Recent Posts by Alex Dixon

Poynter, About 1,300 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage, UNC news desert study finds

"About 1,300 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage, UNC news desert study finds" by Tom Stites for Poynter, Oct. 15, 2018

A comprehensive new study released today by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism shows that far more U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage — more than 1,300 — than previously known.

What quitting taught me about running a local publishing business 

While earning her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, Andaiye Taylor discovered that she had a passion for reporting stories about her hometown, Newark, N.J. In 2013, she launched Brick City Live, an online news startup that quickly won awards and community acclaim. The experience took such a toll on its founder that she nearly shut it down. Here is what she discovered and why she is still in business.  

“Guess I have to quit.” 

 In the summer of 2016, I decided to walk away from BrickCityLive.com, the local news site I founded to cover my hometown of Newark, N.J. By that time, I had been running it for three years. 

 It was a heart-rending decision. I had worked doggedly to create and run the site. I had built a sizable local following and learned a lot along the way. But the venture had not achieved the economic sustainability I had hoped for. It had left me overworked, overextended and exhausted. 

 Time to pack it in. 

 I knew lots of people would be shocked when I announced my decision. By the numbers, the site had done well and was an important information source for many local readers. We published consistently, commanded tens of thousands of unique visitors monthly and had a substantial social media following — impressive for an independent, bootstrapped website aspiring to serve a city of more than a quarter-million people. 

 In terms of quality, we were headed in the right direction as well. Our readers gave us high marks in our annual surveys. Peers and mentors had flattering things to say about the site. One foundation granted us money to experiment with business and publishing models for news. Another offered me a job. 

 So what if I hadn’t put all the puzzle pieces together? I had unearthed an immense amount of insight into how to do effective local publishing in my community — and how not to. And yet, in the spring and summer of 2016, I could not shake my persistent fantasies of quitting. After months of trying to talk myself down, I finally confronted the question: What if I cut my losses and move on? 

It all began with good intentions

It’s worth pausing here and going back to the origins of the site to explain what I got right and what I got wrong. 

 There was plenty to pick from on the “right” side of the ledger. I entered Columbia University’s School of Journalism in the summer of 2010 as a part-time student and knew I wanted to be a journalism entrepreneur. By the time I graduated two years later, I had written dozens of pieces about Newark. The city was rich with untold stories and was a microcosm for many issues and trends I found fascinating and consequential. 

 I asked myself the crucial question: Does the fact that I want to tell stories about Newark mean there’s a viable business model that will support doing it? I decided there just might be. One purpose of BrickCityLive.com would be to try to discover that model. I also committed myself to continuous learning about and engagement with critical issues in publishing experienced by other news organizations, both locally and around the country. 

Right mindset, wrong choices

 I had the intent, I had the energy, and I had a fairly healthy appreciation for how tough my mission was. But, boy, did I make some mistakes. In retrospect, they made my decision to quit almost inevitable. 

 I made a fateful decision a year after starting Brick City Live to also go back into the workforce and get a paying job. It was a challenge, but a net positive for the site because it provided me the income I needed. It would have worked even better if going back to work had been my plan from the beginning. 

 When I initially stopped working full-time to start Brick City, I lined up enough freelance writing and content strategy contracts to cover my costs — or so I thought. I didn’t foresee how much staff turnover there would be, or how much time I would spend chasing paychecks as a freelancer. And I couldn’t afford to run the site without an income. 

 If I had to do it again, I would have planned to limit my full-time work on Brick City to six months and focused on using that time to build the technology and editorial infrastructure to enable me to go back to work while continuing to run the site. Instead, I spent too much of my own time on reporting and story production and not enough on “executive work.” Work like revenue building, process creation and recruiting. That made it harder for me to leverage outside help when I had to divide my time between my day job and Brick City. 

