editors, 1 photographer, 1 Web content producer, 1 development director.
Key leaders: Buzz Woolley, key funder and board member; Scott Lewis and Andrew Donohue, co-executive editors.
Status: Non-profit. Budget of about $780,000.
Metrics: 61,000 monthly unique visitors. Average time on site: 8-plus minutes.

Launched: 2007
Target audience: Minneapolis/St. Paul and the state of Minnesota
Key content areas: Politics, media, sports, sciences, health, arts. Focus mainly is on local and state but site frequently covers national politics.
Staff: 2 reporters, five editors, 1 IT/operations manager, several dozen free-lancers.
Key leaders: Joel Kramer, editor and founder.
Status: Non-profit. Budget of about $1.2 million.
Metrics: 150,000 unique monthly visitors. Time on site not stated publicly because of problems with counting methodology.

ChiTown Daily News
Launched: 2007
Target audience: Chicago metro area
Content: Individual coverage of 77 Chicago neighborhoods plus unique citywide coverage.
Staff: 2 editors, general manager, community organizer.
Key leaders: Geoff Dougherty, editor.
Status: Nonprofit. Budget of $206,000.
Metrics: 26,000 monthly unique visitors. Average time on site: One minute 35 seconds.

The Batavian (Batavia, N.Y.)
Launched: 2008
Target audience: Batavia, N.Y.
Content: All local. Neighborhood, city hall, sports.
Staff: 1 news editor, 1 sports editor.
Key leaders: Howard Owens, GateHouse Media Inc.
Status: For profit.
Metrics: 10,000-plus unique monthly visitors (Oct. 1-21). No report on average time on site.

Pasadena Now (Pasadena, Calif.)
Launched: 2005
Target audience: Pasadena residents.
Content: Civic events, entertainment calendar, awards.
Staff: 2 editors.
Key leaders: James Macpherson, publisher.
Status: For profit
Metrics: 63,000 unique monthly visitors. Average time on site: 12 minutes.

St. Louis Beacon (St. Louis)
Launched: 2008
Target audience: St. Louis region.
Content: Politics and public issues (including the economy education, race, environment), science, health, arts.
Staff: 4 full-time editors, 3 part-time, 2 full-time reporters, 1 part-time, 1 public insight journalism analyst, presentation editor, general manager, office manager, several dozen free-lancers.
Key leaders: Editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel, associate editor Robert Duffy, board chairman Richard Weil.
Status: Nonprofit. Budget of about $900,000 per year.
Metrics: Site too recently launched to provide meaningful data.

Pegasus News
Launched: 2006
Target audience: Dallas/Fort Worth metro area
Content: Neighborhood news, arts/entertainment, civic events, schools, searchable databases.
Staff: Site lists 12 news staffers; 5 on the business side and two IT staff.
Key leaders: Mike Orren, founder and president.
Status: For profit; sold to Fisher Communications in 2007.
Metrics: 392,000 unique monthly visitors.

New Haven Independent
Launched: September 2005
Target audience: People who live, work or play in New Haven, Conn.
Key content areas: hard news and reader debates; multimedia; politics, government, criminal justice, housing, neighborhoods, health care, schools.
Staff: 3 full-time editorial employees, 1 part-time local staffer, 1 state capital reporter on contract, part-time Webmaster, citizen contributors.
Key leaders: Paul Bass, editor and publisher; Melissa Bailey, managing editor.
Status: Non-profit. Budget of about $200,000 a year
Metrics: 45,000 unique visitors on average month.
Launched: October 2007
Target audience: Town of New Castle, NY, containing the hamlets of Chappaqua and Millwood, and portions of Mt. Pleasant, Ossining and Mt. Kisco. Population: approximately 18,000.
Content: Local: town hall, real estate development and transactions, schools, police blotter, high school and recreation league sports, gardening, performing arts, science, environment; letters, op-ed.
Staff: Editor, managing editor (and photographer), publisher (and Webmaster), advertising executive. Plus two freelancers and 100 citizen journalists.
Key leaders: Founders Ann Marie Fallon (publisher and Webmaster); Susie Pender (editor); Christine Yeres (managing editor and photographer).
Status: Nonprofit, first-year budget of $17,000.
Metrics: 5,500 monthly unique visitors. Average time on site: 4.3 minutes.

