Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Journalists: Cover my town. I'll pay you $191 a year.

For the past several years, I’ve spent $47.75 every three months for a subscription to the local newspaper that claims it covers my community of about 2,300 people. Other than my town’s sports teams, it rarely does. So I dropped it.

So I’m willing to give that quarterly $47.75, or $191 a year, to anyone with basic journalism skills who will tell me what’s going on in my town — and why — without a typical blogger’s snarky ‘tude.

Yep. If you want $191 a year from me, then cover the town council and school board meetings and distribute that news. Do it by e-mail, do it as a blog, do as a Web site (hell, write it on parchment with crayon for all I care). Just do it and get it to me online in a reasonably timely fashion. Heck, I’ll bet an enterprising recent journalism school grad could make a business model out of this.

So come here, live here and report here. Ask the highway superintendent about the potholes on roads all over town. No, not to assign blame, but to tell me and the other townspeople how much it will cost — and why — so we’ll know more when it comes to voting on the town’s budget.

Ask the town clerk how he or she sets her hours — and why. Have there been complaints? That’s a town post where availability to residents is important. I’d like to know how available the clerk is before the next election. And ask the fire chief about the availability of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians during day hours. I hear that’s a problem in rural areas. Is it here? And why?

Do a feature about the town’s demographics. Is the population growing? In western New York, everybody complains about folks leaving this area. How’s that affect us? And why? How are we doing financially? Better? Worse? Why? That’d be nice to know before we vote on next year’s budget. How would higher taxes affect those residents with fixed incomes?

Hey, how’s our school district doing with our kids? After all, about half of our property taxes go for education. Is that tax money being spent wisely and effectively? How’s that measured? Who’s doing the measuring? If not, why not? By the way, is our town getting its equitable share of state and federal education aid?

How’d that re-assessment of taxable properties turn out? The other newspaper didn’t cover that. Did residents feel blindsided when they got their new property assessments in the mail? Is so, why?

Come here. Report about us to us.

You could literally become the electronic version of the “town crier.” You could tell us about ourselves. You could let us know more about what we have in common and what separates us. You could tell us what issues we need to know as a community. You could tell us what we want to know about our town and ourselves.

Your Internet journalism enterprise could allow us to add comments to your work online. You’d learn more about us that way. We’d learn more about you, too, by seeing what you do with our feedback and opinion and story ideas.

I know, I know. Seems like a lot of work. Long hours. You’d actually have to do the reporting rather than just writing opinion using some other news outlet’s reporting. You’d actually have to rise from your chair and walk through town, talking with people, stopping at the diner for a listen, working the town hall to find out what our elected and appointed officials are doing and why. You’d have to do it yourself rather than outsourcing it to some guy in India watching a board meeting on Internet video.

Yep, this would be a shoe-leather enterprise married to every bit of hi-tech you can afford.

Kinda risky financially, though. So let’s think this through.

The U.S. Census Bureau says my little town has 861 households. In a perfect world, all would subscribe to your e-mail/Web site/blog for $191 a year. That’s about $165,000. Really nice money, eh?

But this is a rural town. Median household income is about $33,110 and 15 percent of residents’ incomes are below the poverty line.

Let’s say only half the households cough up only $100 a year. That’s about $43,000. And there’s start-up costs: a laptop, digital camera, domain name, maybe a home office, and so on. But no new building. No printing expenses. No dead trees. No ink. No physical distribution costs.

Your sales pitch to the townspeople: This isn’t a cheery monthly newsletter put out by a local volunteer with a few hours to spare. This is professionally generated hard news online. New stuff daily.

Maybe you’ll become a credible source of information and news. Maybe that weekly high-school feature on a star athlete or brilliant student will get plenty of views. (Remember, local names are local news. Never forget that.) Maybe those monthly school board stories you write about the budget process start getting views. Maybe those photos of local scenes and people you post every day get popular.

Hey, is that a local electrician calling you, wanting to place an ad on that high school weekly feature? Is that a local auto repair shop looking to advertise because its owner hears people talking about your terrific, insightful, leave-the-opinion-to-the-readers reporting?

Just maybe that advertising income, paired with the subscription money, will allow you to make a living, live in a community you grow to like, raise a couple kids and become a respected journalist. (Yes, I know, mixing advertising and journalism will test your ethics. But you learned how to deal with that in your J-school ethics courses, didn’t you? Besides, townsfolk will tell you bluntly when you’ve gone astray.)

Hey, is this what hyperlocal news operations can really be like? Can you make a living at this, you young J-school grads? Do you really need to be a news media conglomerate to pull this off?

