What's the future for news personalization?

I have customized my Google News page, my Yahoo News page, and many other news sites. My RSS reader is deluged by updates from the hundreds of feeds I have subscribed to over the years. Do I read that material? Not very often.

I decided to speak to Calvin Tang, the co-founder of Newsvine, a next-generation news personalization site that tracks reader habits and serves up articles that those individuals might actually read. I wanted to find out how news personalization sites have changed and if they are ready for people like me.

Tang talked about the improvements and the hurdles facing news personalization, and what refinements we might see over the next few years.

OJR: In a broad-brush stroke, what is Newsvine hoping to accomplish?

Tang: There were the three major things that we are going after. First, our aim was to set out to automate the collection, organization, and syndication of the exponentially growing pool of content available on the Web. With the rise of the blogosphere and personal publishing, it seems that there is becoming an ever-increasing amount of content out there.

The second thing we set out to do was to leverage the base of people in the world who had a story to tell but who also lacked an easy way to use publishing platforms and get an audience. Not everybody in the world is tech-savvy enough to set up his or her own blog. That’s why the first wave of citizen-generated content out there was very tech-heavy.

Our third aim was to give people a way to interact with each other in meaningful ways on topics of shared interest and to also be able to discover new material and authors as a result of this interaction.

OJR: How close has Newsvine brought this “Daily Me” concept to reality?

Tang: I would like to think that Newsvine is at the front of the pack as far as personalization of news but I think we, and the industry in general, have a long way to go. Some of our more long-term initiatives involve setting up our systems so that people can get their news in an ever-more increasingly efficient manner. I think that as the amount of content grows it becomes more and more important to organize that in a meaningful way.

OJR: What do you mean by more “efficient” and “meaningful”?

Tang: I mean there are two problems to solve and because you have to solve them both, it becomes difficult. One is that people don’t want to get certain types of information. They want their international news but they may not want sporting news, or something like that. And as a result there are services out there that are narrow in terms of topic–like a site that’s all technology news. That’s good but that can’t be your only news site. People like to discover things that they might enjoy reading but they didn’t necessarily know that they would before they were exposed to it. So giving them a way to sift through the large body of content out there is one problem.

There is also the type of news that everyone should generally know about. If there is a huge event in Iraq that is going to impact our domestic and foreign policy, a reader should have access to that. Now whether or not you spend a lot of time reading about it that’s another question. We think that bringing you the top news is one of the important things. That’s why we present our site with traditional media content right next to citizen-generated content. We don’t favor one or the other. We think that they are complementary in many ways.

OJR: Newsvine obviously doesn’t have the overhead of traditional news organizations because Newsvine does not have a staff of reporters and editors per se. What impact do you think sites like Newsvine will have on the quality of journalism when traffic flows to Newsvine rather than traditional news sites that also depend on advertising to support the reporting process?

Tang: I think that eventually all traditional media companies will have to rely on some form of citizen reporting, partly motivated by financial reasons but also because of access. While the quality of reporting from the average citizen is typically of a lower ‘quality’, in the traditional sense, I think that this is offset by the timeliness and unfiltered nature of accounts offered by citizen media. Traditional journalism will always be a part of the equation, but a combination of new and old media coverage yields a flow of information from event to consumer that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is for this reason that we don’t take sides between traditional media and small media. I believe that consumers will benefit from a convergence of the two models, and that the long-sighted media companies will adapt accordingly.

Take the recent incident involving the UCLA student who was Tasered. Prior to the existence of video-enabled mobile phones and youtube.com, I think we, as consumers of news, would’ve been further from the truth and less affected by it. However, without the follow up research and reporting by professional journalists on the officer’s background, we would be left with an incomplete picture of what led up to the incident.

Currently, a good deal of the reporting done by citizens is largely incidental, a byproduct of proximity, chance and personal initiative. Moving forward, I think economics and consumer appetite will convince publishers to actively procure citizen reports on specific topics or events. Meantime, Newsvine’s base of contributors from around the world grows and improves continually, ready to meet that demand.

OJR: Your users are also providing links and summaries of articles people can click on, sending traffic to those news sites…

Tang: Yeah, absolutely. We have a very liberal linking policy. We don’t do things to keep you on our site. We are happy to send you off to wherever the best information is hoping that a good user experience will bring you back. I would say that’s at the heart of the Newsvine model. There are many sites out there that provide AP news; there are many sites out there that provide links to other content. But Newsvine essentially is a crossroads of content where a rich discussion happens. So I would say that the number one thing we strive for is to create rich discussions around content.

OJR: So who is taking part in the discussions?

Tang: I guess there are a few different definitions of active users. The majority of the visitors to our site just read articles and that is to be expected of most sites. Participation at most sites is somewhere in around one or two percent. At Newsvine depending on your definition of participation, that rate can be much higher. So about 15 percent of our users are actually actively voting and commenting around the site. I would say another four to eight percent are seeding links and one or two percent are writing original articles. That number is low as expected because it is hard to write articles.

OJR: And even more generally, who are these people?

Tang: we have a good proportion of college students on our site but we do have an older crowd. I would say people in their 20s and 30s are probably at the center of that long curve but we have users all the way up to their 70s as some of our most active users.

OJR: Are you getting people from all over the US or also from around the world?

Tang: I would say that we definitely have a heavier presence here in the US and one of the reasons for that is because the AP is a little bit US-centric in terms of their news coverage. But while our viewership is more skewed towards to the US, if you look at our top contributors, there is a very wide mix of people from around the world.

OJR: Do you think newsreaders ready for this concept or do you think these are all the early adopters?

Tang: Since March, when we had our public launch, we’ve been moving beyond early adopters. We’ve had month over month growth for the last six months and we’ve tripled our traffic since May. And a lot of that new traffic is your traditional news consumers. That’s who we are aiming for.

We are not really trying to compete with other sites that employ the newer types of technology and newer sorts of models. We are going after the crowd who is used to getting their news from CNN and MSN, NBC, and Yahoo News.

That intention is built into the design of our site. We don’t launch right off into a five-minute tutorial on how do you use the site and all the things you have to set up. We wanted to make the user experience very good for someone wants simply to point and click and read.

OJR: You mentioned earlier that 15 percent of the audience is actually voting so those are the active members…

Tang: Yeah, voting and commenting…

OJR: How does this affect what news is presented? You are displaying news based on the interests of a small group of people. Do you have some counter-balancing algorithms to still be able to provide a diversified news budget?

Tang: Yes we do. Anytime you have a system in which editorial functions are driven by user behavior, you have to do things to safeguard against a small group of people making changes that affect the rest of the user base.

So while comments and votes do affect the placement of stories on Newsvine that’s not nearly the whole mix of things that go into our ranking algorithm. Some of the other things include page views which all readers of our site affect that and we measure something we call long views, which is the amount of time somebody spends on a page.

So we add weight to an article ranking if somebody spent a few minutes on it rather than just clicking there and clicking away.

In addition to that one, of the strongest contributors to an articles rank is its freshness. So if something comes in right off the wire or is submitted by a user right away, it has a pretty high ranking right off the bat. Imagine that the content, as it comes into the system, cascades down the page, and if it receives a lot of activity in terms of views, and votes, and comments, it can stick or even move back up. So if we didn’t do that, Newsvine would be a static, old style site.

OJR: You mentioned getting contents from the AP and individual contributors. AP is mostly text. I assume that a lot of the material submitted from users is also text based. When do you think you will diversify more into multimedia content?

Tang: Right, it’s funny that you ask that because just this morning I executed an agreement that will bring video to Newsvine. We will always be primarily a text-heavy site. We already have audio, that accompanies some of the articles from the AP but soon we will also have video from one primary partner who I can’t name yet.

OJR: Do you provide any editorial oversight when something is submitted?

Tang: It’s hands off from our standpoint as a company. There is no editorial process that happens prior to an article being published by a Newsvine user.

However we depend on our community for that function. We have both an editorially and an user-driven policing system. There are a couple of ways this happens. As far as inappropriate content not just the correction of facts, we depend on a sophisticated reporting system.

This works amazingly well. It’s much more efficient than if we had somebody manning a desk 24/7 looking at user contributions and deciding yes or no.

The other system that we have in place is an area called the Greenhouse. This is a place that serves two functions. When you sign up for Newsvine you can’t immediately post onto Newsvine, onto our tag pages, or the content can’t get up on the front page. Articles or seeded links will show up the Greenhouse. In addition to keeping spammers out, it serves as a place to showcase new users. So if somebody just signed up it might be hard for them to get their material up in front of a lot of people but they are showcased in this new user area and if their content receives a certain number of votes and comments then we quickly promote them out of the Greenhouse and get them into Newsvine.

With this system, you deter spammers almost completely, because spammers are all about high yield, low effort propagation of their material.

OJR: What refinements can we expect in news personalization in general?

Tang: Well I think that a site can always be improved up on. It can always become more intuitive and the more that sites can do to accommodate users preferences without them explicitly having to set things up the better. For example there is no reason why you shouldn’t come to Newsvine, and we detect where you are based by looking at your IP address. Then we can give you headlines from your local papers in your area. I mean that’s something that we should be doing and we will be doing in the next month or two.

And also based on a user’s behavior we should be presenting you with information or news similar to the stuff that you’ve liked other places. We have a rudimentary function that shows recommended articles page based on the types of articles you voted on. Now here are articles that you did not vote on but voted on by other users, who we think, are similar to you. And in that sense we are showing you things that you might have missed but would have liked. That’s another example of being able to pick up passively on the behavior of a reader.

OJR: Social networking…

Tang: Yeah, but for these social networking sites or customized news sites, the first thing you have to do when you sign up is you have to customize all these things to your tastes. Now the more we can do that for you, I think the better.

'Potemkin Village' Redux

[Editor’s note: Last year, Tom Grubisich sparked a hot debate within the online journalism community with his hard look at the state of hyperlocal grassroots journalism. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching in the United States, we wanted to give you plenty to argue about over the break, so Tom revisits the topic, examining how the sites he looked at last year have fared in 2006.

Of course, if you know of a thriving, unheralded hyperlocal grassroots site that also deserves some attention on OJR, feel welcome to drop me a note.]

A year ago I toured 10 geographical community websites that were pioneering in grassroots journalism. I wanted to find out whether they were really fulfilling the exuberant PR of the phenomenon’s hucksters. I discovered that, with a couple of honorable exceptions, most of the sites were the Internet equivalent of Potemkin Village, many URLs away from being vibrant town squares.

A little more than 12 months later – a lifetime in Web publishing 2.0 – it was time for another look. Was grassroots journalism finally living up to its golden-keyboarded billing?

Here’s what I found on my return trip:


iBrattleboro.com, was launched in March 2003 in Brattleboro, Vt., a 253-year-old town of 12,000 with a Norman Rockwell-Garry Trudeau double image. iBrattleboro uses the automated scroll format that’s ubiquitous at skimpily budgeted grassroots sites. But iBrattleboro has added some pizzazz with graphics (via Flickr) and video (via YouTube). Co-founders Chris Grotke and Lise LePage say stories from community contributors have doubled to about 12 a day. Also doubling have been users – from about 50 at any given time to about a hundred, though most of them are not registered.

Comments on articles – a key indicator of a 2.0 site’s liveliness – are also up. An article on “these really strange looking things growing up” in the poster’s compost pile, complete with photos, drew 11 reactions concerning whether pumpkins and gourds can “cross-breed.”

