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PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine
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Like PressThink? More from the same pen:

Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

Listen to an audio interview with Jay Rosen conducted by journalist Christopher Lydon, October 2003. It's about the transformation of the journalism world by the Web.

Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

Presentation to the Berkman Center at Harvard University on open source journalism and NewAssignment.Net. Downloadable mp3, 70 minutes, with Q and A. Nov. 2006.

Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

Jay Rosen explains the Web's "ethic of the link" in this four-minute YouTube clip.

"The Web is people." Jay Rosen speaking on the origins of the World Wide Web. (2:38)

One hour video Q & A on why the press is "between business models" (June 2008)

Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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August 8, 2006

Liberation! Guest Writer Paul Bass on Creating the New Haven Independent

Bass was a reporter in New Haven for 25 years. He took a break to write a book and found he couldn't go back to corporate journalism. Inspired by Baristanet, he decided to start a news site in his own town. But with a mortage and two kids, he couldn't just wing it. Key decision: go non-profit.

Special to PressThink

Liberation! On Creating the New Haven Independent

by Paul Bass

I knew I wasn’t in an Old Media newsroom anymore when a reader e-mailed me the night of a U.S. senatorial debate. (Actually, I wasn’t even in a newsroom, period. I was working from a coffee shop with wireless access.) The reader had seen the story I filed after the debate (right before losing web access) at the hyperlocal news site that I edit. She thanked me for writing the story. “I know you were writing fast,” she added, so she noted some typos in the story. When I got back online later at the coffee shop and read her message, I was able to correct the story, before the majority of readers ever saw it.

Similarly, when our site covered New Haven’s reaction to the murder of a 13 year-old girl in a poor neighborhood, readers from all walks of life – from the girl’s relatives to cranks from outlying areas – posted their reactions and their prescriptions right onto the story. They responded to each other and developed a debate that took on its own life. Another reader sent in a link to a video he’d shot of a poignant moment in an anti-violence rally that we’d covered after the murder; the link went near the top of the story, enabling people to read, hear, and watch what happened.

When I posted a critique of the graphics in a politician’s campaign attack flyer, a reader calling himself “photo expert” added a description of just how an illustration on the flyer was doctored.

When neighbors were outraged over a developer’s revenge-chopping of a beloved tree, they ended up in a discussion on the site debating not just the merits of the case, but the right tenor that passionate civic dialogue should take.

And when some techno-types volunteered to build a mapping database of all local crimes for the site, sorted by neighborhood and date and category of violation, I didn’t understand how they did it. But I realized I had indeed entered an exciting new journalism universe.

“I’m an old school journalist.”

Every day, it seems, I’m learning what it means to be a “new media” journalist. What a blast—and what a sense of liberation—that brings.

I’m an old school journalist. After 25 years of covering New Haven for print publications, I took the plunge into the new media. If I could figure out how to do it, I told myself, then just about anyone could. Besides, like many reporters trapped in conventional corporate-owned newsrooms, I needed to break out.

After ten breathless months of publishing the five-times-a-week, two- to three-times a day online New Haven Independent (, I’ve concluded that, yes, most conventional journalists can make the leap into the future of community journalism. They’ll be excited to discover that they can return to the mission that brought them to the business in the first place, while finding new ways to work alongside readers to report the news and rebuild a civic dialogue.

If my experience is any guide, there are also pitfalls that point up the challenges that face the first wave of onliners as we develop the new journalism. I’ve found that some experiments that sound cool fall flat, while others take off. The readers have definitely become part of the process. Trained journalists still play a crucial but altered role. We’re more fact-gatherers, linkers, fact-checkers, conveners and referees than pundits or editorialists telling people what to think.

The newsroom’s lost mission

This web site you’re reading, Jay Rosen’s PressThink, helped steer me to the online journalistic highway. You see I was burned out on corporate journalism.

I’ve been a news and investigative reporter and editor in New Haven since 1980. The city’s journalistic landscape has suffered the same cataclysmic corporate changes that have rocked other American cities. Every place I worked—the daily paper, the local talk-radio station, even the alternative weekly—became outposts of national media chains. Every newsroom lost its fire, its mission, even much or most of its staff. When I started out, a major news story in New Haven might attract a half dozen print reporters, a half-dozen radio reporters, and a couple of TV reporters. The TV folks are still around. But you’re lucky to find more than one or two beat reporters.

The Journal-Register Co. bought both local dailies, shut one down, eviscerated the staff of the other. Chains like Clear Channel bought all the radio stations, and eliminated all but one newsroom, which hobbles along with occasional live news coverage; otherwise an out-of-state Clear Channel announcer reads wire copy taken from the daily, occasionally mispronouncing the mayor’s name. I watched the Tribune Co. gradually sap the spirit and creativity at the alt-weekly New Haven Advocate through bureaucracy, uncreative hires, and deadening lawsuit-protection management seminars that had even reporters talking to each other like robots.