Too quick to dismiss banner ads 

 Before launching the site, I had spent the better part of my career working in digital advertising. I had a front-row seat to cratering ad prices that threatened the financial prospects of large publishers. For that reason, I decided I would not make banner ad, or ads embedded on a website,  a cornerstone of the Brick City business model. 

 Instead, I attempted to create a citywide loyalty program. I theorized it would deliver value to our audience by offering incentives and savings and to businesses by encouraging repeat customers. We experimented with several iterations of this program, including a physical loyalty card and a stand-alone loyalty mobile app. In all of its forms, the businesses would pay to participate in the program. Customers could participate for free. 

 I’ve since learned that I was too quick to eschew banner ads and much too hasty to assume that loyalty should be the cornerstone of our revenue model. 

 Here’s what I overlooked: Even publishers exploring other business models use banner ads as part of their marketing mix. They do seek out ways to rely less on banner ad revenue, but, by and large, they aren’t forgoing them altogether. 

 I also didn’t consider that, if executed well, banner ads for local businesses could feel highly relevant to our readers. They visit BrickCityLive.com for local news and information, after all. 

 By the time 2016 arrived, I regretted not launching banner ads two or three years prior. That was time we missed forging relationships with small businesses and improving the ad experience. I also think that starting with banners would have made it easier to test and validate newer ideas like the loyalty program. It also would have helped the bottom line. 

 As for the loyalty program, we could barely give it away. I made the classic business mistake of falling in love with my own idea without finding out whether my target customers wanted what we were offering. I learned that businesses perceived our program as a burden: It would require more day-to-day management than they were willing to invest for a return that wasn’t obvious to them. The program never took off. 

Failing to plan

In my day job, I’m responsible for creating content, but I have a large paid team of writers and designers who produce that content. This gives me the time to focus on defining what we’ll say, and how, before the creative work begins. The experience has taught me how much a well-considered and well-communicated strategy can inform everything that gets produced, even when I don’t personally produce it. 

 This strategic work includes defining our audience in terms of their information needs and the key questions they might ask. We want to understand how they like to consume information, when they want it and through what channels. All of this work should happen before a single story idea is defined. 

 When I started Brick City, I did some of this work but not nearly enough. Once I was out of the gate, it was hard to pull back from day-to-day publishing to get this strategic work done. Investing that time on the front end would have helped me pace myself properly and make more focused editorial decisions from the beginning. Instead, we consistently found ourselves on the back foot. 

Creative impatience

My lack of a documented strategy and process was compounded by another problem: my ambition. 

 When I conceived BrickCityLive.com, I saw a gold-star, small-but-mighty publication, delivering everything from incisive explainers and commentary to eye-opening profiles of local people and trends. I imagined a guide to local opportunities for fun and for personal development. I saw my team partnering to do occasional investigations that unpacked critical issues and made our community smarter. 

In the beginning, try as I might, I had trouble putting these ideas in their proper place. 

One of the most insidious habits I developed — insidious because it made me feel proud of the site when I indulged the habit — was to grasp at those types of ideas too early. There were a number of editorial projects I took on over the years that turned out great but required more resources than I could afford at that time. I should have had the foresight and discipline to defer those ideas and invest more time in the fundamentals instead.  

 These types of ambitious projects were emblematic of a vicious boom-and-bust cycle that characterized much of my time working on Brick City. By the time I decided to quit, I realized I was in the midst of the deepest, and most extended, bust of them all. 

  What quitting revealed

 Even though Brick City had achieved a lot in three years, these mistakes added up to a situation that felt unsustainable. So I faced the music and decided to quit. Only then did the possibilities for a way forward reveal themselves. 

 I knew I couldn’t simply shut down the site without warning. I felt immense responsibility to my audience, to the people who had supported us and to my own personal and financial sacrifices over the previous few years.  

 I saw three options for moving on. 

 The first was to cease publishing new stories but to preserve the aspects of what had already been published that were evergreen. I considered creating a limited-edition print publication composed of profiles, photographs and other material that could work in that format. On the digital side, I thought about converting the site into a searchable archive of stories and images about Newark during the time period I had been publishing Brick City. Perhaps it could even find a home with trained digital archivists at the Newark Public Library. I estimated either of these projects could easily take six to nine months to complete. 

