[Editor’s note: This is day three of OJR’s 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. If you missed the first two installments, here they are:
Part 1: Sites on the rise; business models remain elusive
Part 2: Experience makes MinnPost a top online new startup]
In the spring of 2005, Morris Publications tried something new: It started a website in Bluffton, S.C., a town where it had no newspaper, in a bid for market share via the Internet.
Now GateHouse Media Inc. is trying something similar. Last May, GateHouse launched a community website in Batavia, N.Y., where the Batavia Daily News was firmly established as the local newspaper.
Howard Owens, GateHouse’s director of digital publishing, told the International Journal of Newspaper Technology that GateHouse wasn’t seeing The Batavian as a newspaper replacement.
But when I asked Owens about The Batavian’s mission, he indicated that newspapers may be vulnerable because of an inability to change quickly enough.
“One way to look at it: In the early days of television, broadcast news consisted of a guy sitting in front of a camera reading a newspaper. The vast majority of newspaper websites are still at that stage, or only slightly beyond,” he said. “Any site that is, is vulnerable to disruption.”
The hometown newspaper, the Batavia Daily News, currently has no online presence, though the newspaper has indicated it will soon. Owens said the absence of an existing news website was a factor in The Batavian’s creation – as was the fact that Batavia is only 40 miles from GateHouse’s headquarters in upstate New York.
But he said The Batavian model could work just as well in a community where a newspaper already operates a website.
Interestingly, much of The Batavian’s local content comes right out of the Batavia Daily News, and The Batavian editors give it full credit – even to the point of encouraging its readers to subscribe to the local daily.
The other local news posts are filed mostly by the two full-time news staffers The Batavian employs, one in sports, one in news.
The site is set up to accept files from citizen journalists in designated neighborhood areas, but that’s yet to fully develop. Owens estimates only about 10 percent of the site’s content is user-generated.
Owens acknowledges resistance to the idea of user-generated content, including from some unlikely quarters.
“We’ve hit some roadblocks with people used to dealing with old media who don’t quite get what we’re doing, and that has been a challenge,” he said.
“One tends to think that only old-salt print journalists don’t get new media. Some official sources don’t get it, either. That’s been one of the most surprising revelations.”
Q & A
E-mailed responses to questions by Howard Owens, Gatehouse Media director of digital publishing and head guru of The Batavian:
Q. You’re soon coming up on the half-year mark. Could you give us a progress report?
A. I’ve run lots of websites, some from scratch. Still, making traffic estimates amounts to a guess. We’re a bit ahead of our projections five months in. We’ve received lots of positive feedback. I’ve learned a ton about how to do this kind of journalism. We’ve hit some roadblocks with people used to dealing with old media who don’t quite get what we’re doing, and that has been a challenge. One tends to think that only old-salt print journalists don’t get new media. Some official sources don’t get it, either. That’s been one of the most surprising revelations.
Q. What’s the mission of The Batavian? To see if GateHouse could grab advertising share in markets where it didn’t own the paper? And if so, might we see this model replicated many times over? Or is it feasible only in places where an established paper has no website?
A. First, it was attractive to start in a town without a newspaper website, but that was not a deciding criterion. Really, the most important aspects were the town itself and the proximity to the corporate office (40 miles).
Without giving a lesson on disruptive innovation, anybody who fully understands that term will better understand this project. We could do this with equal success — maybe even more success to this point — in a town where the newspaper had a standard newspaper.com.
One way to look at it: In the early days of television, broadcast news consisted of a guy sitting in front of a camera reading a newspaper. The vast majority of newspaper websites are still at that stage, or only slightly beyond. Any site that is, is vulnerable to disruption.
Q. How many people are on staff? Is most of your content contributed from volunteers?
A. Two full-time. One covering news. One covering sports news. The sports guy spent eight years at the Batavia Daily News covering sports.
I also contribute, but mainly in a traditional blogging (is there traditional blogging?) style. I find things on the net and write about it, mostly. Maybe 10 percent of our content at this point comes from user contributions, if that.