My newsroom godfather, Neil Perry, tried to do exactly this — more than 50 years ago. He left my hometown paper and started a small weekly in a neighboring town — his hometown. But the high printing and circulation costs killed his paper. He returned to my hometown rag but always wondered if he could have made his start-up weekly profitable.

In 2007, maybe Neil could. So I’m going to begin telling my journalism students about Neil and what he tried to do.

Perhaps a workable journalism business model is just one person with a journalist’s temperament and a farmer’s work ethic setting out to tell one small corner of the world how that corner works and why it works that way — and refusing to listen to those who say “this will never work.”

xpost: 5th Estate

12 replies »

  1. Denny,

    Great post. Did you see the FrontLine series “News Wars”? The third installment (of 4) covered this issue with an interesting look at some of the entrepreneurial maneuvers some are using to create such “news outlets” that focus on the local stuff – mainly town news, local hs sports, and weather.

    I like your model better – it’s less localized “USA Today” and more tied to the community.

  2. I missed that FL series. Thanks for the tip.

    This isn’t a “new” model. It’s what journalism began as and prospered as until … mergers and acquisitions. Nothing I’ve proposed is new — other than the method of delivery.

    The big Q: Will people pay for local news?

  3. The Big A: No, probably not.

    The Big Hassle: Managing the business functions of running a $191-per-subscriber news organization. The blogger would need to handle accounts payable and receivable, purchase office supplies, and do all the other administrivia that really eats into a freelancer’s time. Plus he pays self-employment taxes, accountant fees to file returns on those taxes, etc.

    What blog enthusiasts sometimes forget is that it costs money to run a business, so this blogger will either need startup capital or need to collect money right away from subscribers to get rolling. It costs more than you expect, and the non-news parts of the operation take more time than you plan.

    And in a larger sense, I’d say why bother? Maybe your hypothetical blogger could raise $43,000 per year from subscriptions, which might be enough to raise a family in some parts of the country, although outside of rural Nebraksa I don’t know where that would be. You could make more money doing other things– I made lots more as a freelancer from 2001 to 2006– and leave local news to someone else.

    Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks every will adopt that attitude, and ultimately, nobody will bother with local news.

  4. You missed a really big start-up expense – libel insurance. Figure anywhere from $15-50 thousand annually. Frankly, in this day and age, I wouldn’t work without it.

  5. Even if all those financial hurdles could be overcome, you still have to deal with local bosses, whose attitude toward news could probably echo Richard Nixon’s: “the press is the enemy.” I skimmed the FL story and noticed Pat Buchanan there, and read his comments on Nixon. Provincial bosses aren’t interested in “hard” news about their community, probably because they are sometimes up to illegal things in it, at least at the level of kickbacks and favors. Townsfolk will not tell you bluntly when you’ve gone astray. You will just keep going until you are sued or intimidated, if you can overcome general apathy at all. I mean, why pay for hard local news when you get titillated from the four corners of the globe for free?

  6. I think this is a great idea to consider. If it isn’t viable – and hey, in a really small town it may not be – then what does this suggest about people’s ability to govern their own back yards. We talk a lot about grassroots and netroots these day, but if it’s all nationally focused it’s not really roots anything, is it?

    I’d love to see this kind of operation get some traction. It would be tough as an indie operation, but as a small chain? A company realizes that it can’t make money on town A, but if it consolidates back-office expenses it CAN make cash covering towns A-G?


  7. What folks are missing here is that most American newspapers began this way, and many American dead-tree weeklies (that haven’t been bought up by GateHouse Media and other regional aggregators) are still run this way.

    This formula is how American journalism was built. It can still work. Just move it online.

  8. Speaking as somebody who has worked for three decades as a newspaper reporter in small towns in several states, this sounds *great* from the reader’s point of view, and I’d like to think it’s a model for the future of local journalism.

    But from the journalist’s point of view it sounds like a ***load of miserable work that would kill most people in a year.

    I’ve worked as one-man bureaus and they suck because there’s nobody to cover your back, or bounce your ideas off of, or sympathize when you rant about town hall flunkies giving you a hard time and the agony of sitting through three-hour meetings for a single story. (There’s a reason that small papers burn through reporters.)

    A one-man newspaper would be worse, because you’d also have to deal with the jerks who don’t pay their subscription bills and the advertiser who demands a feel-good story and all the rest of the crap that is the news business. And no calling in sick or taking a week off, unless you want to lose half your readers.

    Which means your idea could be done, but it would take a superhuman to do it – and that means it won’t be done very often. Alas.

  9. Great post and idea. But the main issue it raises in my mind is: *why* doesn’t your local paper cover the sort of news that you want? Perhaps there isn’t a market for it. If they’re running a successful business selling local news that consists only of sports coverage, is that the only sort of local news people want?

    Nonetheless, do update us on how you get on!