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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