PORTLAND, OREGON — In a culture where the car is often the primary mode of transportation, the web/print hybrid Portland Afoot has set out to inform Portland citizens about the wide world of transportation alternatives. After leaving his job as a reporter for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., founder Michael Andersen felt that he could attract a devoted audience for a new journalism venture by providing locally focused coverage of an under-reported niche topic. In June of 2010, Andersen established Portland Afoot in response to what he believed to be a gross deficit of accessible information about regional transit options. Stories might include features on efficient cross-town bike routes, reporting on transit cuts, or even a piece about a pedicab entrepreneur who traveled from Portland to Chile using buses and other forms of public transportation.
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Portland Afoot’s business model is fairly unique for a news startup. In addition to the site, which is organized under a wiki format, Portland Afoot also releases a four-page monthly print publication. According to Andersen, the print publication is the “main product,” which is then supplemented by the webpage. Andersen sees print as an efficient way to disseminate information among the local populace. “It’s a product that I tried to design from the ground up for speed, and I think in a city like Portland, print is still the fastest, most low-effort way to get information to a reader,” he explains.
In addition to subscriptions and advertising as sources of funding, Andersen is currently working on gaining sponsorship from local businesses, a revenue source he hopes will be the largest for Portland Afoot by the end of this year. Given that Oregon businesses have state-wide mandates to reduce drive-alone commuters, Andersen hopes that this sponsorship/distribution model might also help in reducing the number of motorists on the road, while contributing to long-term growth in local transit usage.
Andersen established Portland in the Round, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that publishes Portland Afoot, and sought out the expertise of friends and colleagues in creating a Board of Trustees to oversee the organization. Andersen is the sole employee, but various contributors and volunteers help sustain the site, ranging from writers to photographers to friends helping out with the odds and ends of daily operations. Under this model, Portland Afoot has published a wide range of articles: investigation of transit cuts by interviewing veteran transit workers, to featuring a man who never uses the same route twice in his daily walk to work, to profiling a taxi driver who has reduced his gas costs by nearly thirty percent with well-timed and artful braking. Reactions have been particularly favorable among local officials; Andersen notes that both Portland’s mayor and his top transportation policy staffer are subscribers.
Andersen calls transit an “equity” issue. In a culture where “cars” and “transportation” are so often synonymous, Portland Afoot hopes to address the segment of the population that engages in alternative methods of transport. By focusing on transportation in his site and publication, Andersen hopes to provide the sort of useful, instructive reporting that might also help reduce Portland’s collective carbon footprint—and to have fun while doing it, too: “I like this stuff because I like learning about things that other people don’t necessarily care about, and I know I can only do so much of that and put so much of that in the product. So, in the long run, I’m basically just trying to finance my habit of learning about local government.”
Portland Afoot Data
Name: Portland Afoot
Revenue Sources, other: Subscriptions from print publication
Principal Staff: Michael Andersen, founder and editor-in-chief.
Affiliations: Portland in the Round
CMS: MediaWiki (for the online guide) and Wordpress (for the site blog and marketing pages).
CJR on Portland Afoot:
12/14/10: We Are Not Alone: news startup community-building - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson
12/07/10: The Sweet Smell of Failure (Or Success) At a News Startup - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson
11/30/10: Startup Rocket Science - Technical specs for a modern journalism business - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson
11/23/10: How to Tackle the Sales Demon - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson
11/16/10: Why Journalists are Terrible at Time Management - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson
11/09/10: Launch Pad: Portland, Oregon - Two news entrepeneurs explain why they struck out on their own - Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson