“[The] death of a huge tree is not the death of a forest … The ecosystem will continue and if any gaps exist, people will move in to fill them.”
Eric Newton, who is now vice president for the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, said these words more than a decade ago when the sale of The San Francisco Examiner foretold its demise. What he said is apt today as we watch tall trees of old growth journalism wither and even die.
As this happens, it is crucial that we mark what is at risk and find ways to support them, such as labor-intensive watchdog journalism and long-form narrative, each of which binds us across differences.
But it is equally important for us, as journalists, to mark the shortcomings of late 20th century journalism: our lack of inclusiveness, the banality of a lot of what we produced, our significant loss of credibility and relevance. We failed to engage our communities, and as long as the ad dollars flowed we didn’t feel much pressure to do so.
The Web changes what we do—and our relationships. We can now interact locally and globally in ways we never could in old growth newsrooms. Given these possibilities, I am turning more of my attention from tall tree newsrooms, where I spent nearly 30 years, to the emerging news organizations I fondly call the “sprouts.” These sprouts are part of our chaotic, dynamic news ecosystem today. Many won’t survive, but some will. Most won’t be very impressive, at least at first, as Clay Shirky observed in the 2009 commentary he published on the Web, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’’:
Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as Craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
There is no telling which sprouts will flourish and which will die. But it’s probably far too pessimistic to say flatly that none of today’s sprouts will ever replace any of our trees. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with the sprouts. I advise and coach community news startups for the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge
. At Knight Digital Media Center
, I develop training programs for news leaders—broadly defined to include fledgling entrepreneurs and small nonprofits along with newsroom and corporate executives.
As a recent fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I developed a list of promising online news sites. To do this, my research partner, Adam Maksl, a journalism doctoral student, and I reviewed more than 1,000 sites to come up with our list of just over 100 promising sites
that seem to be getting traction in developing content and revenue streams. Our criteria for inclusion focused on the production of original news in ways that attempt to be fair and transparent. And these Web sites had to demonstrate effort in finding a sustainable revenue model.
Taking this digital journey helped us to better understand the emerging landscape as well as what it will take to support the new news organizations. And it organized our thinking to the point where we came up with categories for the various approaches we found. Here are those listings—with descriptions we developed:
New Traditionals: These sites are dominated by original content produced by professional journalists. While the newsroom staff may be smaller than in a traditional newspaper newsroom, these sites tend to have more journalists on staff than community or microlocal sites. Many are embracing digital connectivity with their users, but traditional journalism is their bread and butter. Most of these sites, such as the Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego, started with grant funding and are searching for a viable revenue model, perhaps one that mixes memberships, grants, donations, sponsorships, syndication and advertising.
Community: These sites, such as Oakland Local, often rely on professional journalists but they tend to be bootstrappers who also focus on community building—actively seeking user feedback and content, writing in a conversational tone, and fostering civic engagement with practices such as voting, calls to action, and partnerships with local organizations and activists.
Microlocal: Sometimes called “hyperlocal,” these sites provide highly granular news of a neighborhood or town. They may have a tiny staff—one or two people plus interns or citizen contributors—usually supported by highly local advertising. Examples are The Rapidian, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, and My Ballard.
Niche: These sites, such as Seattle/LocalHealthGuide and Fresno Famous, focus tightly on topics such as restaurants and entertainment, health and medical news, environmental or political coverage, consumer and shopping information. Revenue may come from advertising, subscriptions or syndicating content.
Though our primary focus falls on these four categories, they do not represent the entire universe of local news online. Additional categories include mini sites, which tend to be idiosyncratic in the selection of stories they cover and not highly aggressive in finding revenue; local news systems, which are highly local, low-cost sites that are created with a regional or national template, often by a corporation (AOL’s Patch, for example); and aggregators who curate and link to other sources.
The Oakland (Calif.) Local and My Ballard, which covers a neighborhood of Seattle, are among the promising online local news entities identified in McLellan’s and Maksl’s study of 1,000 sites.
After the List: Next Steps
At RJI, we’re completing a telephone survey of the 100 online publishers on our list. The 60 online publishers who have responded to date say producing original news and engaging community are their top priorities.
Here is how a couple of online publishers describe their mission:
We promote discussion and conversation of these topics as part of our mission. As far as taking an activist role, that’s not what we’re doing. We are looking to spur discussion as compared to promoting our side of a particular issue.
We’re not advocates so we tend to focus on the information side more than what people are doing with the information. We do care what people are doing with the information, but our site is not designed to revolve around it. We provide a forum for our readers either to post stories or make comments on other stories. It is kind of like a town square.
Out of our research, we are finding some common ground. Four areas worth mentioning are:
Nearly half of the sites rely on paid staff, with students and interns as a secondary source of content. Volunteers or user uploads are widely viewed as unreliable sources of content.
Online community publishers cite comments and social network integration as the most effective ways to engage users.
Journalists are working with community members to create news sites. No more bloggers vs. old media. It’s all about partnerships and networks.
Most are struggling with sustainability and developing revenue sources that include advertising, memberships, syndication, grants and donations. Charging for access is rarely seen as an option.
We expect to post detailed survey results in late June. Find us at www.rjionline.org.
Michele McLellan, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, was a 2009-2010 fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. She writes the Leadership 3.0 blog for the Knight Digital Media Center.