The collapse of the traditional metro newspaper business has been foreseeable – indeed, foreseen – for quite some time, but it’s still a shock to see venerable institutions like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer close their doors. What’s equally shocking, though, is the widespread assumption that serious journalism will disappear along with newspapers, and that preventing the disappearance of journalism requires either a massive philanthropic effort, a coordinated effort by news organizations to force a return to paid subscriptions, technological breakthroughs with electronic news reader devices, new business models that have yet to be invented, or some combination of all of the above.
As a four-year veteran of a journalism-driven local online media start-up, I believe there’s a very viable business formula that’s actually quite simple, and here today: take advantage of new tools and techniques to cover the news creatively and efficiently; sell sophisticated digital advertising in a sophisticated fashion; keep the Web content free, and charge a high price for content and interaction that are delivered in-person via conferences and events. And don’t expect instant results.
I’m not saying this model will be a “replacement” for newspapers, or provide stable, high-paying jobs for all the journalists who once worked at newspapers. Nor do I claim that it will, by itself, support all the forms of journalism that we want and need. But I do think the potential of this approach has been radically underestimated. Some variation of it is already well-established in the trade and specialty press – Paid Content, TechCrunch,The Business Insider, Talking Points Memo, and many of the Federated Media and Gawker Media sites are all good examples – and though it’s perhaps harder in local general-interest media, it can work there too. As evidence of that, I’ll immodestly suggest a look at our experience of NewWest.Net.
We started this company in 2005 partly on the premise that the news business would be changing in profound ways, and that would create opportunities. We were also very interested in what we considered a very big story – the dramatic transformation of the Rocky Mountain West from an under-populated, resource-dependent region to a dynamic, fast-growing hub of the emerging “amenity” and technology economies. We thought the story was regional in scope, but at the same time we were very conscious of the fact that people relate most closely to what’s most local, so we established NewWest.Net as a regional online magazine with local sites in key markets.
The editorial model relies on a combination of professional journalism (currently two full-time and four part-time professionals, as well as a number of freelancers); what we think of as semi-professional journalism (talented writers or subject-matter experts who do something else for their day job); and citizen journalism (bloggers and others who contribute on specific topics, sometimes for small sums of money). We don’t have copy editors, but rather copyedit each others’ stuff. We’re direct and conversational in our style, which is actually easier and quicker once you get used to it, and more appealing to readers than old-style newspaper formulas.
We have a very active photo group on Flickr, and get great feature photography from that. We mostly use Google for fact-checking – not fool-proof, but it works. We use Twitter and Facebook and RSS to push our stories out into the world. We do great video-driven stories when we can, and happily link to others’ videos. In fact, we happily link to a lot of stuff, sometimes in combination with our own reporting and sometimes not. We have lively comment threads, which we manage with as light a hand as we can and which are often additive to the stories in addition to being entertaining. We have very active event calendars in our local markets – separate from our main sites but well-integrated, and with a dedicated editor. We’re experimenting with a new social media site in Missoula, and we’ll see where that goes.
Our coverage is far from comprehensive, and we rarely write about sports or TV or movies (except when the big documentary film festival is in town). Big investigative projects are few and far between. We’re not a “paper of record,” and we’re not (or at least not yet) a replacement for local newspapers. Still, if you ask people around here where they go for smart coverage of growth and development, land-use issues, local food, regional politics, and community culture, a lot of people would say NewWest.Net. On some big stories, such as the boom and bust of the regional real estate market and the bankruptcy of the Yellowstone Club and other high-end resorts, we have been way ahead of the pack.
On the business side, we’ve found that the conventional wisdom about plunging display ad rates is simply wrong. If you have a quality site, with good editorial that drives meaningful traffic, and you work closely with advertisers and offer them flash ads, video ads, good stats reporting, and the opportunity to help understand a new medium, they will pay a premium. A critical thing we have learned is that selling online advertising is more different from selling print or broadcast than mostly people think. I’d suggest that the difficulties traditional media outlets have in getting good prices for online advertising have to do not with the medium itself, but with the learning curve involved in figuring out how to sell it properly. It took us a couple of years, and we didn’t have any legacy issues to deal with.
Everything on the Website is free, but we have about 1,000 people who pay $150 or $300 or $500 a year for their NewWest experience. This experience comes through conferences and events, which have been a major revenue source and an excellent promotional vehicle for our site. The conferences are content-driven – programming a conference is in many ways very similar to editing a magazine – and thus we see it as part-and-parcel of the journalistic mission, not a distracting commercial add-on. If anything, people like conferences even more when they spend so much time interacting via a computer screen. Conference attendees are our loyal subscribers, and they pay a lot for our content.
Newspapers had market power because they were the only ones that could deliver information to people’s doorsteps every day. That’s why things like classifieds were attached to newspapers. Online media organizations don’t have that leverage, obviously. But what they do have is the ability to get people to come to their sites by providing great editorial. We have always found that strong, original stories are far and away the best way to drive traffic. Over time, if you’re close to your community and story-driven, rather than being a generic platform of some kind, you can build a journalism brand that means something, and can be monetized.
NewWest.Net isn’t making money yet, but we’re not losing money either. We had start-up capital to get us to this stage, but that was gone as of about six months ago. Even in the worst economy any of us have every experienced, we’re making it – not with donations and not with new inventions, but simply by being creative with the tools we have and working our butts off. I wouldn’t underestimate that last bit, and sometimes I do think I’m a masochist for not riding the corporate media gravy train until it completely ran out of steam. But the world doesn’t owe any of us a living, and in the long run I firmly believe that NewWest.Net and things like it will feed the families of plenty of great reporters and editors.