So I took a year off to write a book. Toward the end of the break, I was trying to find some way to avoid returning to the corporate newsroom. I started discovering a new breed of local websites cropping up around the country. My favorite was Debbie Galant’s Baristanet. I was transfixed one day, when I should have been rewriting my manuscript, as details of a high school bomb scare trickled out on the site; passersby, then students, offered details, then a passionate debate about the direction of the town continued into the night.

Reviving real community reporting

I was hooked. I drove to Montclair, N.J., for baristanet’s first anniversary party and found my sense of intense engagement confirmed. (I also found the most bizarre health-food restaurant next door to the party, with pictures of Wendy O. Williams taped next to pots of veggie chili spooned out to street people huddled around a black and white TV. But that’s another story.)

Now I just needed a model. I discovered passionate discussion about the new journalism on Press Think and in Dan Gillmor’s writing. I discovered that while all the reporters in conventional newsrooms around the country seemed to feel hopeless about the craft, a sense of excitement and possibility animated the new onliners. I decided to jump in.

I didn’t want to publish a blog. I wanted to find a way to help resuscitate real community reporting, the coverage of neighborhoods and government meetings and criminal justice and public schools that could provide the raw materials for a rebuilt civic commons.

Plus, linking looked like a lot of fun. On a small budget, a couple of reporters could produce lots of news coverage through a combination of original reporting, massive linking to press releases and think-tank studies and articles in other media; the competitive model of media was dying. I’d had some experience running a small newspaper, and burning through a million dollars of other people’s money. These sites looked remarkably cheap to publish: no office or equipment needed beyond a computer and cell phone and camera.

In my mid-forties, with two kids and a mortgage, I couldn’t afford to dive in without a guaranteed living. I would launch a daily online New Haven news site only if I had guaranteed funding for at least the first year. So I read some more, called up venture capitalists and editors and publishers in the new field, and decided the for-profit model wouldn’t work. Too much time chasing too few ads that clutter up the site and require constant tending.

The non-profit solution

A comment on Press Think by Daniel Conover crystallized my thinking and gave me a plan.

“What if there were a way to treat public interest reporting more like a public service and less like a business?” Conover asked. “In the current model, newspapers consider their news infrastructure to be a business expense. Their real business is printing and distributing advertising. The capital costs are considerable: big physical plants, expensive presses, newsprint, ink, etc. More than 600 people work at my paper…. There are typically no more than about 30 reporters at any given time devoted to covering what would traditionally be considered ‘news.’ … If your product was actually news and nothing else, with no printing or distribution costs, how much revenue would you have to have to break even?

“Could you run something like that as a non- profit? Could you create a board or management structure that emphasizes quality standards and openness over return on investment?…We want fearless truthtelling, but for-profit media simply can’t provide it on a regular basis.

“Maybe we just need to start creating new structures to house those functions.”

Two hyperlocal web sites—Gotham Gazette and Voices of San Diego—were already working on a not-for-profit model-– and working with more money than the other web sites. I pursued a similar model: a not-for-profit built on three revenue streams, as with “All Things Considered.” One: grants from foundations to support specific kinds of reporting. Two: general sponsorships from charitable groups. Three: Voluntary donations from readers who give permission for us to deduct $10 or $18 monthly from their credit cards. The Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut put up the first $50,000 and I was off; two other foundations provided grants, and some not-for-profits interested in community-building signed two-year contracts for sponsorships.

News for the news-starved

From the start, I found the pace of publishing exhausting but also exhilarating. News got on the site fast, sometimes within minutes of an event. Readers responded and felt they owned the site. Soon I was able to steal a beat reporter from a daily in Middletown to work full-time for us. I had a webmaster, a freelancer, and a public-school diarist on retainer, along with a state Capitol correspondent. I learned that people responded most to two kinds of fare: a continual stream of straight-ahead news, rather than “attitude” or “edgy” reporting, because local communities have become so news starved; and the inside-the-classroom observations of a young teacher who wrestled with violence in the classroom, low expectations, gang culture and difficult family problems students brought with them to school.

In one sense, we were merely reviving the job that local media used to perform before quarterly-return-obsessed public corporations destroyed them. We made a difference in conventional ways. An expose of exploitation of immigrant construction workers led to them receiving wages they’d been denied. A campaign to call attention () to the roots of youth violence led to a citywide youth policy and new money for summer jobs and rec programs.

The interactive solution

Other articles helped lead to New Haven becoming the first city in the state to experiment with publicly financed municipal elections; to the retirement of a top city official and rewriting of rules that allowed him to evade ethics rules; a switch in city policy toward policing immigrants; a statewide change in how banks calculate interest on short-term trusts, increasing by millions the amount of dollars sent to legal-aid programs. In each case, straight-ahead, sustained reporting, coupled with follow-ups and community conversation and holding officials accountable, produced the change. We showed up. Too often, the mainstream media had stopped showing up or following up.

But increasingly, it was the new-media interactions that seemed to give the site its oomph, and its relevance to readers – interactions and new approaches like the crime map and other examples cited at the top of the story. The bottom right of our health care section homepage includes an activist toolbox, to which some of the stories link, for people who want to learn more about or get involved in issues on which we report. When I realized I couldn’t afford a proofreader, I invited readers to catch typos and e-mail them in. I posted monthly (or so) standings; the winner gets an Independent mug (and a photo on the homepage). The idea has caught on, kept the site cleaner, and engendered a spirit of competition and engagement, especially in the late innings of each round.

As reporters trained in print, we have had to adjust to telling stories differently. Longer stories don’t seem to work well on the web; shorter pieces that link to others work better. Also, some stories seem to be told better as slide shows of sorts, as a series of extended captions with photos. In other cases, audio is the story.

People are busy!

Not all experiments have worked. Rather than rely on staff critics, we have invited readers to submit their own reviews. We have gotten only a half dozen or so good responses. We set up a computer at a couple of gallery openings; one produced a thoughtful and diverse mix of reactions, but others simply featured careful comments from friends of the artists. By mass e-mail, we invited subscribers to Yale classical music concerts the opportunity to post reviews; only one did. The site has a standing form for people to submit reviews; we got a great one about a Echo & The Bunnymen concert, and a theater review to which a couple of dozen readers voted for how many stars to include in the rating, but that has been about it.

On the one hand, I think citizen journalism often sounds more appealing in theory than in practice for readers. Everyone would love to be an investigative journalist or a critic. But they’re busy, or they lack the skills, or in the end they’d just rather learn from a more experienced, trained professional. But that’s not the whole story; there’s lots of talent in a city like New Haven. We’re going to keep trying to find the right veins to tap into.

Similarly, we have failed to convince readers in any significant numbers to submit photos from events in their neighborhoods. Reader photos fill sites like Westport Now. A researcher from J-Lab suggested the problem may be that we have too professional a look, but so does Westport Now. I think we have failed to find the right formula for engaging readers in these aspects of the site, and need to improve.

We also need to find a long-term sustainable strategy for operating on a small budget. We recently received enough money from foundations and charitable donors to guarantee we can continue for at least another full year at our current level. The work is both exciting and exhausting; I don’t believe one or two or three people can handle all the reporting, editing, comment-posting, e-mailing, fund-raising, bookkeeping, marketing, and community outreach involved in producing a quality daily news site. But trying to raise enough money to substantially increase the budget (like doubling it) would require a major investment of time, which might be unrealistic with our current staffing; I’m also wondering whether this model works best small. Any suggestions?

“I have no idea where it’s headed.”

Most immediately, I could use help from someone interested in developing the not-for-profit organization we’ve set up both to publish the Independent site and help other professional journalists develop news sites in other communities. (E-mail me.) I’d also love to hear feedback about what people think works and doesn’t work on the site.

It’s been two years since I left corporate journalism for good, 11 months since I plunged into several-times-a-day web journalism. It’s been a heady ride; it feels like I’ve joined an experiment that, like the birth of the alternative press in the 1970s and the explosion of talk radio in the 1990s, has the potential to redefine American journalism.

I have no idea where it’s headed, or where I’m eventually headed. What I’ve learned so far is that, from business models to journalistic models, the search for the right formula – for-profit versus not-for-profit, stand-alone versus staff-produced, citizen input versus professional guidance, audio versus video versus text – remains in its infancy. To paraphrase Mao, we’re letting 1,000 versions bloom.

I think it will take years for the strongest models to emerge and for the lagging corporate media to co-opt them. My hunch is by then we front-liners will have burned out, ready for the next wave of experimentation. Print, anyone?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Paul Bass has covered New Haven and Connecticut since 1980 for local, regional and national publications. Thousands of his articles are collected in an archive at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library; he is the co-author, with Douglas W. Rae, of Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and The Redemption of a Killer (Basic), a new book re-examining a 1969 murder and trial.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 8, 2006 9:00 AM   Print


Fascinating. I would like to hear more about your revenue stream, if you don't mind telling.

Posted by: David Crisp at August 8, 2006 11:14 AM | Permalink

Hi, Paul!

One of the great things about the web is that it offers legions of veteran journalists and journalism students just starting out the opportunity to be entrepreneurs -- not neccessarily in a get-rich way, but certainly in a be-your-own-boss way.