IBrattleboro has followed the long-simmering controversy about the local community TV station with the tenacity of a bulldog. Grotke and LePage said in an e-mail: “The denouement [findings of ‘gross misconduct’ against two former station board members] came at the group’s annual meeting for which more than 100 people showed up. One man stood and said that he especially wanted to thank iBrattleboro, because without the coverage on the site, he wouldn’t have been angry enough to want to get involved.”

The site’s ad revenue is “increasing slowly,” Grotke and LePage say. “It is not to the point where we could live off of it, but it covers the basic costs of operation most of the time.” iBrattleboro has no sales reps.

As to where the site fits in the journalistic pecking order, Grotke and LePage write: “For a while, we felt almost embarrassed to be calling ourselves citizen journalists – we felt illegitimate. Having met and talked to a number of professional media types in the last few months, we understand now that we are illegitimate, at least in their eyes. It seems that mainstream journalists resent our use of the privileged term ‘journalist.’ But that turns out to be a strength because iBrattleboro was founded, at least in part, because we felt that the mainstream media was not telling the whole story on important issues. If, by calling ourselves journalists, we can bug mainstream journalists into some much-needed self-examination of their own profession, that can only be a good thing.”

Bluffton Today

BlufftonToday.com was launched by Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications [http://morriscomm.com] on April Fool’s Day 2005 in a sly gesture toward its Web team’s intention of subverting online journalistic conventions. One of those conventions was that a newspaper’s website should be a promotion vehicle to guide users to the print version of the paper.

But 18 months later BlufftonToday.com is an aggressive and constant promoter of the free-circulation tabloid daily Bluffton Today, which was launched shortly after the website. BlufftonToday.com confines all it’s hard news to the Technavia-powered electronic version of the tabloid. Technavia brags that its NewsMemory application isn’t as slow as .pdf, but navigating stories and flipping between pages in Technavia is like reading a print newspaper with oven mittens. Online users can’t comment on the print stories then and there. Whatever they want to say, it has to be on their blog – every registered user gets one – or in a response on someone else’s blog. As a result, comments on an important story can end up being fragmented in several places.

Steve Yelvington, the Morris strategist who helped create BlufftonToday.com, says the site has 70,000 monthly unique users who call up 800,000 page views. Registered users of the site have grown to 6,000 – in a community with 16,000 households and many seasonal visitors. Morris will not disclose how much ad revenue the site produces or whether it’s profitable. Yelvington says the economics of the online and print BlufftonTodays are joined at the hip.

Though the electronic paper gets more hits than the site’s web content, Yelvington said user blogs can become a powerful prod for civic action. In one case, a barrage of angry comments helped to force the state to modify traffic management during major improvements on a key highway.


Greensboro101, in Greensboro, N.C., is essentially a portal for about 110 area blogs – 20 more than were featured a year ago. To figure out what’s happening locally, a user has to hop, skip and jump to content that’s fragmented among the blogs and a user-driven news feed – a structural predicament which may account for the site’s low traffic ranking – No. 501,682 on Alexa on a recent weekday.

Greensboro (pop. 225,000) is a tech-savvy community, but that’s proving no benefit to Greensboro101. The site has recruited a lively, knowledgeable volunteer editorial board, but its members aren’t giving the site a distinct personality. Greensboro’s look and feel are the end product of the sorting and compiling operations of computer software.


One of the fastest-growing grassroots sites is Backfence.com. After launching in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of McLean and Reston, Va., and Bethesda, Md., Backfence has expanded to the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley, with sites in Palo Alto, San Mateo and Sunnyvale. In late September, it planted its flag in metro Chicago, starting in Evanston. Weeks later Backfence added nearby Skokie, and is preparing to launch in Arlington Heights, west of Evanston, on Nov. 29. Backfence has also spread farther in the Northern Virginia suburbs – to Arlington County and the newer suburbs of Chantilly, Sterling and Ashburn.