The Forum (New Hampshire)
Launched: 2005
Target audience: Candia, Deerfield, Northwood and Nottingham, N.H. (pop. 16,000).
Content: All local with minor exceptions for national and regional political coverage. Town boards, arts, outdoors, youth sports, recreation, library news.
Staff: All volunteer. Ad manager works on commission. Occasional stipend for editor positions. 300 volunteer writers, photographers, editors, reporters.
Key leaders: Maureen Mann, founding member and managing editor for three years, former board chair; Deb Boisvert, founding member and current board chair.
Status: Nonprofit. Budget of about $20,000.
Metrics: 2,800 monthly unique visitors. Average time on site: 4 minutes.

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.

YubaNet.Com (Nevada City, Calif.)
Launched: September 1999.
Target audience: Sierra Nevada, Calif.
Content: Regional news, features, public meeting coverage, opinion pieces, world news, national and environment, cartoons. Wildland fire information service.
Staff: Two full-time, plus free-lance contributors.
Key leader: Susan Levitz, founder and publisher.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 70,000+ unique monthly visitors. Average time on site: 2.5 minutes.

Texas Watchdog (Houston)
Launched: August 2008
Target audience: Texas
Content: Local and state government in Houston and around Texas, but so far we’ve been mostly focused on Houston and Dallas. We want to branch out, though.
Staff: Three reporter-editors in Houston, one reporter in Dallas, and an intern in Houston.
Key leaders: Editor Trent Seibert.
Status: Nonprofit; we’re trying to get our paperwork through the IRS right now.
Metrics: We just launched three months ago, so the numbers are all over the place. There’s a lot of difference between the day we launched and the day we got one story linked-to by Drudge Report.

The Dagger Press (Baltimore)
Launched: September 2007.
Target audience: Suburban Baltimore, with most coverage based in Harford County.
Content: Local news and opinion, politics, education, local sports, entertainment.
Staff: No full-time staff, 2 editors, 6 outstanding contributors, and, of course, our readers, who participate daily.
Key leaders: Brian Goodman, founder, and Steve James, technical director.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 5,500-plus unique monthly visitors. Average time on site: 5.46 minutes.

blogdowntown (Los Angeles)
Launched: January, 2005
Target Audience: Downtown Los Angeles
Content: News and information about what’s going on in downtown from restaurant openings to City Hall.
Staff: One editor, plus eight writers and contributors.
Key Leaders: Eric Richardson
Status: Non-profit as of September, 2008. About to start first fundraising campaign.
Metrics: Roughly 20,000 uniques monthly.

SunValleyOnline (Idaho)
Launched: October 2004.
Target audience: Sun Valley area and 2nd homeowners & visitors to the resort community.
Content: All local content. Daily postings of local news, features, public meeting coverage, events calendar, photos, blogs.
Staff: Three full-time, plus dozens of citizen contributors to news, blogs, photos, events and more.
Key leaders: Dave Chase.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 25,000 unique visitors in a typical month (has been as high as 100,000 during breaking news – fire, Larry Craig incident, Arnold Schwarzenegger breaking his leg)

West Seattle Blog (Washington state)
Launched: December 2005 (moved to news format starting December 2006)
Target audience: West Seattle, a peninsula with 20 percent of the city’s population.
Content: Local news, photos, video, event previews, “happening now” reports, member forums, some sports/entertainment coverage, some human-interest features. Areas of specialty include transportation, development, education.
Staff: Two full-time, part-time editor/writer job posted, pays freelancers for assignments.
Key leaders: Tracy Record, Patrick Sand (co-publishers).
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model. (No AdSense) Did not sell/run advertising until November 2007; site has since become self-sustaining, with revenue covering all business and family expenses for its operators (wife-husband team).
Metrics: 45,000-plus uniques and 530,000-plus pageviews monthly. Average time on site 4-plus minutes. (All stats per Google Analytics)