 Then I considered that instead of ending, Brick City could continue to produce new journalism without me. 

The decision to quit gave me the distance to more fully appreciate the infrastructure I had created. There were the assets themselves: the site, social media accounts, email accounts and templates, video formats, an array of plug-ins and technologies comprising the digital experience. There was the automation — processes that pushed stories to social media and created our email digests without human intervention. 

 Maybe one of Newark’s universities could take over the Brick City infrastructure and use the site as a journalism learning laboratory. Before handing it over, I would need to clean it up and document everything so that others could step in and take the controls. That was easily three months of work on my part. 

 Or what if I went in the opposite direction? In addition to infrastructure, my years of reporting in Newark resulted in a huge list of contacts and sources — people with expertise and institutional knowledge who were almost always willing to share what they knew with the community. 

 What if, instead of institutional stewardship, I gave the site to everyone? It would be a way to use that same publishing infrastructure and to also consider and empower disparate and decentralized knowledge sources in the community. If I wanted to do that, I would need to build tools for fact-checking, filtering, community editing and moderation. Six months of work. 

 That's when I had the realization. By the time I finished doing the connecting, convincing, cleaning, streamlining and documentation necessary to make any one of the ideas launch-ready, it would be the type of project that I would not only be proud to be a part of, but that also would be a lot easier to operate. 

 This is how confronting my inclination to quit helped me understand how to re-create Brick City Live into a site that could do better for its community and be a sustainable venture for me and those who were yet to become a part of it. 

Relaunching the concept

 So Brick City and I were back on. Once I affirmed this, one of the first and most consequential set of questions I asked myself was how to define what excellence looked like at various levels of effort in terms of storytelling formats for the site. 

 What does an excellent 200-word post about an upcoming event look like? How about an excellent photo slideshow of a recent event? What about an excellent email Q&A with a fascinating person? When is it appropriate to use those formats, and for what types of stories is deeper reporting a must-have? Given our lean resources, how often can we reasonably publish more in-depth stories? 

 Thinking about quality storytelling in sustainable story formats was one of the most useful exercises I have ever undertaken for Brick City. It gave me a tool kit for planning our stories in a way that serves and respects our audience. It showed me what was sustainable and allowed me the time to contemplate how we would grow. 

 As for our audience, they didn’t seem to mind at all — or for that matter, to even notice. I credit that to our insistence on quality, plus the fact that more mindful story production enabled us to ramp up the frequency of publishing and actually provide more information. Our new pace gave our deeply reported stories more time to be absorbed by our audience. We also learned the art of re-circulating stories from our archives. 

 Happily, we’re cracking the code on the business model as well. Our considerable time creating a “calendar of record” for Newark has sparked an organic demand for featured listings. There’s so much information on the calendar that some event producers have asked to pay in order to stand out. 

 We’re working with Broadstreet Ads, an ad-serving technology built with small publishers in mind. It has enabled us to offer an attractive and meaningful banner ad experience to readers and advertisers, including options for self-service ad creation that will enable us to scale sustainably. And we’ve begun to experiment with sponsored content campaigns. We’ve noticed larger institutions are the most promising prospects here. 

 Perhaps most critically, I’m working with a smart and committed partner, Matthew Ling, to contemplate, create and manage our advertising products. His fresh perspective has made a significant difference already. Matt was the mind behind Brick City Live Tickets, a local ticketing service that enables event promoters to set up events and sell tickets through Brick City Live with lower service fees than they would pay through other online ticketing platforms. I’m not sure I would have ever thought of such a utility, but based on our projections, it has great potential to scale within our locale. 

 In this mix of revenue and product experiments, we see a pathway to sustainability. 