Backfence was founded by two early Internet players, Susan DeFife, who was strong on the business side, and Mark Potts, who was strong on the content side. (Potts recently left the Backfence management team to return to consulting and start a blog called RecoveringJournalist.) Last October, Backfence won a big vote of confidence in its expansion strategy when it received $3 million funding from venture capitalists SAS Investors and Omidyar Network.

Shrewdly, Backfence bought out Dan Gillmor’s failing Bayosphere site last spring, and used Gillmor’s high profile as the guru of grassroots journalism to give credibility to its entry both in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Backfence’s first Bay Area community was Palo Alto, where it competes with 10-year-old PaloAltoOnline, which features stories from the Palo Alto Weekly. Just before Backfence came to town, PaloAltoOnline opened up a prominent block of its homepage for an interactive feature dubbed TownSquare. The website has lost some traffic since Backfence’s launch in late April, but still attracts as much reach as all 12 Backfence sites combined.

Backfence’s brand of grassroots journalism generally reads like a well-written but bloodless press release. The who-what-where-and-when are there, but who cares? As Liz George, the managing editor and co-owner of Barista.net wrote in PressThink in December 2005: “The style at Backfence…makes no reference to actual places where people live, but only to an imagined place in times past where villagers shared information over the back fence.” When the sites does try to put its finger on a throbbing pulse, it often doesn’t know how to take the reading. On Oct. 3 the brand new Evanston site ran an item, written by Content Manager and Editor Robert Reed, on the “growing number of houses with ‘For Sale’ signs,” but the item had no facts, and ended on this desperate boosterish note, “These things can change quickly and before you know it the housing market will be hot again.” A link to Trulia, the new, deeply and widely zoned and easy-to-use site founded by realty professionals, would have provided Backfence users with loads of information about Evanston home listings and sale prices and their recent histories.


YourHub.com, co-owned by E.W. Scripps and MediaNews, started out with 38 hyperlocal sites clustered in metro Denver in the spring of 2005. Now it has 110 sites in Colorado, California, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (all connected with Scripps print papers), and powers 44 sites that the Los Angeles Daily News (owned by Dean Singelton’s Media News chain) publishes under the valleynews.com brand in the San Fernando Valley.

Too much of the content on YourHub remains handouts promoting some product, service or fight against a disease. Some of the PR is hard sell, like the articles “Public Relations? What is it and do I need it?” and “Home-Flip.com for free real estate ad.” Some of the sell is of a softer, nonprofit variety, like the article “The 11th annual Denver/Lakewood/Golden Tour of Solar and Green Built Homes in Boulder.”

After the Platte Canyon High School hostage taking west of Denver on Sept. 27 in which the adult assailant killed a 16-year-old female student, YourHubConifer, which serves the area, ran some of the condolences that poured in from the region and beyond. But the site made no attempt to answer what must have been on many people’s minds, including the parents of students at Platte Canyon: How good is the school’s “safe students” plan? On Oct. 3, three days after a query by this writer, the YourHub staff reporter finally posted the “Platte Canyon School District Safety Policy.” The policy says “a final report …shall be made available to the public.” You would think the report would be posted on the school district’s website. But it’s not there. If this had been pointed out by YourHub, the gap might have prompted a community conversation about school safety, not only in the area served by Platte Canyon High, but throughout metro Denver.

The Northwest Voice

NorthwestVoice.com has been one of the mostly frequently, and favorably, cited examples of how grassroots journalism can transform the Web on the community level. But reality doesn’t match the PR. Most of NorthwestVoice’s hard news is written by paid reporters for the companion print product, while most of the soft stuff (some of it very soft) comes from volunteers.

