At the Baruch gathering today:
Jan Schaffer on the emergence of small-J journalism
Who's in the room, Jan. 30, 2009 at Baruch College
Here is who attended today:
- Richard Anderson (Village Soup)
- Jose Bayona (Baruch student)
- Roz Bernstein (Baruch faculty)
- Josh Benton (Nieman)
- Joe Bergantino (Boston U.)
- Bridgett Davis (Baruch faculty)
- Bill Densmore (Info Valet Project at Missouri)
- Howard Finberg (Poynter)
- Adam Glenn (RJI Collaboratory at Missouri
- Chris Hallowell (Baruch faculty)
- Ruth Ann Harnisch (Harnisch Foundation)
- Gail Robinson (Gotham Gazette)
- Harold Robinson (Baruch student)
- Geanne Rosenberg (Baruch faculty)
- Jon Sawyer (Pulitzer Center)
- Jan Schaffer (J-Lab)
- Steve Shepard (CUNY Journalism)
- Duy Linh Tu (afternoon, Columbia)
- Len Witt (Kennesaw)
Jan Schaffer of J-Lab opens with an overview of what she sees emerging in local online news communities based upon years of funding ideas and a current pool of over 850 applications for mini grants to launch community startups.
"To an applicant, the prevailing narrative in all of these, is that while we on the coast thing there is lots of media, people in the middle of the country do not have lots of media . . . people are finding pretty much that they don't know what is going on in their community ... they don't know when to sign up for office ... there are empty positions ... they are saying of nobody is going to cover us we are going to itselves." These sites are run by volunteers, the PTA presidents, the coaches of the soccer teams. "They carry a lot of institutional knowledge about the community . . . they cover it but they don't cover a community the same we Big-J journalism covers a community ... we are beginning to see the emergence of a small-J journalism." She says these volunteeers know and care about the community and cover it from the inside out instead of the outside in. It's not framed around conflict. There is no scorecard, she says. There are no false equilibriums -- a pro-con balancing.
As a result, later in the year, Schaffer says she is going to address the question: Is journalism broken. She says Big-J journalism is increasingly offputting to people, as is, says Schaffer, the lack of caring. There is to much he said-she said. People can't make sense of what is going on with the story.
Schaffer characterizes these often-volunteer entrepreneurs as framing what they do in terms of wanting to do what they thing a newspaper should be doing. She says their view is: "We are just trying to do what we think jouranalists would do. There is a real sense of we want to be accurate and fair and we are trying to do it right even as they are often very angry at whatever available media there is for not always doing it right."
VoiceofSanDiego.org now has a budget of $840,000 and the San Diego Foundation is subsidizing their rent. "They have an infrastructure of people who are helping them get their sea legs." The model is individual grants and also large and small doners. The founding donor is now down to about $100,000 a year. The cover about six issues -- politics, issues, living in San Diego, environment, science.
Joe Bergantino asks to what extend there needs to be an obvious distinction between these two types of journalism -- Big-J from outside in and Small-J from inside out.
Ruth Ann Harnish asks if there is a database of all of these emerging citizen sites. Schaffer says they are in her 850-entry database at J-Lab.
Geanne Rosenberg talks about many of these people being from the top of their game in their region -- formerly journalists or bought-out journalists.
There is discussion about the law of non-profits selling advertising. Bill Densmore encourages the group to figure out a way to develop a white paper on the law of 501(c)3's selling advertising and the law of non-profits generally selling advertising. It may be well understood by some people, but Densmore says that it is a burning question, for example, for the group he has been part of which has just acquired a commercial AM radio station in Bennington, Vt. (WBTN) and is running it as a non-profit organization.
Howard Finberg suggests development of a common lexicon and perhaps also a common database. Geanne Rosenberg suggests that the RJI Collaboratory might be interested to help with such an idea.
Len Witt says that in Northfield, Minn., as part of the RepJ project he heads, the one key consensus in the community is that they want real journalism practiced in their community. Witt says he has moved from being less concerned with community-talking-with-each-other to the notion of sustaining high-quality jouranlism. Because that's what the community says it wants.
Josh Benton at Nieman is going to develop a set of case studies which differentiate the types of models out there.
