Tag Archives: New Haven Independent

Measuring the effectiveness of nonprofit news

New Haven Green

New Haven Green

Among the more difficult challenges I faced when I was researching “The Wired City” was trying to figure out the influence — and thus the effectiveness — of the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online-only news site that is the major focus of the book. So I was intrigued when NPR reported last week that the folks who run Charity Navigator hope to unveil effectiveness ratings for nonprofits in 2016. I suspect it won’t be easy.

Nonprofit news presents special challenges. You can measure a food pantry’s effectiveness by how many families get fed, or an orchestra’s reach in terms of attendance, educational programs and the like. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a news organization?

The way I tried to answer that question was to look at numbers, but to look beyond the numbers as well. Certainly the numbers couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. The Independent’s main competitor is the regional daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, whose website receives considerably more traffic than the Independent’s (two to three times as much, according to Compete.com‘s very rough numbers) — and which, unlike the Independent, has a daily print edition. How can the Independent possibly exercise the same amount of influence?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective. Since it’s not a mass-circulation outlet, the Independent relies on reaching civically engaged people — city leaders, neighborhood activists and anyone who takes an interest in what’s going on in New Haven on a daily basis.

In a 2009 interview, Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described the Independent’s readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations.” Mayor John DeStefano told me in 2011 that he considered the Register to be “the dominant media,” but added that the Independent serves “those that follow city government and community-based activities.”

One issue stood out for me as an example of how the Independent could be effective while reaching a niche audience. In the fall of 2010 the Independent — following the lead of the Yale Daily News — began reporting on incidents in which police officers ordered people not to video-record them while they were making arrests and engaging in other activities. The Independent reported on the story for months, and revealed that one man on a public sidewalk had his cellphone confiscated and the video erased; the man was charged with interfering with police.

The Independent’s reporting led to real reform. An investigation was conducted. Mayor DeStefano and the police chief at that time, Frank Limon, ordered that officers stop harassing people trying to video-record their actions as long as they weren’t interfering in police business. Mandatory training in how to respond to video-camera-wielding members of the public was added to offerings at the police academy — training that Independent founder Paul Bass and I observed during a visit to the academy. And state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, introduced legislation to make it clear that such recording was legal.

The Independent also builds influence through public events — community forums such as political debates and other events that are webcast and covered by other media as well. A particularly prominent example was a school forum in late 2010 starring education-reform critic Diane Ravitch.

I don’t think numbers tell the story, but here are a few:

  • According to the Independent’s internal counts from Google Analytics and Mint, the site receives between 120,000 and 140,000 unique visitors a month.
  • The Independent’s Facebook page has been “liked” 3,443 times as of this morning.
  • The Independent’s Twitter feed, @NewHavenIndy, has 4,486 followers.
  • The site’s weekly news email has about 4,000 subscribers, according to Bass — up about 1,000 over the past year.
  • A separate arts email has about 5,000 subscribers.

And here’s a cautionary tale for publishers who rely on outside services like Facebook, which have their own agendas: Bass told me that a change in policy may be responsible for less traffic coming to the Independent from Facebook. “Now they don’t automatically show your posts to all your followers. They show them to a sample, hoping you’ll pay to reach more of your people,” Bass said in an email last week. “So we’ve seen a drop in Facebook traffic as a result. (Which maybe quite fair. We use them free as paperboys.)”

When I asked Bass how he thought funders and prospective funders could measure the effectiveness of nonprofit news, his response was that he wasn’t sure. So what attempts have his funders made? “They look at what we publish, how people interact with it, how they experience the site’s impact living and working in the area,” Bass said. “No one has asked us for numbers.”

According to the NPR story, reported by Elizabeth Blair, some nonprofits are resisting Charity Navigator’s attempt to measure how well they’re doing. And there’s no question it will be difficult — maybe impossible — to come up with a fair system that everyone will agree on.

But it seems worth trying, especially in journalism. With traditional for-profit news, the relationship between revenue and quality is only tangential. News organizations are judged by how well their advertising moves products and services. You’d like to think that advertisers would rather be associated with quality news than the alternative, but that’s not necessarily the case.

With nonprofit news, the better the journalism, the more influence it will have — and the more attractive it should be to funders.

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

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.