 My brief time contemplating the “life after” for Brick City Live — and for context, that lasted hours, not days — helped me to understand what our publication really is. I moved away from defining us solely by the stories we produced. I began defining us in terms of the sum total of what we do — much of it subterranean from our audience perspective.  

 Yes, we publish stories. But we also convene a community, cultivate sources, build commercial relationships with businesses and maintain an infrastructure that not only helps us to publish, but also gives us incredible access to the breadth of stories worth telling every day. Commandeering all those resources to benefit our audience and doing it in a sustainable way – that’s my job. And when I’m doing that well, once in a while I just may be able to go back to taking my sweet time writing carefully crafted stories. 

 Supplemental Content:

 Watch: BrickCityLive.com founder and editor Andaiye Taylor appears on ‘One-on-One with Steve Adubato’ 

http://brickcitylive.com/features/bclstaff/watch-brickcitylive-com-founder-and-editor-andaiye-taylor-appears-on-one-on-one-with-steve-adubato/ 

 4 Lessons in Local News Innovation from Brick City Live 

http://mediashift.org/2015/06/four-lessons-in-local-news-innovation-from-brick-city-live/ 

How the Nonprofit Civil Beat News Site Found Its Rhythm

Honolulu Civil Beat, a news site focused on public life in Hawaii, came to life in 2010 through the support of a major philanthropist. Both he and the staff of this startup believed it was destined to be a for-profit venture. Civil Beat Editor and General Manager Patti Epler explains how public reaction to the news site changed that view and sent creators in another direction.

When you’re sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you think a lot about what it means to be part of a small community. Public trust. Relationship building. Accountability. Giving back. These are the cornerstones Honolulu Civil Beat is building on as we continue to grow our independent news outlet here in the islands.

Since startup in 2010, we have evolved our business model to reflect not only our particular place in Hawaii’s media landscape, but also who we are and what kind of civic partner we want to be. It’s really the model of a small-town news organization, even though we have a statewide reach and, often, national aspirations. We believe news is a public asset.

Civil Beat was started by philanthropist and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has long advocated for a free and independent press as a critical piece to a healthy democracy. Civil Beat was his toe in the water that eventually led to many efforts across The Omidyar Group — a collection of social impact companies, organizations and initiatives — to support all aspects of journalism. His experience with Civil Beat helped inspire First Look Media, a national organization consisting of reporting from The Intercept and other news, film and audio projects.

Civil Beat launched as a for-profit, subscription model with startup support from Omidyar. The idea was that Hawaii readers would embrace the kind of investigative and watchdog journalism that had long been lacking in the islands. We thought that it wouldn’t be long before we had enough $19.99-per-month paying customers to break even. No click-based advertising — just subscriptions and possibly some corporate sponsors of our big projects.

It didn’t work out that way. Civil Beat fairly soon came to grips with what it means to be a small news site in a place where the cost of living is higher than in most large American cities. We found that 20 bucks a month for an online news site was a bit of a stretch for the broader community. Businesses got a better bang for their buck from buying ads on TV news or from the statewide newspaper publisher and its spinoffs than from sponsoring our projects.

Meanwhile, we were doing the kinds of stories that no other news organization was even attempting. Our reputation for journalistic excellence was growing, and our impact on policymakers and public policy was phenomenal. Our findings were regularly cited by key political and civic leaders, showing up in reports and studies and even being written into legislation as the basis for reform efforts. We won a lot of awards, including being named the best news site in Hawaii every year of our existence by the Society for Professional Journalists.

That helped us build a readership that was highly educated, well-heeled and skewed older. While the price of a monthly subscription was quite doable for these folks, a readership survey in 2014 showed that these readers were also subscribing to numerous publications — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist, to name just a few.

Our subscription base continued to grow — but very slowly. Our metered paywall – which allowed readers to view a few articles for free before charging them - didn’t help either. It was so porous that most people could access enough of our content regularly, and they didn’t even really need to subscribe. We dropped our price a few times, and after five years we ended up at $4.99 per month.