I'm doing a project and have been collecting examples of "placeblogs" and I notice that Connecticut has more than the expected number, and quite a few really interesting placeblog experiments, including yours, WestportNow, and CTNewzjunky.

As far as the reader/participant thing goes, I gave a presentation yesterday where I did a thought experiment about placeblogs and participation. I applied Jimmy Wales' research on Wikipedia that revealed the astonishing fact that 50% of the edits on Wikipedia are done by .07 of the users (!!).

So, there's three factors: potential audience, how many people in the potential audience you're reaching, and how many, realistically, are going to be motivated to participate. When I do the math, I see that most sites are simply not going to be a "magical self-assembling newspaper" simply because the original pool of potential audience is too small to yield enough participants to fill a site with posts day after day, much less form a self-regulating community that will work to fill in gaps and make a cohesive end-product out of a day's or a week's work on the site.

In the case of New Haven, I'd do the math like this:

Population of New Haven: 124,000
Let's say penetration is 7%, which would be 8,680 readers;
Using Wales' Law that gives a pool of contributors of only 62.

To web triumphalists and venture capitalists, this might be an "oh-no!" moment; but to people who want to start placeblogs, it means that placeblogging is a job, a job that can't be outsourced to a crowd. It has what businesspeople would call "barriers to entry." And that's a good thing: if you make a product that people want but aren't willing to create for free then you have a business with commercial value.

We should ask Debbie Galant of Baristanet how she gets so many comments: my guess is that the secret ingredient is humor, maybe dosed with a bit of politics to get things moving.

I note that you're offering help specifically to journalists who want to start placeblogs. Do you see it as kind of a liferaft off the sinking newsroom? The vast majority of your new peers in placeblogging are not members of the journalistic profession; I'd encourage you to look at Buffalo Rising and Fresno Famous for particularly good examples. The thing that these people have to offer is the expertise to turn the blog platform into a turbocharged community platform, which is something we really need.

We know something about software; you're not afraid to cold call. Let's get together and Fight the Bland! Journalism is becoming a high-tech profession, and ultimately will be a mix of software-people and journalist-people; the next generation will be journalists who can set up a database and know a few scripting languages.

J-schools, too, should put some money into developing software and start technology-transfer programs. Such programs are a huge source of revenue to university science departments. Why isn't Columbia or NYU developing the distributed newsgathering platform of the future -- and collecting licensing fees for its commercial use?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 8, 2006 12:29 PM | Permalink

Hi folks. Nice to hear from you LIsa! I think your idea sounds neat...

David: Of an approximately $120,000 annual budget, around 75 percent is coming from foundation grants for specific kinds of reporting; 23 percent from ongoing general sponsorships from local institutions; and 2 percent from voluntary contributions. To be successful over the long term, I believe, sites like mine need to build that third category in a big way.

Posted by: Paul Bass at August 8, 2006 4:05 PM | Permalink

Paul, I'm intrigued by your (non)business model. You may be making more money, by not making money, than we are.

Meanwhile, you should know, the health food store you saw the night over the party closed down. Rising rents and gentrification...

Posted by: Debbie Galant at August 8, 2006 8:11 PM | Permalink

Hey Paul, Hey Jay...

Yeah, the non-profit is a good model to explore. I too am a former newspaper editor who two-and-a-half years ago founded a little journalism non-profit -Visual

For many of the same reasons you mention - running a non-profit is a great alternative. 'VizEds' connects journalism scholars and practicioners working in newsrooms around the globe with a peer-to-peer learning experince. As a certified 501(c)(3) we are classified as an educational charity by the IRS - I am curious what classification is advised for a news operation? What did you file as? There are at least a few ways to go.

Our fundraising is now centered on building an endowment fund that will spin off enough money every year to keep the non-profit and Web site operating in perpetuity. For now it has been user-supported and we have a few, small -dollar sponsors.

What approaches and resources are there for companies like ours? I have noticed that venture capitalists are starting to fund social entrepreneurs and content creators but I don't know if what we do either makes sense to them or fits our common advert-lean focus. Without stock to sell we're probably not too interesting to them despite the daily connection we have with our niche audiences.

Robb Montgomery
Executive director
Visual Editors (not-for-profit)

Posted by: robb Montgomery - CEO at August 8, 2006 11:15 PM | Permalink

No ad revenues?

Posted by: David Crisp at August 8, 2006 11:35 PM | Permalink

We don't take ads.

Posted by: paul bass at August 9, 2006 12:01 AM | Permalink

So, Debbie: I want to know -- is there something in the water in Montclair/Bloomfield/Glen Ridge that make people unusually active blog commenters?

What do you think you did early on that got people going, commentwise?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 9, 2006 12:21 AM | Permalink

Also, Paul: where did you learn to write grant applications?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 9, 2006 12:21 AM | Permalink

It is wonderful that you took the step to open up your sights to new and free mediums of expression.

I do believe that this is one of the root benefits of the internet and indeed blogs like this one. Unsensored news content straight from the source can be had at very little cost and spread to anybody that is remotely interested.

I salute your new found freedom and hope that you will strive to keep this new form of media free from bias and true to its cause.


Posted by: Ryan Parker at August 9, 2006 5:21 AM | Permalink

Lisa -- Didn't learn how. Just did it. I'm not particularly good at it. One thing I learned: Speak to the people at the foundations before writing the applications, to see what'll fly. Then continue to get their guidance.

Sorta like being a reporter!

Posted by: Paul Bass at August 9, 2006 12:08 PM | Permalink

This is fascinating and inspiring. I've considered the nonprofit model for Coastsider, but it makes me nervous. Also, I don't think I've let go of the dream that it could be a going business in not-too-distant future.

I'm leery of the nonprofit model, mainly because the last thing I want is a board of directors. In my experience nonprofit boards bring can be a real challenge to deal with. How do you manage that relationship?

It sounds like you're taking a salary from the nonprofit. Can you talk a little about who gets paid and how?

Posted by: Barry Parr at August 9, 2006 3:10 PM | Permalink


Could a hyperlocal community site/vertical portal hybrid work?

There are numerous vertical portals on the Internet that aggregate information from data feeds through expensive contractual agreements with organizations like Orbitz, Topix, Wcities,, etc. Some examples of these portals are:,,,,,, and

Since there are so many portals out there, it is hard for them to differentiate themselves from each other since they basically have the same data and content from a handful of providers. With so much duplication, many do not do well on search engines, and so even a sentence or two of generic and stale content -- although original to the portal -- can make a big difference in how a portal performs in the search engines. While it is easy for a company to create a generic website for every zip code in the country along with a dated database of points of interests, it is extremely hard and costly to develop original and unique content for every location.

Companies who own these portals typically rely on expensive search engine marketing (SEM) pay per click (PPC) campaigns through advertising networks like Google's AdWords and the Yahoo!'s Overture, but they would much rather do well on organic search engine performance through search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. However, it takes time and costs money to produce content to make SEO tactics successful.

Every company on-line should aim for great organic (non-sponsored) search engine listings for several reasons. Here are two. First, organic listings achieved via SEO do not cost any money when a web surfer clicks on the link. Second, people tend to pay more attention and trust organic listings over PPC ads from SEM campaigns. Thus, portal companies crave original content for SEO purposes but can't readily pursue such goals.

Here's where hyperlocal citizen journalism sites could come into play. An editor/publisher like you, Paul, could approach a vertical portal company and offer their services as an original content provider for a certain locality or region. In return, the portal could give the publisher a cut of what it makes from the web traffic that it drives to its clients like Orbitz. It gets vibrant and fresh content about a certain location, and the publisher gets a home on-line along with services connected with their content that readers want. For instance, someone who reads a story about a new park in town could use the portal's phone directory service to find a nearby restaurant to visit when they check the park out. They could also see what the weather forecast is for the place and time of the visit…

It is a win-win situation. Granted, the portal relinquishes editorial control to the publisher while the publisher may not have a significant say in the site's design, but both sides benefit.

What do you think?

Is anyone out their interested in starting a company that teams up vertical portals and hyperlocal vertical portals with me? Did I catch any venture capitalists attention?

Steve Petersen

Posted by: Steve at August 9, 2006 10:02 PM | Permalink

I find your idea inteeresting. Here's my reaction.

Your idea about the search-engine side of it sounds intriguing. It's way beyond my area of expertise to say whether it would work in a competitive marketplace. It sure sounds good!

From the hyperlocal news end -- Yes, I believe conceptually that hyperlocal sites should be contributing to such efforts, for two reasons: One: That kind of local information is part of our mission. Two: Your proposed project would make use of the INternet to deliver information in a way that other traditional media can't, and that's an important part of they hyperlocal Internet mission, doing things that newspapers and TV and radio can't.

I think the question then becomes how our end fits into your business model.

One idea could be, as you pointed out, having a for-profit company contracting with each of our sites to provide the info. That could work on our end as long as we have the resources. This is labor intensive. We'd have to receive enough money to pay someone to provide the info, plus a little more to oversee that person's work to make sure it's consistent and thorough. Our sites would benefit, too, from giving our readers access to your info not just about our own cities, but everywhere else you're set up. You would benefit, I believe, not just from getting our data, but parking on our sites.