Black White Read (east Dallas, Texas)
Launched: August 2006.
Target audience: residents of six (and growing) east Dallas neighborhoods.
Content: Hyperlocal news and information, community calendar, restaurant and theater reviews.
Staff: Full-time editor, half-time photo editor, photo assistant, 5-6 regular professional contributors, 10-12 regular amateur contributors. Two full-time sales reps. Principals include technology person and sales and marketing professional.
Key leaders: Steve Crozier, Bryon Morrison, Ed Wagner
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 4,500 unique readers in an editorial area covering about 6,200 homes.

The Common Language Project (Seattle, Wash.)
Launched: January 2006.
Target audience: National and Seattle area.
Content: Investigative multimedia features, international and local.
Staff: Three half-time volunteer staff. One will become a paid position in 2009; all three to be paid positions in 2010.
Key leaders: Sarah Stuteville, Alex Stonehill, Jessica Partnow.
Status: Non-profit. Foundation grants, individual donors and earned income (freelance payments and speaker fees) each bring in one-third of our income. Currently an all-volunteer organization though international projects has been fully funded and able to pay staff as well as cover expenses and staff are sometimes paid contractors on a project-by project basis.
Metrics: 4,000 unique visitors/month on actual site; many more through placements in other mainstream and alternative outlets.

Evanston Now (Illinois)
Launched: April 2006.
Target audience: Evanston area.
Content: All local content. Daily postings of local news, features, public meeting coverage, opinion pieces.
Staff: One full-time. Several freelance contributors.
Many local residents posting comments.
Key leader: Bill Smith.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 8,000 to 10,000 unique visitors per month.

MyDedhamNews (Mass.)
Launched: January 2009
Target audience: Dedham, Mass.
Content: All local content. Daily postings of local news, features, public meeting coverage, business news, daily podcasts with news roundups, sports.
Staff: One full time, with over 500 registered users on the blog
Key leader: Brian Keaney
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: Too soon to say.

News from Cornwall and Cornwall-on-Hudson
Launched: July 2006
Target: Cornwall, Cornwall-on-Hudson (N.Y.)
Content: All local politics, arts, culture, community. Extensive calendar.
Key leader: Nancy Peckenham
Status: For-profit. Local advertising revenue model.
Metrics: 5,000 unique visitors/month.

Investigative Voice (Baltimore, Md.)
Launched: February 2009.
Target audience: Baltimore and the state of Maryland.
Content: Investigative reporting, so far on city crime and city government, but looking to expand.
Key leaders: Stephen Janis, Luke Broadwater, Regina Holmes.
Status: For-profit. Local advertising and a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth subscription revenue model.
Metrics: 1,000 unique visitors the first day.

To add to our database: Send us information about your community news site, at [email protected].

Tomorrow: We look at, and see how a former major-metro print newspaper publisher is faring in the online world.
Wednesday: We talk with Howard Owens about GateHouse Media, Inc.’s online-only community news site in Batavia, N.Y.
Thursday: ChiTown Daily News bets on reader reports to capture the local online news market.
Friday: PasadenaNow covers its community by outsourcing its reporting.

David Westphal is executive in residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is affiliated with Annenberg’s Center for Communication Leadership and the Knight Digital Media Center.

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. David Westphal says:

    Here’s an interesting high school sports site in Georgia:

    I read your most recent article with interest since i am one of those former newspaper hacks now trying to break into the local market with
    an online startup.

    Along with another former newspaper guy, Josh Kendall, I have formed, an online community for high school athletes/students/parents in Gwinnett County, Georgia (18 high schools, one million overall population). I was at the AJC covering
    the University of Georgia for three years before I had the wild idea to branch off and do this. Josh covered UGA for the Macon Telegraph.

