Jan 20, 2010

So your hyperlocal news website put you in the poorhouse. Now what?

The experiment began three years ago. Someone put thought to action and blogged about the neighborhood. It was a strange new hobby, one fueled by the pursuit of journalistic artistry and civic duty.

One year into it, someone else mentioned the idea of capitalizing on the work. “You’re on to something, so why not make money at it,” that someone said. Thus, years two and three of the experiment were spent in pursuit of profit, or at least solvency.

But by the third year, this experiment in hyperlocal news was a bust. The blogger was burned out, shit broke and calling it quits. Sure, readers loved the publication and what it did for the community, but the business model just wasn’t working. Thus, the plug was pulled.

The experiment was called The Silver Spring Penguin, an entrepreneurial hyperlocal news site serving downtown Silver Spring, Md. It was performed concurrently (though with less injury to the bank account) in Arlington, Va., with Steve Thurston‘s publication, The Buckingham HeraldTrib.

Neither Thurston nor I had intentions of getting into the business of hyperlocal news. Still, there we were, praying The Washington Post or another large media company would buy us out, or that the economy would turn and drive advertisers our way. Neither scenario happened. Moreover, Thurston and I were exhausted. Both publications folded in January.

But the demise of these hyperlocal news sites does not mean the end of hyperlocal news. The reporting and community interaction these publications employed worked well, but the business models — profit through either acquiescence or an unrealistic economic shift — were complete crap.

The fundamental problem was this: The publications addressed the need for quality reporting on a neighborhood level, something the regional publications overlooked. But in placing all entrepreneurial energy into building a reliable news source, we didn’t consider building a sustainable news source. D’oh!

So what’s the independent entrepreneurial journalist supposed to do now?

A few hyperlocal business models are out there, most spawned by larger media companies looking to tap into local advertisers. Another model emphasizes soft news content or aggregation to attract advertisers wary of hot-button topics and the inflammatory readers’ comments that come with them.

My goal as a newly unemployed entrepreneurial journalist is to explore these models and other possibilities for creating sustainable hyperlocal news. But this blog will also examine editorial practices and access to information that affect independent reporters.

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paul Lowry.

Correction: The post originally indicated that HeraldTrib editor Steve Thurston was “shit broke.” Subsequent to publication, Thurston commented that he was not shit broke and was “doing fine” (lucky bastard). Therefore, the post was tweaked to indicate that I alone am shit broke. — JD (Jan 24, 2010)

Comments (12)

  1. Jan 20, 2010
    brh said...

    Nice little write-up… & glad to see the little fellow in the upper right is still kickin! I know I’ve already said as much, but best of luck with everything!

  2. Jan 20, 2010
    Lisatella said...

    Glad to see you writing, in whatever way or shape it appears.

  3. Jan 20, 2010
    Punk Walrus said...

    I’m rootin’ for ya!

  4. Jan 20, 2010
    Laryssa said...

    It’s interesting to me how the blogging started out as a hobby for you and that everyone kind of fell apart when the possibility of making money came into the picture. Sometimes I kind of long for the early days of Too Shy to Stop, when the site looked like crap, and I was just blogging for myself and for entertainment purposes. The moment I tried to make something of it was the moment that I put a lot of pressure on myself too. Though I’m still trying to figure out that business model, I have to constantly remind myself why I do this shit in the first place – for the love of it. I look forward to more posts!

    Editor’s note: Avarice is the root of all evil, but at least it pays the rent! — JD (Jan 21, 2010)

  5. Jan 20, 2010
    Dan Hugo said...

    Trying hyperlocal media in my city (Sunnyvale, CA), starting with podcast interviews and moving to real radio (part 15 low-power AM and internet simulcast). Your tale gives me pause, to say the least. Will be reading with great interest…

  6. Jan 21, 2010
    Jennifer Deseo said...

    Thanks for your comment, Dan. I don’t mean to dissuade readers from entering hyperlocal reporting, but I do want them to realize that sustainability is a big issue, even for non-profit or volunteer organizations.

    My time as Penguin editor was very fulfilling, but it didn’t put food on the table. It wasn’t set up for sustainability. But I’ll be ready for my next hyperlocal venture, whatever that will be.

    Best of luck with your podcast! Please keep me posted on how that works out.

  7. Jan 22, 2010
    Bruce Ritchie said...

    Good luck. I found your posting through http://newsinnovation.com/schedule/ . I hope the answers that you and others find will be shared. I find it difficult to stop being a journalist to be an entrepreneur. Everyone can say it’s necessary, but a journalist isn’t trained to STOP reporting and writing.

  8. Jan 22, 2010
    Jennifer Deseo said...

    Thanks for finding my blog, Bruce. You wrote:

    “I find it difficult to stop being a journalist to be an entrepreneur. Everyone can say it’s necessary, but a journalist isn’t trained to STOP reporting and writing.”

    I was in the same boat. It’s why my publication succeeded as a news source and failed miserably as a business. If there’s a happy medium between journalist and entrepreneur, I’ve yet to find it. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe it does.

    It’s also possible that a viable business model requires two people: one to be a journalist, the other to be the publisher (the entrepreneur). This blog will explore that option, too.

  9. Jan 24, 2010
    Steve Thurston said...

    Hello Jennifer,

    I just thought I’d let you know that I’m not shit broke! Doing fine, actually. I never really intended to make money at the blog. My main focus when I started was two-fold: 1, cover some stuff that the papers that cover Arlington were not covering, and 2, try my hand at new/different story telling methods. Making money was the thing I thought about only after awhile. I, like you, love community journalism (it’s what I teach at Montgomery College), and the software finally came along that allowed me to do it cheaply.

    I had published a print version in 2003/04 before I’d even really heard of blogging (I knew what it was, but why I didn’t think to go online, I don’t know). That one, believe it or not, almost made money, but sheesh what a lot of work. I’d still be writing that one if I’d had more help or more time.

    Time is the issue for me, as I think it is for many local bloggers. The costs for distribution are so low, we can start these ventures easily; it’s finding the time to go to events, report, write, edit photos, and post all of it that makes it hard for a person with full-time jobs and kids, and committments to do this.

    Ad to that sales calls and developing an actual business plan, and suddenly you can’t make it work.

    That’s where I am. Thanks for mentioning me on your site.

    Meliora (toward better things),

    Steve Thurston
    buckinghamheraldtrib.com

  10. Jan 24, 2010
    Steve Thurston said...

    “Add to that.”
    Steve Thurston regrets the error…

  11. Jan 24, 2010
    Jennifer Deseo said...

    Thanks for finding my blog, Steve.

    I think you and I were in similar boats, though yours had more financial buoyancy than mine. Like you, my goal was to create a reliable news source for a community that got little coverage in the mainstream media. The idea of making money at it came only later, but at that point, I was so entrenched in generating copy that marketing fell to the wayside.

    My role with The Silver Spring Penguin was full time. I had no other job than to attend meetings and events, write up stories, interact with readers, etc. There was no time for a paying gig or freelance projects. Hence, my shit brokeness.

    I’ll correct the post above to reflect your state of non-shit brokeness. Also, I welcome you to share your experiences as a hyperlocal journalist on this site, whether as a commentor or a contributing author.

    Thanks again, and best wishes to you.

  12. Feb 2, 2011
    MeetPress.ca said...

    [...] are picked up by more commercial news outlets who gave financial stability to the organization. But that doesn’t assure you a sustainable news source and people continue to debate what may be the best business model for hyperlocal news [...]

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