A larger question on our end is how the emerging roster of hyperlocal sites will interact with each other, journalistically (sharing stories, collaborating on larger projects) and economically (how to achieve economies of scale together and how to present enough of a critical mass of visitors to be of value to national services like yours or perhaps at some point national advertisers). I believe that the traditional model of chain ownership, of vertical decision-making, would be a flop. These sites need to be independent, need to reflect the quirks and local knowledge and decision-making of their writers and editors. Otherwise they'll wither. On the other hand, some kind of association among the sites that preserves autonomy would be in everyone's interest, in order to help each of us operate more efficiently and to participate in projects like yours -- and in the case of us not-for-profit folks, to seek grants as a group from larger charitable givers to, for instance, cover local government or environemtnal issues in a host of individual cities on the Internet sites. (The last part is part of the raison d'etre behind the Online Journalism Project, the not-for-profit we formed in conjunction with the Independent.)

Let's talk.

Posted by: Paul Bass at August 10, 2006 10:33 AM | Permalink

This part, "...some kind of association among the sites that preserves autonomy would be in everyone's interest, in order to help each of us operate more efficiently and to participate in project..." is something Dan Gillmor, Lisa Williams and I are planning to do something about. We should have an announcement ready soon.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 10, 2006 11:51 AM | Permalink


You point out some valid concerns, but all business ideas aren't perfect. I do think that autonomy should remain safe unless vertical portals enter the hyperlocal news industry by initiating such agreements throughout much of their networks. I doubt this would prove practical to them. However, they would have a standardized policy in dealing with hyperlocal content providers, and the providers would have to agree to conform to a certain site template.

I am also interested in discussing this further.

Jay, I look forward to the forthcoming announcement.


By the way, I do not own a vertical portal company, but I work for one as a grunt (whom is treated well).

Posted by: Steve at August 10, 2006 1:30 PM | Permalink

Give us a month, Steve.

I agree with Paul that "traditional model of chain ownership, of vertical decision-making" would fail. There is a profound difference between a New Haven news site written and edited by people who live in New Haven, and one that's "about" New Haven but part of a chain headquartered in Roslyn, VA.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 10, 2006 2:50 PM | Permalink


I agree that "[t]here is a profound difference between a New Haven news site written and edited by people who live in New Haven, and one that's about New Haven but part of a chain headquartered in Roslyn, VA." However, I am not suggesting that portal companies own the news site; a partnership would suffice. Editorial control should remain with the publisher and not the portal. Both sides have to give some, but the portal gets great SEO content and the publisher gets some funding.


Posted by: Steve at August 10, 2006 2:55 PM | Permalink

There have been a bunch of plays that have attempted to aggregate content from bloggers in general and put advertising against it, some with the bloggers consent, others simply by scraping or using the RSS feed.

I don't know enough about SEO and online ad networks work to know exactly how this would push revenue/traffic to the hyperlocal sites, and I think the issue of getting people to change templates is a total nonstarter.

What you're suggesting, however, is pretty different from the generalized user-generated-content newsportals like Backfence, NowPublic, or WikiNews, each of which operate a little differently but all of which have what I call "the rattle bag problem." That is, sites that rely strictly on UGC have a kind of rummage-bin feel; the kind of cohesion and comprehensiveness you get out of, say, a newspaper, isn't there, and that's a real problem, and today, one that can only be rectified by using human beings to edit sites and ensure that the end result doesn't have gaping holes. And of course people are expensive and venture capitalists like plays that don't involve those unscaleable human being types. (Wink wink).

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 10, 2006 5:20 PM | Permalink

One thing: I'm a little disappointed at the lack of comments on this post, which I think is excellent. It often seems to me that journalists are interested in citizen journalism in the abstract, but not in the specific. Can that really be true? If true, how are they going to learn about it without really getting their hands on individual examples?

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 10, 2006 5:24 PM | Permalink

OK, last one: I *loved, loved, loved* that you and Debbie Galant teamed up for the Lamont/Lieberman election night coverage. The end product was great and it's wonderful to see such a collaboration.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 10, 2006 5:25 PM | Permalink

Off topic: Steve Lovelady just quit CJR Daily.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 10, 2006 8:12 PM | Permalink

On topic: Lisa, I too am a little disappointed with the comment traffic. Also that Romenesko didn't bite. Don't have an explanation for it.

Did you see that LA Observed, arguably the first successful one of these sites, went to multiple sections, multiple authors? Kevin Roderick knows what he's doing.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 10, 2006 10:14 PM | Permalink

Well, there's a much, much more interesting media story going on.

Which is particularly entertaining given AP VP Kathleen Carroll's recent assertion that there's no way those Qana photos were staged.


