Block by Block 2011: Veteran journalists are succeeding with independent, online community news sites
A wonderful thing about the Block by Block Summit 2011 was seeing that many of the nation’s most successful independent, online, community publishers are veteran journalists in their 40s, 50s and 60s—my cohort, broadly. Go, team! More important, these are the journalists whose jobs have been most vulnerable in the legacy-media crisis of the past 10 years.
These journalists watched their newspapers close, or took buyouts during staffing cutbacks, or got laid off, and found themselves adrift. They had honed their reporting and writing skills over decades, built broad, deep source lists, developed mature judgment and possessed a still-burning desire to tell stories and reveal truths. But the institutions that had employed them since the 1970s and ’80s were shrinking. The business models that had supported those institutions no longer worked, and because of the disruption wrought by the Internet, they seemed unlikely to return to robustness.
These veterans wanted and needed to keep working. And they were deeply perturbed that changes in legacy media—news organizations that existed before the birth of the Internet—left many communities without the kind of news coverage that informed citizens need in a democracy.
And so the hyperlocal movement was born.
Now, a few years into their online ventures, after endless months of 24/7 dedication to building their sites journalistically and financially, they are making enough money to cover their personal expenses (mortgage or rent, health insurance, food, car, etc.) and even to pay themselves a small salary. They have embraced the fact that they are running businesses; that’s why they went to Block by Block, to figure out the next steps toward greater profitability. And they’re eager to share their knowledge, as Howard Owens of The Batavian, which covers the countryside between Rochester, N.Y., and Buffalo, wrote in a post on his personal blog titled “How to launch your own local news site in 10 (not so easy) steps.”
“Hyperlocal” is a fuzzy term. Its primary meaning seems to be news coverage that focuses on a neighborhood that would have been part of the area served by a traditional newspaper or local television station. But some of these sites cover entire cities or regions. Can a website covering Birmingham, Ala., or the state of Wyoming be called “hyperlocal” in the same way as a site covering Riverhead, Long Island? “Community” is a better, more flexible word, but “hyperlocal” has become a widely accepted shorthand. Following a widespread practice, I’ll use these terms interchangeably. (Michele McLellan, the founder of Block by Block, created a thoughtful classification for community/hyperlocal sites.) Also worth noting: Many of the summit participants run for-profit sites, but many others have nonprofits. Financial sustainability is important for both kinds.
Now, I got my start in community journalism. I wrote my first newspaper article for The Village Times, now The Village Times-Herald, in Setauket, N.Y., the summer before I finished college. My first full-time job, at $110 per week, was at Suffolk Life Newspapers, a now-defunct Long Island company that produced 20-plus zoned editions of a free, weekly shopper. It was a shopper with a difference, with a staff of four full-time reporters, a full-time editor and a full-time newsroom assistant and ambitions to provide full coverage of dozens of eastern Suffolk County communities. After three years there, I spent nine months at the Long Island Business Newsweekly. And I wrote a journal article in grad school on the pressures weekly newspaper publishers face from major local advertisers.
But none of that was cool in the 1970s and ’80s. Daily newspaper editors disdained weekly newspaper experience. My chief motivation for attending graduate school in journalism was to jump from the weeklies’ low orbit. It worked. Less than 18 months after receiving my master’s, I was working at New York Newsday. My early jobs in community journalism fell off my resume.
Today, it’s a different story. The publishers at Block by Block were the cool kids. I felt my early career history and my lasting love for quality community journalism validated by confident, authoritative, magnetic speakers such as Lisa Williams, founder of H2Otown.com in Watertown, Mass., and of placeblogger.com; Amy Gahran of OaklandLocal.com; and Ben Ilfeld of Sacramento Press. What they share, along with all the Block by Block participants, are a fierce commitment to journalism and a sense of the increasingly important role local, online news sites play in the evolving news ecosystem. (I previewed the summit, with a focus on Denise Civiletti of RiverheadLocal.com, for Poynter.org.; Josh Stearns of Free Press, who did not attend, puts the summit in context nicely on his personal blog.)
Are you following a site in your community? How does its coverage compare to legacy or other online media? What has it brought to your town or region in terms of public accountability or community engagement?