Tag Archives: Howard Owens

Return of hometown news: Indy, local and online

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This article appears in the Summer 2014 edition of Yes! magazine and is (cc) by Yes! Republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

On a cold night in January, eight people gathered in a harshly lit classroom at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. Over cookies and bottled water, they discussed their latest plans for a project that has been years in the making—a cooperatively owned online news operation to cover their working-class city of 60,000.

The site, set to launch by the end of 2014, will be known as Haverhill Matters. It is the fruition of an idea called the Banyan Project, developed by Tom Stites, a retired journalist whose career included stops at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. As with food co-ops, the site will be owned by the members, who will be able to join by contributing money or labor—perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog or covering governmental meetings. If it is successful, Stites hopes to roll out similar news co-ops around the country.

The goal is to serve “news deserts,” a term Stites adopted from “food deserts.” Although Haverhill is covered by a daily and a weekly newspaper, they do not compete: Both are owned by an out-of-state corporate chain that has cut its staff significantly in recent years. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill. Stites believes that just as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be harmful to personal health, so, too, can a lack of fresh, relevant news be harmful to civic health.

How would Haverhill Matters make a difference? Mike LaBonte, who co-chairs the planning committee, cites the voluminous coverage given to the 1971 opening of a farmers market by the independent daily that then covered the city. Forty years later, he says, an attempt to revitalize the market received minimal attention.

“There are some aspects of the news that are simply not covered,” LaBonte says. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is ‘How do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?’”

The Banyan Project may prove to be one way of revitalizing civic engagement through local journalism, but it is far from the only way. Across the country, as traditional news organizations have shrunk, independent online news organizations have sprung up, sparking renewed interest in community not just through news coverage, but also by creating a conversation around that coverage.

Ongoing dialogue with readers

One of the oldest of these online news communities is the New Haven Independent, founded in 2005 by Paul Bass, former star reporter and political columnist for the alternative New Haven Advocate (killed off by its corporate owners). The Independent is staffed by four full-time journalists and is supported through foundation grants, donations from wealthy individuals, sponsorships by large institutions such as colleges and hospitals, and reader contributions.

From the beginning, Bass has carved out a niche that is distinct from the local daily newspaper by fostering an ongoing conversation with his community. Examples range from the ambitious, such as citywide forums on education reform and local politics, to the accidental, such as a mayoral candidacy that played out in the Independent’s comments section in 2007. In that instance, a local real-estate agent announced he was running, only to face a barrage from other commenters after he expressed ignorance of the city’s African American neighborhoods. To his credit, he withdrew shortly thereafter, writing that he realized he had much to learn about his adopted city.

Bass takes comments seriously. Pseudonyms are allowed so as to protect police officers, teachers, parents, and other city stakeholders who would be uncomfortable speaking out under their real names. But every comment is screened by someone on the Independent’s staff before it is posted—or rejected. Bass had to tighten up the rules following an outburst of online sociopathy sparked by an unusually contentious mayoral campaign in 2011. Among other things, would-be commenters now have to register using their real names, though Bass still allows them to post under their pseudonyms. Overall, though, the comments are far more civil and substantive than is the case at most news sites.

Civic engagement at the Independent can also take the form of day-in, day-out news coverage of relatively small quality-of-life issues that larger media can’t be bothered with. For instance, in 2010 the Independent reported on two incidents in which city police confiscated cell phones from bystanders so they couldn’t take video of officers as they made arrests.

The Independent flogged the issue for months. The result: statements from the mayor and the police chief affirming the right of the public to take video of police actions; an internal investigation that found officers had mishandled the two incidents; a mandatory training session at the police academy; and a bill filed at the Connecticut Statehouse making it easier for camera-wielding civilians to sue in response to police harassment. Though the bill did not pass, overall it was an impressive display of how a small news organization rooted in the community could punch above its weight.

“I’ve learned that the public can steer the conversation and take the story to a better place than reporters or editors could ever take it alone,” says Bass.

Four hundred miles west of New Haven, in the small city of Batavia in western New York, Howard Owens is promoting a different kind of civic engagement. Since 2008, his community news site, The Batavian, has been covering Batavia and rural Genesee County—first as part of the GateHouse Media chain, and then independently after Owens’ executive position with the company was eliminated in early 2009. Like Bass, Owens takes online comments seriously; unlike Bass, he requires commenters to use their real names.