CJR reviews “The Wired City”

The new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review includes a favorable review of “The Wired City” by Michael Meyer. Here is my favorite section:

“The Wired City” doesn’t have anything resembling a central thesis. (This isn’t a flaw. Way too many “future of journalism” books and reports waste their time trying to argue grand, overarching theses that almost always fall apart on closer analysis.)

One of my goals in writing the book was to return to the sort of in-depth, close-up reporting that drew me to journalism in the first place. Yes, I do some opinionating in the book, but mainly I try to let the story tell itself. I appreciate Meyer’s recognizing that and seeing it as a virtue rather than a shortcoming.

Meyer is critical of my argument that nonprofit news sites like the New Haven Independent tend to be better funded and capable of more ambitious journalism than for-profit sites — at least in these early years of the post-newspaper era.

Though I agree with Meyer that I could have done a better job of quantifying that observation, I nevertheless believe I was describing a situation that’s real. For-profits like The Batavian and CT News Junkie are doing better all the time — better than they were when I was researching the book.

But it’s still a hard slog. Given the low value the marketplace has assigned to online advertising, that’s likely to continue.

The Arts Fuse reviews “The Wired City”

Bill Marx has written a favorable review of “The Wired City” for The Arts Fuse, a Boston-based online arts magazine that he founded in 2007. Our paths crossed at The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s, and I know that Bill is a tough audience.

Bill also offers a worthwhile criticism — that the hyperlocal sites I write about should do more arts coverage, and that I should have held them to task. He’s right. At one time the New Haven Independent’s lack of in-depth arts coverage was on my radar, but I failed to follow up. But let me offer two points.

First, the Independent’s arts coverage is quite a bit more extensive today than it was when I was doing my research, with much of it funded by beat-specific grant money.

Second, though this doesn’t quite get at Marx’s critique, both the Independent and The Batavian, the two sites I cover in the most detail, emphasize excellent photography. That visual appeal is part of what has made them a success.

Book notes and upcoming appearances

Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday's book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for "The Wired City."

Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday’s book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for “The Wired City.”

Many thanks to Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, and Will Baker, director of the Institute Library, for a terrific event for “The Wired City” last Thursday. It was great to catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in quite a while and to meet new people. The Independent’s Thomas MacMillan covered the event here; the New Haven Register’s Randall Beach and Melanie Stengel here.

Closer to home, Will Broaddus of The Salem News interviewed me last week for his book column.

I’ve got three events coming up during the next week that you might be interested in.

• On Wednesday at 6 p.m. I’ll be part of a panel that will discuss the New England premiere of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio,” directed by Kevin McKinney. It’s not cheap, but it’s for a good cause: The event will benefit WHAV Radio, an independent online-only radio station based in Haverhill. The screening will take place at Chunky’s Cinema Pub, 371 Lowell Ave., Haverhill. You can find out more here.

• On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be doing an event for “The Wired City” at the Globe Lab, which works on new technology projects for The Boston Globe. The lab is located at the Globe, which is at 135 Morrissey Blvd. The event is free and open to the public.

• Next Monday, June 24, I’ll be sitting down with Emily Rooney to talk about “The Wired City” on “Greater Boston,” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

Photo by Thomas MacMillan for the New Haven Independent.

“Annie Le is missing”

The Nieman Journalism Lab has posted a lengthy excerpt from Chapter One of “The Wired City.” You can read the entire excerpt here. What follows is a much shorter version — an excerpt of an excerpt, if you will.

Paul Bass felt uneasy. It was a Friday — Sept. 11, 2009. He was getting ready to leave the office for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. And he was beginning to wonder if he had blown a big story.

Two days before, Bass had received an email from someone at Yale University telling him that a 24-year-old graduate student named Annie Le was missing. Could Bass post something on his community website, the New Haven Independent? Sure thing, Bass replied. So he wrote a one-sentence item with a link to a Yale Daily News account. As he recalled later, he didn’t think much about it after that.

Now Bass was facing a dilemma. Annie Le was still missing, and the media were starting to swarm. He was off until Saturday night; as an observant Jew, he does not work on Saturdays until after sundown. On top of this, his managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was leaving town for a few days. Bass remembered reading somewhere that Le had once written a story about students and crime for a magazine affiliated with Yale. He found it, linked to it, and wrote an article beginning: “A graduate pharmacology student asked Yale’s police chief a question: ‘What can one do to avoid becoming another unnamed victim?’ Seven months after she printed the answer in a campus publication, the student may have become a crime victim herself.” It was a start — nothing special, but enough to get the Independent into the chase. Then Bass went home.