    Our idea has been to reach into the high school market by building an online community that not only provides news but allows the students
    to be involved. A visitor to our site can look through the more than 10,000 photos, videos and stories we have posted. The visitor can also register, set up a personal page and have every piece of media (video, photo or story) involving him or her and published on the site sent directly to that page.

    Users can also upload video/photos to their page and to the site. We spent about a year in development and launched Aug. 15, 2008. In
    the first six weeks we have averaged about 18,000 unique visitors per month and have 1,200 registered users/contributors to the site. The
    average visitor spends more than six minutes on the site. And we average 350,000 page views a month. We have a staff of two, Josh and myself, and hire stringers from UGA and Georgia Tech to help us with the coverage.

    To get up and running it took us about $180,000 and we have a yearly budget of $240,000.
    Right now we are in the process of trying to secure local advertising. We have a national company that places sports-related ads onto our
    site but the income received is nominal.

    Thanks for the article it was very informative. If you have any questions about OurVarsity let me know and I will see if I can give
    you some answers.

    Carter Strickland
    [email protected]

  2. This is a great roundup, and I look forward to reading the upcoming posts in this series. It

  3. David Westphal says:

    Dan Weisman of sent me this e-mail:

    We at have devised a boutique approach to this online community journalism question. We’ve been working on this for about six months, the last few months more intensively and now are ratcheting up our presence. Our ultimate grass roots perspective with an intelligent spin differentiates us from all the sites you have listed in your article; sites I am intimately acquainted with after constant study. Our approach is more of a new path whereas the other independents — guess you’ll get to New West, Pittsburgh Dish, some of the others later, I like New Haven Independent from your list — still try to bridge a print journalism translated to online environment mentality.

    Dan Weisman
    92067 Rancho Santa Fe Free Press

  4. David Westphal says:

    Terrific post, Dave. I plan to write more about this very topic next week. As you say, there’s a robust line of thinking that local sites (with or without current foundation support) won’t sustain themselves without a stronger understanding of how the digital world can work to the advantage of retailers and other small businesses.

  5. I attended Jeff Jarvis’ “New Business Models for News” event last week. There is a terrific array of innovation and experimentation going on with the production side of the house. Unfortunately, that isn’t matched by the revenue side of the house. This is THE problem with “business models remaining elusive”. We need as much energy in that direction as the production side.

    My observation is that local sites have done a miserable job of quantifying and explaining the value of their audience to the advertisers in their community. They also haven’t listened to what their local businesses are saying. After buying, I made myself sales guy. I heard loud and clear they wanted more than a simple media purveyor. They wanted a online marketing partner.

    There are many implications of viewing ourselves as their “online marketing partner”. For example, we have commissioned research to understand the value in dollars & cents to specific advertiser categories. This allows us to charge premium CPMs ($35-40) as we know we have a quality audience that is worth it. We have also implemented low cost sales models “stolen” from Dell (one of our team members ran Dell’s inside sales org in the late 90’s). These things have enabled us to get
    profitable and hopefully more so as we scale this approach. [Our first focus is on and that some know was founded by Jonathan Weber]

    While I’d love to have the largess of foundations, I think depending on that just delays the discipline of making it economically viable. I don’t see the foundation approach scaling beyond a limited number of well-connected people. The goal of NextNewsNet is to scale what we’ve learned to other news operations in an economically sustainable manner.

    Fyi, my background was being part of the founding team of Microsoft’s Sidewalk project (much of what we’re doing is dramatically different from what we did there). My last job before leaving Microsoft was driving Microsoft’s involvement in the IAB and identifying and addressing the obstacles to getting the P&G’s and Cokes of the world to spend online. We did that and the rest is history in terms of revenue growth for online with national advertisers. Research was one of the key things that addressed the obstacles. We think we’ve ID’ed the obstacles locally. Stay tuned…