The thing we heard over and over again? “I love Civil Beat. You guys are the best. I know I should subscribe but …”

But.

In 2016 — six years in — we decided to embrace what we had become: a mission-based news organization that eschewed a larger retail strategy. We were in it to help Hawaii become a better place, as we had said from the beginning. Along the way, we hired experienced — and higher-priced — journalists who joined Civil Beat because they could do excellent journalism without the dark shadow of budget cuts.

In June 2016, we converted to a nonprofit and dropped the paywall. And then things really started to pick up. Now, people who had been reluctant to buy a subscription were happy to donate. They told us they were eager to help our efforts to report on the news and issues they thought were important. Many saw their donations as sending a signal to policymakers that we were doing important work, and they wanted it to continue. (That kind of support is especially energizing when you are fighting for public records and information against recalcitrant government officials.)

As it turns out, people in Hawaii really do value the kind of journalism we are doing — independent, investigative and explanatory public affairs reporting that takes people inside the issues and seeks to hold public officials accountable to their citizens.

We managed to hold on to most of our paid subscribers, who converted to monthly memberships. And we have gained hundreds more grassroots donors. We launched our first-ever year-end fundraising campaign on Black Friday 2016, with an ambitious goal of raising $50,000 in grassroots support. Led by a $10,000 matching grant from the EACH Foundation, we reached our goal in just a few weeks, prompting us to stretch our goal to $75,000 raised by year-end.

In the end, we surpassed even our stretch goal, raising a total of $84,000. More than 1,000 Civil Beat readers made donations during our campaign. The average monthly recurring donation was $12 in the spring of 2017 — double the average subscription amount.

In the first year since our nonprofit transition, we’ve secured $200,000 in grants from community foundations. Some money came from the charitable arms of businesses whose marketing departments found it tough to help offset reporting projects when we were for-profit. One grant is funding a full-time education reporter for two years, possibly three. More donors are specifically helping underwrite environmental reporting efforts.

We list all of our donors on our website. And we make clear that donors — whether individuals or foundations — understand the strict guidelines that accompany their monetary support. The guidelines, developed in conjunction with the American Press Institute and the Institute for Nonprofit News, state that funders will have no influence on the content of stories.

The outpouring of community support has changed us in ways beyond economics. It has made us realize that if the community is going to support us, we need to support the community — beyond just publishing stories on the website and social media.

We need to work harder than ever to maintain public faith in us and trust in our journalism. We need to be transparent and accountable to readers and donors. We understand the importance of being a good community partner — not just an arms-length observer recounting news of the day.

We have a stake in this community as much as it has a stake in us. And, to be honest, the more we do in the community, the more we develop new readers who become new donors.

Civil Beat has always fancied itself as a virtual town square, a place where all sorts of people can feel comfortable expressing their views. We have worked hard to build a community that includes robust commenting on our stories, along with a Community Voices op-ed section that is open to many diverse points of view.

We’ve also held community events for years. They started as panel discussions held in our newsroom, but became too big to suit the fire marshal. For the past few years, we’ve taken these Civil Cafes and Hawaii Storytellers out to the community, finding venues that accommodate more people.

But becoming a nonprofit underscores our mission to educate and engage the community even more. We have expanded the kinds of events we do, plus we are doing more of them. We’re even helping other nonprofit community organizations with their events, sometimes through a financial sponsorship or support with program content and publicity.

In the spring of 2017, we launched a series of news literacy events in partnership with the Hawaii State Public Library System. This grew out of one of our new “member coffees,” where we invite people to come to the newsroom once a month to talk about Civil Beat. One woman wanted to know how she was supposed to figure out what news sources she could trust. So we worked with the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York to develop a curriculum for events and a resource page for our website.