The media is melting down, and PressThink is pouring sugar in a teacup.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at August 10, 2006 10:36 PM | Permalink

Watercress sandwich, Jason? They're divine.

Lisa: Didn't Jason Calacanis say at the recent un-conference that these sites are not going to be a big business? What was his reasoning?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 10, 2006 11:08 PM | Permalink

He did: he said that you could make a living at it, but that they wouldn't be huge. My understanding of what he was saying is that online advertising networks mesh very poorly with local sites. I have Adsense ads on H2otown, but looking at what Adsense serves up, I have no idea why anyone would ever click on them.

(Yet they do.)

Local blogs aren't keyword-friendly the way, say, a gadget blog like Gizmodo is. But the reason for that is not the almighty will of the market but technology. Today, there's no widely adopted standard for geolocation (read: writing a blog or post within a blog and saying, This Happened In Tuscaloosa in a way that's machine readable and therefore searchable). It's not that online advertising meshes poorly with local sites, it's that the entire Web meshes poorly with actual physical points on the planet.

Once there is a widely adopted geolocation standard, you can bet your booty that local advertising is going to go through the roof.

And that's cool: but what's cooler is that it means that we're headed towards an annotated world. In my lifetime, I'll be able to look at a hill and know instantly that a Revolutionary War battle was fought there, that two building permits were taken out for the building that stands there now, and that Kevin thinks the residents of the buildings are dorks (yes there will be virtual graffiti, and geolocation spam, too).

Placeblogging is only the beginning.

[One of the things I hope to do with this project is to advocate for standards and tools that take the trike that placebloggers have been valiantly scaling a mountain with and replace it with a Batmobile of their very own.]

Posted by: Lisa Williams at August 11, 2006 12:07 AM | Permalink

Thanks Lisa and Jay for pondering my idea. I would like to assert that I feel that the publisher must maintain editorial control. This should prevent a hyperlocal site from turning into a Newsvine or WikiNews. If the publisher makes sure that the content on for the site is about the particular area, then it should help out with SEO and community building. I would not want to turn a hyerlocal site into a RSS feed or syndication zone. That defeats the whole purpose of generating vibrant local content.

Posted by: Steve at August 11, 2006 1:00 AM | Permalink

I like this discussion - let's keep it alive.

What we learned in Moscow at the World Editors Forum in June was that the average big media site attracts a lot of hits and traffic but that the sites are not too sticky.

People land via a search engine, find what they were looking for and take off immediately. That and publishers were told that they were sitting on a gold mine - gold they could harvest once they learned how to monetize searchs for the vast microformatted information contained in thier own databases.

One of the questions I am asked frequently by newspaper editors (usually after giving a 'Web 2.0 for Newspapers?" type presentation) is "What should we do to make our site better?"

My answer is simply this - your site should place the user in the middle of your town square and make them feel like they belong.

What I mean is this. If you land on my local Chicago site at 6:30 p.m. you should be able to know what is happening AT THAT MOMENT around town.

Did the City Council or MY school district board meeting just begin? AJAX update the page and give me a link to the live video feed - whether you are serving that video or not.

Are the White Sox playing right now? Quietly signal the live score and inning number somewhere small on the page and let me click for more.

Provide a great service that anticipates and plugs me into the now and what's next news of my community. That is a site that you would have to drag me away from. (Serve up a great experience and you turn an ordinary hard drive and some MP3 files into someting else - an iPod.)

These ideas are scaleable - up and down. I don't know any news op that is doing it (or doing it well at the local level) and what a great experience it will be when your community site plugs you deeply into the here and now context of your village. It is very possible given today's scripting techniques and database API's. What is key on the edit side is to expand your nodes - your network of story contributors.

Whether you are hyperlocal news site like the Beachwood Reporter or a global vertical niche community like Visual Editors - this type of thinking creates a stream of new opportunites for making your site as addictivie as a possible in as many ways as possible.

One final thought and that is The Guardian of London. Owned and operated by a private trust last year they completely reinvented their newspaper, company culture and Web site. And they are a smashing success in all they produce now, in part, becasue they have no shareholders to appease.

They were willing to change everything about their company except their core values and they did - they changed EVERYTHING. A great example.

Posted by: Robb Montgomery - CEO at August 11, 2006 3:01 AM | Permalink

Barry -- I get paid full time. So does a staff reporter. Another reporter is on retainer. There are some freelancers. And a webmaster gets a retainer.

Best of luck.

Posted by: paul bass at August 11, 2006 10:25 AM | Permalink

One more question, if you don't mind and if you are still checking this comment thread. Why no ads? Does it have to do with the nature of your nonprofit? Was it to avoid advertiser influence on content? Or something else?