Owens has done his share of in-depth coverage at The Batavian, competing with—and sometimes beating—the local daily paper. What keeps his readers engaged, though, is his close attention to more mundane matters: fire alarms, accidents, new park benches being installed, and the like.

“If the siren goes off, people want to know what’s going on,” he explains. “I’ll put something up even if it’s a false alarm. We go out and cover a lot of things that the newspaper tends to overlook as not being important or not worth their time.”

Owens is especially passionate about The Batavian’s relationship with local businesses. As a for-profit, the site depends on advertising, and one of Owens’ beliefs is that “advertising is content.” The Batavian is filled with small ads—nearly 150 of them—from pizza shops, funeral homes, doctor offices, heating companies, tattoo parlors, car dealerships, dog groomers, and the like. Owens does it for the money, of course. But he also is a strong believer in the importance of locally owned enterprises in building a self-sufficient community. As a matter of principle, he refuses to accept ads from Walmart and other national chains.

“We saw declining news readership as both a symptom and potentially a cause of declining civic engagement, thinking that newspapers have sort of lost their focus on their local communities,” says Owens. “We wanted to return that focus by concentrating solely on one community.”

Ordinary Citizens Working with Journalists

The New Haven Independent and The Batavian are proving that both nonprofit and for-profit models can viably foster independent hyperlocal news sites. Both of them, though, depend on professional journalists. In Haverhill, Tom Stites and local activists are hoping to find out whether volunteers can produce worthwhile journalism if they’re provided with a sense of ownership and put to work alongside professionals. The Banyan model calls for two full-time paid employees, an editor and a general manager. The rest of the coverage will come from volunteers, including neighborhood residents and students. It’s a tall order, given how labor-intensive local journalism can be.

Before it can happen, though, the Haverhill Matters planning committee needs to find out if residents will support the project. Committee members figure they need $50,000 in donations from so-called founding members, as well as continuing support in the form of $36 annual fees from at least 1,200 members. At a time when most news sites are free, it’s an ambitious undertaking. The Haverhill Matters launch has been postponed on several occasions. At the January planning meeting, Tom Stites said 2014 has to be the year that it finally gets off the ground.

“We enter 2014 with some momentum. We’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to build it. We’ve been picking away at this thing for a couple of years,” Stites said. “If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”

For those who believe in the importance of local journalism and civic engagement, the experiment unfolding in Haverhill will be important to watch.

Howard Owens on the success of The Batavian

Corporate hyperlocal is fading, with Patch being the prime example. Independent hyperlocal is working. Howard Owens, one of my main subjects in “The Wired City,” discusses the success of The Batavian this week with NPR’s “On the Media.”

Here is a blog post I wrote in July about The Batavian’s growth.

New Haven Independent seeks to build community radio station

6011084575_3a9019d5ea_nThis article was previously published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The New Haven Independent, which launched eight years ago amid the first wave of online-only community news sites, may soon expand into radio.

The nonprofit Independent is one of three groups asking the FCC for a low-power FM (LPFM) license in New Haven, Conn. If successful, editor and founder Paul Bass says that “New Haven Independent Radio” could make its debut at 103.5 FM in about a year.

“It would be a fun thing if we get it. I’m told it’s very hard,” Bass says. “We’re by no means talking as if we’re going to get this license. We thought it would be worth a shot.” He envisions a mix of news from the Independent and La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Independent’s content partner (and landlord), as well as music, public affairs, and shows produced by local nonprofit organizations. The station would be on the air at least 16 hours a day.

The three New Haven applications are part of the FCC’s great LPFM land rush. Legislation signed by President Obama in 2011 eased restrictions on low-power stations, and the FCC is expected to approve about 1,000 applications sometime in 2014. More than 2,800 applications were received by the deadlinelast month, according to the website Radio World. (Thanks to Aaron Read of Rhode Island Public Radio for tipping me off about the Independent’s application.)

According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a longtime advocate of expanded community radio, “the over 800 low-power stations currently on the air are run by nonprofits, colleges, churches and emergency responders.” For years, the radio industry and (believe it or not) NPR fought the expansion of LPFM, arguing that new stations would interfere with established broadcast frequencies — a concern that advocates say is unwarranted.

Like all LPFM stations, New Haven Independent Radio’s broadcast footprint wouldn’t extend much beyond the city limits, although it would stream online as well — which could be significant, Bass says, given predictions that most cars will have streaming Internet radio within a few years.