As it turned out, the Annie Le saga — soon to become a murder story — developed into one of the most heavily publicized news events to hit New Haven in many years. Her body was discovered inside a laboratory wall at Yale Medical School on Sunday, Sept. 13, the day she was to be married. The grisly fate of the beautiful young Yale student proved irresistible to the national media. From The New York Times to the New York Post, from the “Today” show to Nancy Grace, reporters, producers, and photographers besieged city and university officials.

The story proved significant to the New Haven Independent as well. The Le case was exactly the sort of story Bass would normally have been reluctant to pursue. The Independent’s focus was on the city’s neighborhoods and quality-of-life issues, not Yale, which Bass believed got plenty of coverage elsewhere. “I was an idiot about the whole thing,” Bass told me at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language newspaper in downtown New Haven where the Independent rents a cramped office. “We don’t want to overdo Yale. That’s not our community. You don’t want to say one life is more important than another. But by Friday it’s hitting me. ’Cause now it’s been a bunch of days, and it’s feeling creepy. People were writing about it, and we were resisting writing about it. And then I said, you know what? I might be really missing it here.”

Once Bass overcame his misgivings, the Independent’s dogged coverage earned the site national attention. Readership, which Bass said was generally around 70,000 unique visitors a month at the time, more than doubled in September to about 197,000. But the Le case was more than a way to garner attention and build an audience. It also became an opportunity for an online-only news outlet with a tiny staff to prove that it could keep up with — and, in a few instances, surpass — far larger and better-established media organizations. (Click here to keep reading.)

Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Online news sites enable two arrests

Video from surveillance cameras amplified by online news sites led to the arrests of two people sought by police in recent weeks.

One of the incidents took place last Thursday in the western New York community of Batavia, where a camera at a Walmart captured an image of a man who allegedly yelled loudly at a young child and then threw him onto a concrete floor.

According to an account in YNN Rochester, state police contacted Howard Owens and asked him to publish a photo in The Batavian, an online news site of which he is the editor and publisher.

That night, a 28-year-old man was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child and harassment. Here is Owens’ account of the arraignment.

“Fifteen to 20 minutes of it being posted, we had numerous calls coming into our dispatch at the State Police Batavia and the Genesee County Sheriff’s dispatch,” Trooper Holly Hanssel was quoted as telling YNN. “Him posting the picture immediately on his website was huge and that absolutely helped us.”

Owens’ competition, The Daily News, referred to The Batavian simply as “an online news site” in its own report on the arrest, apparently not wanting to identify its crosstown rival. The paper also reported that “police did not provide The Daily News or other media with the photo.”

Frankly, that strikes me as odd. Regardless of why law enforcement approached Owens first, it seems to me that the police should have wanted to get the photo out to as many media outlets as possible. It also strikes me as a possible violation of public records laws, although police generally have a great deal of discretion while a crime is being investigated.*

Regardless, it was a coup for The Batavian.

The other incident involves a convenience store robbery that took place in New Haven on May 16. Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site, posted a video clip from the store’s surveillance camera showing an older man calmly showing the clerk a gun and then grabbing cash out of the register.

Incredibly, the man’s family saw the story and persuaded the man — described as 57 years old and homeless — to turn himself in. “I’m just a drug addict. I’m just on hard times. My family convinced me to turn myself in,” the man reportedly told police.

A day later, police heard from someone who said he and a friend had been robbed by the same man when he approached them on the street.

Both the Independent and The Batavian are featured in “The Wired City,” my book on online community news.

*Update: Owens has posted a comment, and I realize now that I assumed The Daily News had requested the photo and was turned down. In fact, that does not appear to be the case.

Talking about “The Wired City” this Monday

Update: We got postponed to clear time for ongoing coverage of the Connecticut train crash

I’ll be doing my first major media event for “The Wired City” on Monday, May 20, at 9 a.m., when I’ll be a guest on Connecticut Public Radio’s “Where We Live,” hosted by John Dankosky.

Joining me will be Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that is the main subject of my book.

If you’re interested, you can listen live online or grab a podcast.