Joe Bergantino says it would be useful to provide training for people on how to practice journalism. The whole range of jouranalism. People are sick and tired of hearing people rant. They want to sort out information. It's important to help people understand how they can do that.
David Mathieson talks about the idea of a circle. The business model changes with the size of the circle. There is participatory media, a Flickr-like model. As you close in the circle, you head to more like community newspapers. So you can start with a community site and then start to narrow down to community "citizen journalism." The closest circle, probably is investigative journalism, which is the most expensive and may require insurance.
Geanne Rosenberg would like consider focusing on journalism at the city level, regardless of the model or who is practicing it. The are all pretty much strugging right now -- they haven't figured out how to support themselves yet. There are donors, but that only goes so far. It is not feasible that donations would cover all communities -- and a danger that affluent communities would be covered more than disadvantaged communities.
Another model is RepJ. There is Spot.us. By and large the finding is that people are not paying for the news. She said she rode the commuter train with a world-renowed economist and he said: "It's just a hue free-rider problem," that's how he characterized it.
Then there is advertising. He talks about MinnPost.com. There was the idea that "Google-juice" -- would make you profitable -- from Google AdSense and the like. That hasn't happened for news sites. How do you connect back with advertising at the local community level and how do you build such an infrastructure. She turns to Richard Anderson, founder of VillageSoup.com in Rockland-Camden, Maine, and asks for his input.
Anderson talks about the old business model being "caught in the irons" (a sailing term). He says there are still railroads, and there will still be newspapers. "Believe me, Google is just as worried about original news dying as we are, because they live on it." Anderson works through an online presentation (WILL LINK LATER HERE). The focus on the news industry has to be narrowed, just as the railroads have narrowed their focus to things like hauling bulk commodities (coal, grain, chemicals), and convertible trailers.
There is a need to solve the inefficiency of advertising online. Display advertising is not what it is, he says, "it is useful, timely information . . . on the internet you want buyers looking for sellers." He talks about running "continuous community expos" on the web. First is to provide the information, section is to provide a way to interact about that information. The third you you do at a trade show is you go to the exhibit hall. You are doing market research. He relates this to a neighborhood model, where this information is bundled with the news.
Anderson cites a move from dozens of markets of millions to millions of markets of dozens -- a Chris Anderson concept. For example moms and pops paying $1,000 a year. At VillageSoup, their online revenue is 19% of their total revenue. Asked how much of that 19% is coming from mom and pops, Anderson says: "Almost exclusively." The goal is to become the trusted place.
Joe Bergantino -- How did you get this started?
They got a Knight grant (approx. $800,000) to redepoly the Village Soup software platform as open source. He says he invested millions of his own money starting in 1996. The have about $8 million revenues annualized now. For the same-site comparison over many years (before acquiring the competing newspapers) it was $2.5 million-$3.0 million a year for an 80,000-population region. Anderson says it won't work online alone. "You can't generate enough revenue."
But Anderson says he thinks print will go to a small, elite audience over time. "Print is going to exist for a much smaller, narrower audience. But that is going to be a very attractive audience (for advertisers)." Historically in a democracy a relatively small group of thought leaders foster participatory democracy by their word-of-mouth leadership. "Those are the people who are going to be continuing to lead."
Anderson says they started in 1996. See the Media Giraffe Project profile at:
So Schaffer confirms: Does that mean it has taken 12 years to get 19% of your revenue from online? Yes, says Anderson.
Steve Shepard of CUNY Graduate School of Journalism asks: Is there any reason a Village Soup community couldn't curate national and international news as part of its function?
Richard says what is more likely to happen is you will create your own personal profile on the site like Village Soup and you'll get that national/international information from RSS feeds and other sources that feed through the local site.
Len Witt says Joel Kramer at MinnPost.com has found that his users are interested in having national/international news presented. For his part, Witt says he thinks news will gravitate to being presented mostly on your pocket device -- phone, PDF, Kindle, whatever.
Dave Mathieson suggests asks: We are all smart people. "How is it that we are creating information products that don't make any money?" You need to repurpose content that creates multiple revenue streams. Just focusing on advertising isn't enough. There are information marketers out there making tens of millions of dollars by making information products that go to millions. "And we can't make any money!"