No local without us, says start-up web newsman
In this guest post, he describes life at what one of his readers calls the “21st Century replacement for the local newspaper.”
By David Boraks
A funny thing happened as I covered Davidson College's graduation on Sunday for my startup community website DavidsonNews.Net, in Davidson, N.C.: I became part of the story.
As the dean of students read a flattering citation, I put down my camera and notebook and just listened. I am humbled to report that I received the college’s Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, given annually to a member of the off-campus community for “fine spiritual qualities practically applied to daily living, usually going to persons who have given unselfish service without due recognition.”
Only once before in my 35-year career have I set out to cover an event and wound up part of it. As a young courthouse reporter at the Middletown (CT) Press in 1980, I was called to the witness stand during an auto-theft trial. It was over quickly, and the defense attorney's attempt to prove a motion about prejudicial news coverage failed.
Since then, I’ve worked as an editor, reporter, and photographer at newspapers from Boston and New York to Taipei and Charlotte.
Now, I’ve traded a paying career for a start-up, where I do everything from covering the Town Board and writing obituaries to plotting marketing strategy and coding web pages.
Davidson, N.C., is a town of about 9,000. DavidsonNews.Net’s daily report includes town hall news, a police blotter, a social column, calendar listings, school and church news, audio “four-minute interviews” and video.
We bring journalistic standards to our efforts, which in my mind are no different from what community newspapers have done for generations.
Many are talking about “hyperlocal” websites as the future of local news. But we're not the future of local news. We're the present.
The big metro daily in our region – The Charlotte Observer, where I once worked – has all but eliminated suburban coverage. One local weekly newspaper recently folded, and other publications don’t cover our town. At many town meetings, I am the only reporter (and sometimes the only citizen) in the room.
Without our site, there would be no local news.
DavidsonNews.Net grew out of a neighborhood email newsletter I started three years ago. Its scope quickly expanded, as I began covering town-wide issues. Starting the site was easy, in part because web hosting is relatively inexpensive and web-publishing software simple to use.
In organizing the business, I considered two approaches: non-profit and for-profit. Although I realize other news organizations are avidly pursuing the non-profit approach, and there’s plenty of foundation money to fuel them, I believe newsgathering is essentially entrepreneurial. I couldn’t get my brain around how a non-profit news operation might work. In mid-2007, we incorporated as a limited-liability company.
Today, DavidsonNews.Net has two paid part-time staffers: an ad salesperson and an office manager/advertising coordinator/graphic designer. As publisher and editor, I work full-time without pay. My wife, Shelley Rigger, supports us with her college professor’s salary. I supplement our income with freelance writing, photography, web design and occasional work as a public radio announcer.
Two other regular contributors - an assistant editor and a social columnist remain volunteers, though we pay them quarterly honoraria for their efforts. Several other residents contribute occasional news and photos as volunteers.
So how do you make money doing this? The answer is still coming into focus.
Our model is emerging as a roughly equal mix of advertising revenue and subscriber payments.
The site is a good buy for local advertisers, both in price and in reach. Most of our advertisers – small local businesses ranging from restaurants to community banks – never have used the web, and there’s a lot of education to be done. We simply can’t charge rates comparable to local print publications, even though we can demonstrate deep penetration and can deliver their messages daily, rather than weekly or monthly.
Some have suggested we turn to the town for help. Just this week, a newspaper in Carrboro, N.C., near Durham, was asking the local Board of Aldermen for a $100,000 loan to help expand.
We’re uncomfortable with direct government involvement, though we think it has a role. We recently added the town as an advertiser, rather than as a lender or investor. Meanwhile, we also count some town staff and elected officials among our paying subscribers.
At the moment, those subscriber payments are voluntary. It would be great if some of the nation’s larger newspapers put up toll windows on their websites, so as to help helped educate Americans that online news is something to pay for.
For now, we’re taking a public-radio approach to subscriptions making appeals on the website, through email and through public appearances and direct appeals to readers, business owners, and local leaders.
Fortunately, those appeals are finding a receptive audience. Nearly 250 residents have contributed between $10 and $500 each over the past two years, with payments averaging around $60.
At a time when our town is growing and our sense of community is threatened, these people understand how a local news site can provide timely and factual information, not to mention a shared experience that can hold us together.
Our business plan calls for quadrupling that number, and we’ll make a big push this month with our first coordinated subscriber campaign.
Revenues have been picking up, and the business recently began repaying loans I’ve made to it. At the moment, we have no other debt, and I hope that, by year’s end, those loan payments can turn into modest paychecks.
For now, we measure success mostly in positive feedback. Last weekend’s award confirmed what our recent online reader survey showed: People love the site and they’re willing to become partners to ensure its success.
As one reader told us: “The community feeling is what brought us to Davidson, and DavidsonNews.Net is a big part of it.” Said another: “DavidsonNews.Net is the 21st Century replacement for the local newspaper.”