Inspired by Haverhill

Bass says he got the idea from WHAV Radio in Haverhill, Mass., a nonprofit online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) whose volunteer general manager, Tim Coco, is seeking to expand with an LPFM license of his own. (I wrote about Coco’s radio ambitions last summer.) Coco, who runs an advertising agency and is a local politico of some note, is also among a group of residents working to launch a cooperatively owned community news site to be called Haverhill Matters, under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

“I’m happy I provided some inspiration,” Coco told me by email. “I believe the more local voices, the better for the community.”

Although Bass, if he is successful, may be the first hyperlocal news-site operator to start an independent radio station, the connection between the two media is a natural one. For instance, Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site that covers Genesee County in western New York, has partnered since 2009 with WBTA, an AM station with a strong community presence. An even more ambitious project is under way in the heart of the country, as the St. Louis Beacon news site is merging with St. Louis Public Radio.

Donna Halper, a longtime radio consultant and historian who is an associate professor of communication at Lesley University, says a multiplatform presence of the sort Bass envisions is crucial at a time when the audience has become fragmented.

“These days, it’s a multimedia world, and even a low-power FM station can get people talking” about your work, she says. “In this kind of environment, the more platforms you are on, the more you have top-of-the-mind awareness.”

On the other hand, industry observer Scott Fybush, who writes about radio for his own eponymous website, warns that Bass may not quite realize what he is getting into.

“Twenty-four hours a day of radio is an unforgiving taskmaster,” Fybush said in an email. “There are lots of applicants in this LPFM window who have what appear to be noble ideas, but keeping a station going with engaging programming day in and day out isn’t easy to do.”

Three-way contest

But that’s getting ahead of things, because first Bass has to win the three-way contest for the New Haven license. And that is by no means assured. (Bass’s application was filed by the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit entity that acts as the Independent’s publisher of record.)

According to documents on file with the FCC, the other two applicants are a Spanish-language organization and a Christian broadcaster called Alma Radio. Even though LPFM is intended to encourage localism, Alma proposes to broadcast nationally syndicated religious programs, including “Focus on the Family,” hosted by the controversial evangelical leader James Dobson. Alma Radio’s oversight board, according to a “Purposes and Objectives” document it included with its application, is “composed of members who believe and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Although Bass says his ideas for the station are still evolving, he included a detailed proposal with his FCC application, with such diverse offerings as a morning news program; a daily “La Voz Latino Community Hour”; a collaboration with The Inner-City News, a local African-American publication; community theater; and a two-hour evening program to be called “Joe Ugly Presents Local Hip Hop.” (Joe Ugly is the nom de rap of a New Haven music impresario who runs an Internet radio station called Ugly Radio.)

One of the New Haven Independent’s funders has already put up $3,000, which paid for legal and engineering services. If Bass wins the license, he estimates it would cost $30,000 to build the station and $60,000 to $70,000 to pay a full-time employee to run it — a substantial amount over the approximately $500,000 a year the Independent now receives in donations, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships.

The opportunity is clear enough. Done right, it would enable Bass to bring New Haven Independent journalism, with its hyperlocal emphasis on neighborhoods, schools, and city politics, to a new audience — and to entice that audience, in turn, into sampling the Independent.

The danger, of course, is that the radio project would drain resources and attention away from the Independent itself, diluting its mission with a gamble on a new platform that may or may not succeed. Bass’s answer to that challenge is simple and direct: “We have to make sure it doesn’t.”

Photo (cc) by Michael Coughlan and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Salvaging something from the rubble of Patch

If you haven’t heard AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong’s nauseating conference call with Patch employees — complete with the mid-call firing of Patch creative director Abel Lenz, who had the audacity to take the great man’s photo — then by all means avail yourself of the opportunity. (Via Jim Romenesko, who has been diligently tracking the story of Patch’s woes.)

The end seems to be near for Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal websites, which never had a business model that made sense. Given that Patch is failing in precisely the way it was predicted to fail (see, for instance, this archive of Patch articles at Business Insider), Friday’s conference call was a time for Armstrong to show some decency and humility — not to strut around like a ’roided-up rooster.

The cuts Armstrong announced were devastating — over the next week, hundreds of employees will be laid off and around 400 Patch sites will be closed or somehow partnered with other sites, according to Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch. That’s nearly half of Patch’s 900 or so sites.