We now livestream as many public events and press conferences as possible. Our Facebook Live audience is growing and appreciative of the opportunity to watch discussions and news events they otherwise could not access. Two webcams we set up — one that allowed people to watch an endangered monk seal raise her newborn pup on a crowded Waikiki beach and the other overlooking a Big Island volcanic eruption — drew tens of millions of viewers worldwide.

We continue to find other ways we, as a news organization, can support the community. Last year we launched a new internship program for young journalists in Hawaii. We accept both college students and recent graduates into a year-long “urban immersion” program, where they get hands-on training as community beat reporters. Our first cohort included three reporters and a cartoonist.

Our social media team has developed a training program for other nonprofits that want to learn how to use social media tools to help their organizations. Our journalists moderate or appear on public panels for a variety of organizations. We speak to a lot of college classes and local civic groups. We’ve made our podcasting sound studio available to anyone who wants to use it to record their own programs. A new initiative we're calling Journalism Plus starts with our journalism but takes it a couple steps further in an effort to give back to the community. For instance, we're helping women in a local prison produce their own podcast and translating our Hawaii Civics 101 series into Hawaiian and distributing it through schools.

On the news side, we have expanded our coverage to the neighbor islands, lining up a columnist on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. We have planned or conducted community events on each of the islands.

We added a full-time reporter in Washington, D.C., because the federal government and its spending are so important to Hawaii. We are the only Hawaii news outlet with a full-time presence in the nation’s capital. Today, the Civil Beat budget has grown to more than $3 million. Pierre Omidyar is still our major funder, but community support is allowing us to expand our staff and our reporting efforts.

We've grown from a startup with six reporters and three editors to a newsroom that employs 18 full-time journalists — reporters, editors, photographers, multimedia and social media editors. In addition, we have a number of paid freelance columnists, many of them longtime and well-known observers of life in our islands. We have four people on the business side, including a full-time director of philanthropy and a full-time events and membership manager.

In 2010, we had no idea what would happen with our media startup. But startups are, by definition, places to experiment with new ideas. We’ve certainly done that — sometimes with success, sometimes not so much. We intend to keep trying. But one thing we have learned is that the strength of any nonprofit organization flows from the broad support of the community. It is important that we are very much a part of Hawaii’s civic framework.

Supplemental Content:

Honolulu Civil Beat — Award-Winning Work

https://awards.journalists.org/organizations/honolulu-civil-beat/

Reynolds Journalism Institute: What a team at the Honolulu Civil Beat is learning while experimenting with Facebook Live

https://www.rjionline.org/stories/what-a-team-at-the-honolulu-civil-beat-is-learning-while-experimenting-with

Understanding The News: We’re Bringing You Behind The Scenes At Civil Beat

http://www.civilbeat.org/2018/02/understanding-the-news-were-bringing-you-behind-the-scenes-at-civil-beat/

How Nonprofit News Organizations Are Fundraising Off Trump’s Election

https://medium.com/@jasonalcorn/how-nonprofit-news-organizations-are-fundraising-off-trumps-election-995c7707dd6b

Civil Cafe: Legislative Wrap-Up 2018 Panel Discussion

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNP9r-Hc08I

Civil Cafe: Demanding Gender Equality

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn2qio1gW-s

NBC News, “Could digital media startups fill the vacuum left by community newspapers?” by Phil McCausland

"Could digital media startups fill the vacuum left by community newspapers?" by Phil McCausland for NBC News, July 30, 2018

While digital media outlets are attempting to fill the void left by the death of local print newspapers, many are struggling to come up with sustainable business models.  This article cites research by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media on the decline of U.S. newspapers.

The Sunday Times (London), “Big Apple quivers as Daily News joins ranks of ghost papers” by Josh Glancy

"Big Apple quivers as Daily News joins ranks of ghost papers" by Josh Glancy for The Sunday Times (London), July 29, 2018

The recent layoffs at the Daily News significantly affected the ability of the remaining reporters at this Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper to cover New York. “‘In the absence of a strong local paper and reporting on what’s going on, distrust builds at the local level," said Penny Abernathy, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina.

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