Kennedy spends a good deal of time getting to know the reporters at the Independent and chronicling their daily routine. Bass, the veteran New Haven newspaper reporter who founded the Independent, is mentioned often. (The focus on Bass is very much warranted because, as Kennedy writes, “the Independent would not exist if Bass hadn’t come to New Haven.”) But Kennedy also frequently ventures outside the Independent’s newsroom to document just what kind of impact, if any, the publication is having on the community.
Kennedy’s efforts to talk to consumers of journalism are hugely important. The relationship of a newspaper or radio station to its community is generally well understood; the relationship of an online-only nonprofit to its community far less so. In the case of New Haven, at least, Kennedy makes a compelling argument that, even with its small newsroom, the Independent is able to have the kind of impact it (and its funders) are hoping for, and is an effective “force for civic improvement” in New Haven. Kennedy’s analysis stands as a rigorous proof of concept for the work of the Independent and its peers.
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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.) But on the rare occasion that Kennedy does try to make a larger point about the journalism industry, he usually addresses what he sees as the benefits of the nonprofit over the for-profit model in local journalism.
Many of his points regarding the benefits of that model rely on a sloppy taxonomy. (By nonprofit he seems to mean “well-funded nonprofit,” a definition that ignores the many small, bootstrapped nonprofit operations that exist throughout the country.) His conclusion—that for-profits are often smaller and weaker than their nonprofit counterparts—becomes much more complicated when small nonprofits (not to mention the few well-funded, for-profit startups) are thrown into the mix. But his point is certainly true on a case-by-case basis, and his analysis of these cases is worthwhile.
To present one of these cases, Kennedy visits Hartford, CT, where he looks at the for-profit CT News Junkie and the nonprofit CT Mirror. (One weakness of Kennedy’s book is that all but one of the startups he visits is within driving distance of his home in Boston.) Both the Mirror and the News Junkie are run by veterans of the newspaper industry, and both offer quality coverage of statehouse news. But while the News Junkie scrapes by as a for-profit thanks to tireless work by reporter/owner Christine Stuart and her husband and business manager, Doug Hardy, the nonprofit Mirror was “born big, on the strength of $1.8 million in foundation grants intended to pay for its first three years.”
As a result, the Mirror was able to employ nine journalists in 2011, a year in which Stuart had no full-time reporters. Significantly, Kennedy notes that the nonprofit Mirror impeded News Junkie’s hopes of earning revenue off of syndicated content by offering its own statehouse coverage to Connecticut newspapers free of charge.
Kennedy expands his analysis of the for-profit news startup scene by visiting Batavia, NY, where a site called the Batavian earns revenue by running a high volume of small, affordable display ads for local businesses. He also takes a look at Baristanet, based in the affluent New Jersey suburbs, which also earns significant revenue and competes toe-to-toe with Patch, but which isn’t a source of a full-time salary for anyone, journalist or otherwise. Kennedy praises the journalism offered by these sites, but notes that their budgets, newsrooms, and missions are less substantial than those of the Independent and its nonprofit startup brethren. (Kennedy also notes that many of the same challenges faced by small startups are faced by San Diego CityBeat, a struggling alt-weekly, which has shared a city with the nonprofit Voice of San Diego for nearly a decade. When Kennedy dropped by San Diego, CityBeat’s editor was personally updating a database of bar and club listings, a task not required of any of the staff at Voice.)