At this point, the most merciful thing Armstrong could do is shut down the whole thing and help the hard-working local editors become owner-operators. I suspect many of these sites could be viable if the corporate bureaucracy AOL has laid on top of them were removed.

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent online news site in western New York, makes a compelling case at NetNewsCheck that the economies of scale AOL promised not only haven’t materialized, but that putting together a vast network of hyperlocal site actually costs more than launching independents. The problems, he writes, include enormous tech investments and highly paid supervisors at corporate headquarters:

Armstrong chased scale: IT infrastructure scales, server farms scale, message systems scale, cloud computing scales. But local news does not scale.

Widget makers understand scale. The most expensive widget is the first one. Each new widget is comparatively pennies on the dollar.

In the news business, the first story costs just as much as the third or the 30th or the last. Online, it’s possible to get more production out of a single reporter, but time is not elastic. At the end of the day comes the end of the day.

What Armstrong should have done, Owens adds, is fund independent start-ups — an idea that AOL could still pursue, writes City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis at his blog, Buzz Machine. Jarvis  offers this advice to Armstrong:

Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it.

Whether AOL steps or not, at least one other funding source for converting Patches into independent news sites has emerged. Over the weekend Debbie Galant, co-founder of the pioneering hyperlocal site Baristanet and now the director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University, announced on Twitter that her program was ready to offer grants and training to New Jersey Patch employees who lose their jobs. (There are 89 Patch sites in New Jersey, according to Patch’s online listings.)

As I found in “The Wired City,” hyperlocal online news is alive and well, with a variety of nonprofit and for-profit sites thriving. But as Owens says, local doesn’t scale. Independence and grassroots control are keys. Chain ownership was deadly to the newspaper business, and it was never a good idea for online news, either.

If the demise of Patch can lead to something better, then let’s get started.

Back from Batavia

Howard Owens (left) and Dan Kennedy at Present Tense Books in Batavia

Howard Owens (left) and Dan Kennedy at Present Tense Books in Batavia

I had a great time meeting people in Batavia, N.Y., this past weekend to promote “The Wired City.” My thanks to bookstore owner Erica Caldwell of Present Tense Books for putting it together.

I enjoyed catching up with Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, with whom I’m in regular touch but who I hadn’t actually seen since 2009. I also had a chance to meet Tom Rivers, a former reporter and columnist for The Daily News of Batavia who — inspired by Owens — started a local news site called the Orleans Hub earlier this year.

Tom, who’s written two books about life in Genesee County, also interviewed Owens and me for his site.

Photo by Tom Rivers.

In Batavia, a for-profit, locally owned news site

batavia-credit

Downtown Batavia

This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab. I’ll be reading from “The Wired City” this Saturday, July 13, at 11 a.m. at Present Tense Books, located in Batavia at 101 Washington Ave.

For those of a certain age, perusing the ads posted at The Batavian, a for-profit news site in Batavia, N.Y., can seem a lot like flipping through the pages of a weekly community newspaper a generation or two ago.

Which is to say there are a lot of ads — more than 140, every one on the home page, a practice that publisher Howard Owens believes is more effective than rotating them in and out. There are ads for funeral homes and pizza shops. For accountants and tattoo parlors. For auto-repair centers and ice-cream stands. For bars and baseball (the minor-league Batavia Muckdogs).

The success of The Batavian matters to the future of local journalism. In my book “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” I devote most of my attention to the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit site that subsists on grant money, donations and sponsorships. At this early stage of online news, nonprofits like the Independent are often able to raise more money more quickly than for-profits. But not every community can support a nonprofit. Thus it is vital for the future of news that entrepreneurs like Owens figure out the for-profit side — which is why I also devote a fair amount of space in “The Wired City” to what’s going on in Batavia.

Owens launched The Batavian in 2008 as a demonstration project for GateHouse Media, where he was the director of digital publishing. When his position was eliminated in early 2009, he asked GateHouse if he could take the fledgling site with him. He was granted his wish.

The Batavian is free and covers not just the city of Batavia (population 15,000) but surrounding Genesee County (60,000) as well. It receives about 80,000 unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast. That’s roughly the same as the site’s newspaper competition, The Daily News, also based in Batavia. (Web analytics are imprecise, and Owens says his internal count, provided by Google Analytics, shows about 118,000 uniques per month.) Of course, The Daily, as the locals call it, depends mainly on print distribution. On the other hand, The Batavian covers just one county to The Daily’s three, making Owens’ online reach all the more impressive.