Even after nearly two and a half years of operation, and a steady stream of positive media mentions, NorthwestVoice.com still struggles to attract traffic and generate productive conversations among users. It ranks 1,107,759 in reach on Alexa, which means it barely registers a traffic pulse. In one of the site’s featured “Discussions,” someone asked, on July 13: “Who’s responsible for providing public facilities, i.e. a post office, library, etc. for the Northwest?” Three months later, the question remains unanswered. Ten of the 17 discussion articles, dating back to November 2005, had no comments.


When Joanne Woodward couldn’t join her husband Paul Newman at the Westport Country Playhouse’s Sept. 25 salute to composer Stephen Sondheim because of a fall she took while walking her two Miniature Schnauzers, the news broke on WestportNow.com. Besides its wide variety of up-to-date news, including high school sports – all of its contributed by residents – the site is loaded with volunteer photos that capture Westport’s people and places.

WestportNow founder Gordon Joseloff, after running the site for its three and a half years, has brought in a salaried editor, Jennifer Connic, who is well connected with the town as the former Westport reporter for the Norwalk Hour. Unlike most grassroots sites, WestportNow does not run contributions untouched by editors’ hands. Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who now is first selectman (mayor) of Westport, insisted on professionally crafted stories when he was in the editor’s chair. That meant he and his volunteer part-time editors did a lot of training, and mentoring (and rewriting) of volunteer contributors.

One of WestportNow’s most popular features continues to be “Teardowns,” which features photo stories, with an interactive map, on million-dollar-plus homes that are to be demolished to make way for bigger and more expensive ones. The New York Times recently ran an article on how the grassroots site Barista.net in suburban New Jersey was fighting redevelopment with a feature inspired by WestportNow’s Teardown.

Joseloff said his site’s traffic continues to grow about 30 percent annually, with unique visitors now hitting 5,000 to 7,000 daily.

Summing up WestportNow as a business, he says: “WestportNow is running close to break even. When I left the editorship (for which I received no remuneration) and we hired an editor, our expenses went up. Advertising revenue is up but not enough to cover all the increased expenses. I still believe there’s a viable business here (and in expanding elsewhere) and hope to be able to continue WestportNow until such time that it becomes self-sufficient.”


GoSkokie.com was launched as a student project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in spring 2004 in the hope that it could be handed off to the residents of the city of Skokie (pop. 23,700) north of Chicago. GoSkokie received a flurry of plaudits from the hucksters of grassroots journalism, and even received a 2004 “notable entry” in the Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism from the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. But it gasped its last breaths in the fall of 2005.


Like BlufftonToday, MyMissourian.com has become a joint Web-print operation, with, so far, the print product generating most of the ad revenue and paying the bills.

Two-year-old MyMissourian, which is produced by the Columbia Missourian print newspaper, was developed by Clyde Bentley, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, for which the commercially owned Columbia Missourian serves as a teaching and research lab. Bentley, while he’s in London on leave, has turned the MyMissourian site over to graduate student Jeremy Littau, who worked as a sports copy editor and page designer at the Los Angeles Daily News before pursuing his master’s degree at Mizzou.

Last October, MyMissourian took over the total-market-coverage Saturday print edition of the Missourian, the daily produced by students at the MU School of Journalism. As Littau noted in an e-mail, the takeover was “a reversal of the print-to-online model that newspapers have been following.” The strategy is for the TMC to subsidize MyMissourian till the website can build its own advertising base. In a quid pro quo, the TMC is stuffed with recycled MyMissourian content.

After getting off to a shaky start, MyMissourian has tripled its registered users to 1,200. Contributor-generated news is strong in some areas – like local history and arts/culture – but not so alert to news about business and civic life. Sometimes stories ramble across non-local subjects, like a Sept. 20 article on “designer dog breeds.” Without any comment tools, the site is more 1.0 than 2.0. It doesn’t have any home-grown blogs, but links to some external ones.

While Bentley and Littau are bullish about what they see as MyMissourian’s progress, the site has a weak reach – No. 5,161,651 in traffic, according to Alexa.

