By the people

For better and worse, the Sacramento Press lets the readers write the news

Thirty-one-year-old Ben Ilfeld launched Sacramento Press in October 2008, with the goal of making hyperlocal news and information an interactive process for the community to both read and write.

The Press has one full-time editor in chief, two full-time staff writers, and more than 1,500 unpaid “community contributors.” Ilfeld says about 110 people write 300 articles every month, a number Ilfield calls “mind-blowing.” Contributors simply create an account, agree to the terms of use, and then they can post directly to the site. A platform this open can lead to problems—ads posing as articles, for instance, or contributions from people who are mentally ill. (The Press, as an “Internet intermediary,” is protected against anything libelous posted by its contributors by the Communications Decency and Digital Millennium Copyright acts.) Ilfield is philosophical about the varying quality of the Press’s articles: “If you want to be a little more like Twitter and less like The New York Times, you have to accept crap.”

Actually, surprisingly little of it is crap. The best pieces are featured on the top of the home page. Having an article selected for the front page is literally a badge of honor—the site posts badges on user profiles to reward good work, or for attending one of the Press’s many free skills workshops. This also helps readers identify which contributors are likely to post better-quality articles.

Articles cover the things you’d expect to see in a local paper—news, politics, events, restaurant openings—though they are often written from the perspective of a participant. There are advice columns (“Ask the County Law Librarian” and “Ask the Trainer,” for instance), and regular columns, such as Allison Joy’s “What’s With That,” in which Joy finds a relevant local’s take on larger news events.

Ilfeld prefers to call his writers “community contributors” rather than journalists. A professional journalist, he says, is an aloof observer. The Press’s users are often involved in what they write about. That involvement is why they come to the Press in the first place—they like being a part of their community. Ilfield tries to give them that same sense of belonging through the Press’s workshops and casual meetups. Writing an article, Ilfeld says, is a way to “build social capital within a group of people.” Meetings are a place to “spend” that social capital.

Ilfeld is pleased with the results so far. Though the Press is not profitable, it does generate revenue of about $30,000 a month. The site gets 200,000 pageviews—85,000 of them from unique visitors—each month. Pretty impressive, considering that Sacramento has a population of 470,000 and The Sacramento Bee’s average weekday circulation is 202,022, according to the 2011 Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The most engaged member of the Press’s staff, paid or unpaid, is probably Ilfeld himself. “I’m not a journalist,” he says. “I just really love my town.”

Correction: This piece originally misspelled Ben Ilfeld’s last name. CJR regrets the error.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.