The Batavian’s 12-month projected revenues are currently about $180,000 a year — enough to provide Owens and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s part-time editor, with a comfortable living, and to employ a part-time sales and marketing coordinator. Unlike AOL, with its struggling network of Patch sites, The Batavian is independent, and Owens aims to keep it that way. As the Authentically Local project, of which The Batavian is a part, puts it: “Local doesn’t scale.”

Howard Owens

Howard Owens

If a nonprofit like the New Haven Independent can raise more money than a for-profit (indeed, Independent founder and editor Paul Bass chose the nonprofit route in 2005 because he realized he couldn’t support himself with a for-profit), there are nevertheless certain advantages to for-profit online journalism. Let me outline three of the more obvious.

• Anyone can start a for-profit news site. The nonprofit route requires approval from the IRS and support from local foundations. In many cases, neither may be forthcoming — and as I recently wrote, the IRS has all but halted approval of 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news sites, which they depend on so that donors can make tax-free contributions. By contrast, all it takes to launch a for-profit site is talent, experience and a willingness to work hard. That’s no guarantee of success, but the opportunity is there for all.

• Local ads enhance the vibrancy of a site. Owens likes to say that advertising is content. The ads at The Batavian give you a good feel for Genesee County — and provide a context for Owens’ coverage of everything from court news to traffic accidents, from school events to development proposals. Advertising and news work together to provide a well-rounded picture of the community. Yet you won’t see ads at a nonprofit site like the Independent, save for a few image-building “sponsorships” from local institutions such as college and hospitals.

• For-profit sites enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. Like public radio and television stations, but unlike the vast majority of newspapers, nonprofit news sites are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates for public office. “Editorial endorsements — or the denial of them — are among the most powerful tools that newspapers have for holding political figures to account,” write the media scholar Robert McChesney and the journalist John Nichols in their 2010 book “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.”  The Batavian hasn’t actually endorsed any candidates, but at least it’s not legally prohibited from doing so — and Owens takes strong stands on other local issues without having to worry about the federal government swooping in and threatening his livelihood.

***

When I visited Batavia in 2009, I rode along with Owens as he made sales calls and covered stories in Genesee County. It seemed like a hard slog. At one point, as we were driving through the tiny farm town of Stafford, he gestured to a well-manicured golf course. “If you find out that I’ve joined the Stafford Country Club,” he said, “then I’ve been successful.” Two years later, I asked him about the status of his country club aspirations. He laughed. “I’d love to join the Stafford Country Club and have time to enjoy the privileges thereof,” he said, “but we’re probably years away from doing that.”

Yet The Batavian keeps growing. Last week the site announced a new real-estate ad partnership. Recently Owens told me he now spends virtually none of his time on ad sales, having offloaded that task to his part-time employee. The Owenses are able to devote the bulk of their time to journalism — something that was not the case when I was researching “The Wired City.”

Owens likes to remind people that we’re at the very beginning of online news as a business, and that what appears not to add up economically today may look quite different a few years from now. As Owens asked in a provocative blog post four years ago: “If it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?”

Photos (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

How offline relationships affect online debates

I had an interesting experience Friday debating politics with Jeff Jacoby and Howard Owens on Twitter. It was the usual: big versus small government, federal versus local, food stamps and the best way to help the poor, etc.

I thought we had a civil discussion, although it got a bit heated at times. Then others came in and were pretty disparaging of Jeff and Howard. And I realized what a difference it makes when you know someone in the real world, and how that changes the way you frame your online discussions. I know Jeff and Howard offline, and I also know they are as intelligent and well-read as I am, if not more so. Yes, I think they’re wrong on some issues, but I know they arrived at their positions honestly and that I’m not going to change their minds by shooting off 140-character rockets.

And it underscored the futility of getting into social-media battles with people you don’t know. It is a massive waste of time. Yes, talking politics with people we know is always a good idea. Listen and learn. Even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll understand more than you did before. And don’t bother fighting with strangers.

Speaking of online conversations … like many, I have found that discussions are often richer and more substantive on Facebook than anywhere else. So feel free to weigh in here.