Muncie Free Press

A little more than a year after he launched MuncieFreePress in Muncie, Ind., KPaul Mallasch says: “We’re still afloat! We’re still growing.” Mallasch still runs the site out of his apartment, and still does a lot of the reporting and other editorial and business chores, while also juggling freelance balls to pay the bills. But he’s finally getting help from the community.

“I have one citizen recording and providing audio for her town’s council meeting,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have a retired professor writing the occasional column. Tips and press releases of all types are coming in more frequently now. I have another lady writing and reporting on the local CAFO issue [concentrated animal feeding operations that critics say can produce heavily polluted runoff].” Still, he has to lard his pages sometimes with syndicated bulking agent, including a Michael Reagan column.

Mallasch’s main online competition is the Muncie Star Press, where he used to work. “We’re at about 1/8th of the traffic that the Star Press had when I left a year ago,” Mallasch e-mailed. “They’re still stomping us in the search engines too, because they’ve had their domain since ’96 and Gannett heavily crosslinks their sites.”

Between January and September, MuncieFreePress more than tripled its monthly visitors (from 2,543 to 8,035) and almost doubled its page views (from 38,867 to 74,651).

All this with one person in charge of everything from bandwidth to blogging.


The best sites – WestportNow and iBrattleboro – have got better over the past year and are closing in on profitability, but only because the key players don’t take salaries. It’s not clear how scalable either operation is. Neither has the capital yet to expand or even hire advertising staff.

YourHub is grassroots journalism only under a Play-Doh definition. It provides five percent news and 95 percent bulking agent consisting of press releases and other handouts. Yet YourHub is expanding nationwide with lightning speed. It’s able to do that because it is backed by the considerable wherewithal of Scripps. Backfence’s grassroots journalism is several hundred percent better than YourHub’s, which puts it somewhere between so-so and mediocre. Backfence, with its investor funding, has been able to expand in three major markets in a little more than a year, and, like YourHub, hire ad staffs to generate revenue.

If this trend continues, and we get more virtual Potemkin Villages, what will happen to grassroots journalism? Will it start looking more like AstroTurf journalism?

Tom Grubisich, a screenwriter based in Santa Monica, Calif., was managing editor of news for DigitalCity/AOL until AOL’s merger with Time Warner in 2001, and, earlier, was a reporter and editor for the Washington Post, then co-founder of the free-circulation Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. He is reachable at [email protected].

Q&A with Work.com editor Daniel Kehrer

Suppose your blog or website has garnered some journalistic credibility and engages a steady audience, so now you want to know how it can earn you a living, subsidize your income, or at the very least, pay your hosting bill. When and how does your blog or site become a business? How do you attract advertisers? How should you keep track of money spent on content, function and design? Want to optimize search results and drive traffic to your site? As an independent Web publisher, can you manage it all–editorial, accounting, advertising?

Utilizing the Web for small business solutions is an obvious resource, but a basic, unguided search can yield an overwhelming and extraneous amount of information. A recently launched website called Work.com aims to focus those results by publishing and updating how-to guides that illustrate tangible and practical solutions. An offshoot of the successful search engine business.com, Work.com is both an internally-rich content site and a search directory, continually updated and ranked accordingly. The current offering—around 1100 guides–covers topics on everything ranging from developing a business plan and establishing a business account to obtaining a business license and tax id number.

We asked Work.com content editor and syndicated business columnist Daniel Kehrer to take OJR on a basic tour through the site, and explain some of ways that it can help independent web journalists who need a crash course in business management.

Online Journalism Review: Who’s writing the Work.com guides?

Daniel Kehrer: When it first [began], we launched a huge effort to create a thousand of these things, so we hired 70 or 80 freelance writers all over the country to work simultaneously at a rapid pace. Now we’ve toned it down, so we still have a small core of freelance writers working on a paid basis. We also have people showing up on the site because they want to share their expertise by writing guides. Then we also have experts in various fields writing specific guides.

