The Batavian moves to bolster its ad-supported free site with a subscription-based app

The Batavian, a hyperlocal news project in western New York, has long been among the more successful independent for-profit ventures  in community journalism. Launched by GateHouse Media in 2008 and operated by former GateHouse executive Howard Owens after the company eliminated his job the following year, the free site is an intriguing jumble of news, press releases, photos, promotions and vast amounts of local advertising. (The Batavian is prominently featured in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online local and regional journalism.)

Now Owens is trying something new — an ad-free mobile app designed with the idea of signing up paid subscribers. In a recent interview with Tom Grubisich of StreetFight, Owens said it took him two years to hone the app. The challenge, he said, is that though The Batavian is profitable, it has stopped growing. His goal for the app is not only to come up with a new revenue stream but to expand into other communities. He told Grubisich:

I’m interested in building a more native experience, which means it’s built around the feed, allows for more personalization and makes engagement more seamless. I’ll either do that for The Batavian, or if I’m fortunate enough to acquire funding, we’ll look for ways to expand that model into other communities. I’m most interested in being able to help aspiring local publishers get into the game and providing them the resources to be successful but we’ll also look software as a service and whole ownership of local news businesses.

At a moment when big, sexy digital media projects such as BuzzFeed are facing possible financial troubles, it’s important to keep an eye on the go-it-slow approach taken by independent publishers like Owens.

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News deserts spread as optimism over online local journalism fades away

When I began my research for “The Wired City” in 2009, I was optimistic that a new generation of online-only community news sites would rise to fill in at least some of the gaps left behind by shrinking legacy newspapers. Eight years later, the more prominent of the sites I reported on are still alive and well. The New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego, and statehouse news services like CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror are as vital today — if not more so — than they were back then.

But though there has been some growth, especially at the grassroots level, the hope for reasonably well-funded new forms of local journalism with the heft to hold government to account is largely unfulfilled. Efforts such as the Worcester Sun (disclosure: I’m an unpaid adviser) and WHAV Radio in Haverhill hold promise, but they’re still looking for a viable way forward. News deserts are spreading.

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post takes a look at an especially difficult case — East Palo Alto, California, a poor, mostly minority community in the shadow of wealthy Palto Alto. And he finds that in an area crying out for strong local journalism, the best that they have is East Palo Alto Today, a nonprofit with a print publication that only comes out once every other month.

Farhi also cites a study by the University of North Carolina on the role of hedge funds and other financial instruments in destroying local journalism. I intend to spend some time with that study in the days ahead.

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Trump wants to ‘totally destroy’ restrictions on nonprofit speech. I agree.

President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.

Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:

Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.

I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.

I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.

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Here we go again: No, print will not save the shrinking newspaper business

This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.
This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.

A few years ago Paul Bass and I appeared on a Connecticut radio station to talk about the future of local journalism. Bass was and is the founder, editor, and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news organization that is the main subject of my book The Wired City.

Bass and I both came out of the world of alternative weeklies. He was the star reporter for the New Haven Advocate. I was the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. While we were on the air, he told a story about a club owner in New Haven who had once advertised heavily in the Advocate—but had found he could reach a better-targeted audience on Facebook while spending next to nothing.

Need I tell you that both the Advocate and the Phoenix have gone out of business?

I’m dredging up this anecdote because the Columbia Journalism Review has published a much-talked-about essay arguing that newspapers made a huge mistake by embracing all things digital and should instead have doubled down on print. Michael Rosenwald writes that instead of chasing ephemeral digital revenues, newspapers should have built up their print editions and offered more value to their readers.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Thinking about news in the post-newspaper age

9781625340054Will the struggling newspaper business survive? No. And yes.

Let me explain. Several days ago, the New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote an elegy for the age of newspapers, by which he meant ink spread across the reconstituted pulp of dead trees and trucked hither and yon to be deposited on the porches of grateful readers. News will survive, Rutenberg told us, but the medium through which that news appears will soon be entirely digital.

Yet, as Rutenberg also pointed out, here we are some twenty years into the era of digital news—and advertising revenue from print editions continues to be what keeps newspapers afloat. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry whose majority revenue is not still print,” theMinneapolis Star Tribune publisher Michael J. Klingensmith told him.

Read the rest at the UMass Press blog. And to leave a comment, visit the link to this post on Facebook.

New Haven Independent celebrates its first decade

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Arts writer David Sepulveda with a vintage copy of the first incarnation of the New Haven Independent, which was co-founded by Paul Bass and was published for several years in the late 1980s.

Congratulations to Paul Bass and the staff and friends of the New Haven Independent, who are celebrating the community website’s 10th anniversary.

On Wednesday evening a couple of dozen people gathered at the offices of La Voz Hispana, the Independent’s partner and landlord, to toast 10 years of nonprofit online journalism. It was a lower-key affair than the fifth anniversary — Bass and crew have been so busy launching the Independent’s low-power FM radio station, WNHH, that they didn’t have time to plan a proper celebration. (The Independent is the subject of my book “The Wired City.” I wrote about WNHH recently for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and was later a guest.)

The party was emceed by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of La Voz and chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Independent and its affiliated projects — WNHH, the Valley Independent Sentinel  and the Branford Eagle.

Last week Bass marked the 10th anniversary with a special hour-long conversation on WNHH about the state of independent journalism with Rodriguez-Reyes; Christine Stuart, the editor and co-owner of CT News Junkie, a for-profit website covering politics and public policy in Connecticut; and Babz Rawls-Ivy, managing editor of The Inner-City News, an African-American newspaper based in New Haven, as well as a talk-show host on WNHH.

Among other things, Bass compares legacy media’s coverage of the decline of journalism to someone who spends all his time hanging out at a funeral home and concludes that everyone must be dead. Well worth a listen.

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Mubarakah Ibrahim (left), host of “Mornings with Mubarakah” on WNHH, with her children.
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Paul Bass (right) and me. Photo by Independent alumnus and current Wall Street Journal reporter Thomas MacMillan.

The New Haven Independent takes to the airwaves

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.
WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.

“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program “Where We Live.”

Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.

Read the rest at the Nieman Journalism Lab.