It’s been interesting to see how people respond to “you can submit your own news.” You would think that public officials, politicians, civic leaders, volunteer-group leaders would be all over that… Maybe people, especially the higher-up in that information food chain, still haven’t come to grips with an open news network. They still expect filters and reporters reporting their news.
Q. What’s the heart and soul of The Batavian? Useful neighborhood-by-neighborhood information, or the fact that it is trying to be an all-purpose local news/sports/national/international site?
A. Heart and soul is a bit strong. We’ve found success in these areas:
— Disaster, of course. House fires get traffic, period.
— Big topics … lots of discussion around the terrible downtown shopping mall. We covered this topic heavily in the second month or so and gained many of our current regular users during that time.
— National news has its place. People do want to talk about politics right now. Sarah Palin posts were huge last month.
— And the small topics can get interest, but more hit and miss. We talk a lot about this post that Philip Anselmo (editor) did about some sidewalk chalk graffiti. It was a good post. It’s really how I define hyper-local … just those little observances of life can generate interest. We actually want to do more of this. It’s the cracks between traditional news coverage that can most disrupt traditional media.
— We, and especially I, blog about politics a lot. I’m sometimes skeptical if this helps us grow audience, but our current audience is almost always responsive. I mean, for example, finding posts or stories related to the state offices races and the congressional race.
Q. I was surprised to see the national and international posts there. What’s that about?
A. See above … people like to talk about this stuff. Frankly, I have my doubts about whether we should do this, but I’ve always believed there is value in people of a local community being able to come together even on non-local issues.
The Nation and World section is our lowest trafficked section, which is only three or four weeks old. When we’ve done national politics on the front page, we’ve had those be among our top posts, so we’re still trying to find the best path here.
I’m not looking for nation and world news to draw traffic to the site, but I do hope that it would make it more sticky. Plenty of surveys show that news addicts care about news up and down the news chain.
Q. You’ve said that you didn’t really think The Batavian would damage the longtime daily, the Batavia Daily News (which has plans for a website). And you even summarize the Daily News’ top stories and encourage your readers to subscribe. What’s that about? It sounds a bit fiendish,
if your real aspiration is to take market share.
A. Did radio destroy newspapers? Did television? Batavia/Genesee County is a big enough market to support three media outlets. The Batavian isn’t the biggest threat the Daily faces. It is all the same historical forces that challenge all newspapers.
If you look at the circulation trends, it is not the Internet that is causing the most harm to newspapers. There are larger historical forces at work that go back 80 years.
In the near term, probably even in my lifetime, newspapers should be able to survive and in better economic times, even thrive.
I honestly want people to subscribe to the Daily. I think it’s good for the community and enhances what we do.
Q. What’s ad revenue looking like on your site? Is the Batavian already self-supporting?
A. Oh, we’re a long way from self-supporting. We didn’t project selling our first ad until month 9 and we’re in month 6.
That said, without going into detail, we’re learning a lot about our early ad sales efforts and I’m rethinking what our approach needs to be. I’m not ready to discuss that in detail yet.
Q. What’s your own sense, broadly speaking, of the future of general-interest, online-only news community news sites? Is there a role there, or do you think the trend will be for scores of specialized sites (soccer, business, politics, schools, etc.) to spring up?
A. You can point to several local, suburban successes in online news (Baristanet and WestSeattleBlog come to mind). One way the Batavian is unique, as far as we know, is its rural placement.
I’m dedicated to finding the online business model for local news sites. I see all of the trends toward fragmentation and niche/specialty, but in its way, local niche, too. We simply must, must — for the sake of a free society — find a way to make local journalism pay in a digital world.
Q. What else should we know about the Batavian’s early months?
A. For people who might be tempted to pass judgment on us, it’s still early, for good or ill, it’s still early. We’re learning a lot. We’re growing. We’re optimistic, but it’s still too soon to draw a conclusion one way or another.
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.