An experiment in local news is growing

Congratulations to Howard Owens, publisher and editor of the Batavian, who this week announced two part-time hires for his pioneering news site, one on the news side, the other in advertising. Significantly, his new reporter, Brittany Baker, recently lost her job at the local newspaper, the Daily News.

Owens continues to prove that it’s possible to build a successful for-profit community news site if you’re willing to work hard — although, as he is quick to point out, he works no harder than the pizza-shop owners and other entrepreneurs who advertise on his site.

Community journalism has never been a way to get rich. What Owens is proving is that the cheap and free tools of the Web make it possible to restore mom-and-pop independent local news of the sort that graced every city and town up until a generation or two ago.

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A bit more on why I keep visiting New Haven

I’m heading to New Haven in a little while for another round of interviews. I’ll be back Friday night. I’m also taking advantage of a hiatus at “Beat the Press” to visit an old friend at the Providence Journal on Friday afternoon. So it should be a good trip. It’s not likely I’ll be blogging, but since I can approve comments via BlackBerry, go ahead and have at it.

It’s also time to dip my toe in the water regarding the book that I’m working on. It’s hardly top-secret, but at the same time I want to be discreet. Anyway: A couple of months ago I signed a contract with UMass Press to write a book about the New Haven Independent and the rise of non-profit community news sites. (Working title: “The Wired City.”) The idea is that low-cost, online projects can at least partly offset the decline of for-profit newspapers — a decline that is far more advanced in Connecticut than it is here in Greater Boston.

The Independent is one of a handful of non-profits that are doing real community journalism. Though not as well known as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost or the Texas Tribune, it is nevertheless a viable, growing news organization that employs four full-time journalists plus another two at a satellite site in the suburbs. The Independent not only covers the big stories in New Haven, but also regularly publishes articles about the minutia in New Haven’s neighborhoods that the dominant daily, the New Haven Register, can’t touch.

I figure my book will be about 60 percent to 80 percent about the Independent, with the rest focusing on changing business models for journalism as well as on some other sites worthy of note — including a couple of for-profits I’ve visited, the Batavian, in western New York, and Baristanet, in Montclair, N.J.

I’d like to do a little bit of crowdsourcing; at the same time, I want to avoid writing my book in public. I’d welcome any ideas for people I should interview (in New Haven and elsewhere) and books and articles I should read.

I’ll have more to say as my project progresses.

Listening to your audience

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a community news site in western New York, offers a useful lesson in listening to your audience.

On Friday, Owens posted a story about a couple who were arrested and charged with having sex on a picnic table at a public park. Both the 41-year-old woman and her 29-year-old paramour were charged with public lewdness. Weirdly, the woman, who is married and has children, was also charged with adultery.

Owens customarily publishes the names of every adult who is arrested. In this case, though, he named the man but not the woman, writing, “Because the woman is married with children, The Batavian has chosen to withhold her name.”

That led to a flood of comments, most of them from readers arguing that what was good for the man ought to be good enough for the woman as well. Owens, in turn, changed his mind and named the woman, writing:

After giving it much thought — listening to our critics, talking with Billie [his wife and business partner], considering previous cases — I’ve come to the conclusion that our decision Friday night not to publish the name was a mistake.

Never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Owens posted a poll question an hour and a half ago, asking, “When couples are caught in public having sex, should their names be released?” The results, as I write this: 68 percent “yes,” 15 percent “no,” 14 percent “maybe” and 3 percent “no opinion.” [Note: Results corrected as of 11:07 a.m.]

Given Owens’ policy of naming every person over 17 who is “arrested, detained or cited by local law enforcement when the name is released to the local media,” I think he made the right call.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The future of journalism will be local

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “State of the News Media” report, though valuable, doesn’t really capture what’s going on at the grassroots, where hyperlocal projects like the New Haven Independent and The Batavian are reinventing journalism every day.

An award for an innovative online news site


The Batavian, an online-only news site based in the western New York town of Batavia, has been recognized as the “Innovative Enterprise of the Year” by the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce.

Founded and now owned by former GateHouse Media executive Howard Owens, the two-year-old Batavian is among the more serious for-profit local-news experiments unfolding nationally.

Above is an interview I did with Owens last June during a visit to Batavia. Congratulations to Owens, an innovative thinker who has fully embraced the just-do-it ethos of online journalism.

Take two and call me in the morning

These two pieces really need to be read together. In today’s New York Times, media columnist David Carr takes a look at Gannett’s Journal News, in Westchester County, which has essentially fired the whole staff and invited everyone to reapply.

It sounds brutal — OK, it is brutal — but with the business model irretrievably broken, it makes perfect sense to blow everything up and start over. If it’s inevitable that the paper is going to end up with a much smaller staff, then it’s vital that the right people get to keep their jobs.

The second piece is a blog post by Howard Owens, the former GateHouse digital-publishing director who’s now publisher of the Batavian, a community news site covering the area between Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

Although much of Owens’ post is about why it makes sense for newspaper companies to separate print and online news operations, the heart of it is that since online advertising can only grow so much, the proper response is to cut expenses in order to reach break-even. He writes:

In a market where the newspaper newsroom might cost $10 million, I knew how to make $1 million online, or even $2 million, but I didn’t know — and still don’t — how to make $10 million.

So if I can make a million online, why do I need operate a $10 million newsroom, especially given the greater efficiencies of online publishing?

It’s possible to make money in online journalism. What may not be possible is for large, legacy news organizations — especially newspapers — to survive unless their executives are willing to rethink everything they do.

Howard Owens talks about The Batavian


My spring-and-summer video tour of innovative online news organizations continues with Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit news site in western New York state that he founded when he was director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media.

Owens left GateHouse earlier this year and took The Batavian with him. I visited him in late June and spent a few days interviewing him and other folks in Batavia. Owens, though, is the only one I captured on video.

Here are links to my earlier video interviews:

  • Christine Stuart, editor and publisher of CT News Junkie, which covers political and governmental news from the Connecticut State House, in Hartford.
  • Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online, whom I interviewed in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
  • Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices.
  • Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site.
  • Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, a for-profit community news site in Montclair, N.J.