I'm intensely interested in this because we considered taking our venture nonprofit and decided against it for various reasons. Now I'm wondering:

1. Whether we screwed up by not going nonprofit.

2. Whether you screwed up by doing it. Or,

3. Whether our ventures are different enough that we both did the right thing.

Posted by: David Crisp at August 11, 2006 12:52 PM | Permalink

Here's some interesting related news to my hyperlocal news site/vertical portal hybrid idea:

MediaNews Group Taps WebVisible for Local SEM

Posted by: Steve at August 11, 2006 2:18 PM | Permalink

David-- I definitely don't think either of us screwed up! I believe there's no one right answer about not-for-profit, versus for-profit, but that each local situation is different.

I thought ads would clutter the site; take too much time for a small staff to gather, renew, collect money for; and provide too little return for so much work, compared to larger-item grants and sponsorships which get renewed annually. (I actually signed sponsors to two-year contracts.)

Posted by: paul bass at August 11, 2006 4:44 PM | Permalink

P.S. I did also believe the mission would be less compromised that way. (I actually don't feel compromised at all.) I am excited about the notion of not-for-profit journalism I first saw articulated on PressThink.

Posted by: paul bass at August 11, 2006 4:45 PM | Permalink

The national ad market is right so focused on pay-per-action that it simply won't scale down well to ultralocal sites. For that reason, I'm highly skeptical of any ad network making our lives easier.

To succeed with advertising we need to get advertisers in our communities to pay something like $10 to $20 per thousand deliveries purely to get their name in front of the community. This is brand advertising ... at a premium price.

Posted by: Barry Parr at August 11, 2006 5:20 PM | Permalink

Great story/thread. Some misc. thoughts:

1) Ads - I agree with Parr that the local money is what we should be going after. Problem is, I think you need someone fulltime (a sales professional) out in the community 40 hours a week building relationships. A salesperson is going to probably be one of the first people I hire when I get to that point. (for other reasons too, like the ed/ad wall that's missing in some of these small sites, mine included.

2) Print - I really think that short-term print is going to have to be part of the mix. Problem is, you need some kind of capital to get that ball rolling - I've been quoted under $1000 for 10,000 copies of an 8 page tab, but even that is a difficult hurdle. I look at it as advertising/marketing too, though, so I think it will be worth it.

3) Cooperation - Something I've been looking at closely the last couple of months is starting up similar ventures in nearby counties. The model? Offer to set-up a site, pay for the domain, hosting, etc. In exchange, the person running the site would sign an agreement giving me rights to reproduce the content (print or web) + a small slice (5%?) of ad revenues after the first or second year. Being a geek, the cost for me would be really low to do this. I really thinking creating small networks in regional areas will work well. Any other thoughts on this?

4) Money - Couple things here. First, I'm beginning to realize that unlike BackFence and some of the other 'corporate model' structures, I'm going to have to raise my own money. (And this is going on in the background, with a few side projects I've picked up.) Second, once me or someone else does have money coming in, I'd love to see some sort of foundation set-up to give seed money to people in other parts of the country (world?) to start-up similar ventures.

There are a lot more thoughts going through my head, but I'll stop here. I'll tell you this, though - it's been a great first year for my own little venture. I'm not making enough money to do it full time yet, but I'm getting closer. Even with the local media (read: Gannett) refusing to do their jobs as journalists and do a story on me, traffic *continues* to grow month after month. Ten to twenty percent per month. All word of mouth - the best kind of marketing there is. I really think there's some point where I'll achieve a critical mass and things will really take off.

Until then, I'm slowly crawling day to day, reaching out to all sorts of people in the area - helping them tell their own stories and get their stories out.

We all have a long way to go, but we're still around (again, even with so few of us getting big pots of gold, aka - and on a side note, they really need to stop with all that 'web only' and 'we don't supply content' crap. not gonna work. and it's showing. how much longer til their money's gone? and what then?)

You need boots on the ground. You need to start developing relationships with people in your communities.

I'm doing this. By the time Gannett and others get off their high horse and remember what journalism is about (protecting the People, not just the shareholders), I'm hoping to be so well entrenched that there's nothing they'll be able to do to stop the media revolution.


Posted by: kpaul mallasch at August 13, 2006 3:46 PM | Permalink

Lots of folks at the Media Giraffe conference thought that print editions were (part of) the answer to the revenue problem for citizen journalism sites.

I wouldn't do it at a loss, and would make sure I had enough revenue lined up in advance to pay for the darn thing.

The real challenge for citizen journalists is that print requires a whole new level of professionalism: cash flow, firm deadlines, layout, real copy editing, distribution. I don't doubt that some of us can grow to meet that challenge, but it's a very high barrier.

Posted by: Barry Parr at August 14, 2006 12:11 PM | Permalink

From the Intro