OJR: For the users who are writing guides, how do you ensure that information is factually accurate?

Kehrer: People come in and write the guides and we do an initial rating, and then [the work.com community] will also rate people, so the guides that are bad will fall out the ones that are good will rise to the top. But initially everything gets read by the [editorial department].

OJR: Before it goes live?

Kehrer: It actually goes live but we look at it really fast and so if something is just not up to par, we may e-mail someone and say, hey we looked at your guide and we think you can get a much better rating if you do this, that and the other–so we may in fact offer advice. Right now it’s easier now because of the volume, but it might just have to be the user ratings eventually. That’s the way the system works- the highest rated guides would show up first and the lowest ratings might not show up at all. So it creates a self-policing mechanism.

OJR: How can Work.com help independent Web journalists in ways that conducting a basic search can’t?

Kehrer: It will provide a much more focused approach if it has anything to do with operating a business as a journalist and an entrepreneur. The site has information on all the things that go into establishing the business side of setting up a website: managing the money, establishing a credit card, paying people, opening a business account. They can find precise recommended solutions in a much more focused way.

OJR: The site features broad topics- everything from hiring employees, government resources, website design- how do you plan to stay current on such a broad range of topics? Isn’t there a danger of oversimplifying or missing relevant information?

Kehrer: It’s just the opposite–we’re so focused that we may have 15 different guides on one narrow topic. The system allows everyone to comment- and we encourage this- if there’s something missing or out of date, users can post a comment and the guide writer will hopefully update the guide. If a particular guide doesn’t have [the latest information], that guide will disappear and something else will take its place. So there’s a built-in mechanism for keeping things, fresh, up to date and ever-expanding.

OJR: How do you think journalists can maintain ethical integrity if they’re managing both editorial content and advertising on their websites?

Kehrer: You could ask the publisher of The New York Times the same thing- it’s the same issue for everybody who’s involved in [journalism]. You always have to have to ultimately decide that ethics comes first. If your information doesn’t have credibility, and you don’t have credibility, then you’ve got nothing.

OJR: You’re the author of “100 Best Resources for Small Business.” Are any of those resources applicable to journalists who want to become online publishers?

Kehrer: Sure, and a lot of those resources are now on business.com. A lot of it deals with general business start up information. Certainly if you’re a journalist/entrepreneur who wants to start your own website, you need to do some of the same things as anyone who’s starting a business. You need to write a business plan; you might want to take some training classes on business management; you might want to know where to seek free counseling.

You can incorporate quickly with an online service. You can go to various places to get your website set up as one big package, and you can find places that will help you with a marketing plan of some kind. Also, if you’re a sole-practitioner, even if you don’t employ anybody, you still have to get a tax ID number.

OJR: Various business laws and tax laws are complex and vary state by state. How familiar does a journalist/entrepreneur need to become with these issues before launching or trying to earn a profit online?

Kehrer: You can get bogged down in this stuff and that’s kind of the danger. You don’t need to know the intricacies of all the tax laws. You need to know that you have to file a tax return as a business and if you don’t do that you’re in big trouble. If you hire someone else to do some writing for you and pay an independent contractor you’ve got to report the income on a 1099 to the IRS.

There are guides on Work.com that have answers to all of those things in the taxes section. There is a long list on licensing on finding an accountant, on getting tax software, and finding local, state and regional tax requirements.

OJR: If you were to publish a guide for journalists who want to launch profitable websites what you would include?

Kehrer: Packaging does count. Hiring a Web designer is going to cost a lot of money, but there are various hosting packages that include [customizable] software.

OJR: Say you aren’t a techie–do you recommend being able to access all aspects of the site and update it yourself?

Kehrer: Yeah, I do actually because I believe in simplicity and control … and the technology has advanced so nicely that there are so many tools available online with a minimal amount of technical knowledge required. Keep it simple and…that will let you focus on the writing.