FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS — The challenges have been twofold for Christopher Spencer, the veteran reporter who founded Ozarks Unbound after he was laid off from his gig at the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. The first, simply, is revenue. The second is establishing a journalistic brand when there’s only one of him (with three contributors) cranking out news about northwest Arkansas, a metro region of nearly a half-million people that is home to the University of Arkansas, Tyson Foods, and Walmart. “I can compete one-on-one with just about any of the reporters” at the local daily, Spencer says. “I can’t compete with all of them.”
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Thus Ozarks Unbound must pick its spots while focusing on four core cities: Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. The thrust is political coverage. To track pols’ war chests, Spencer launched a project called Ballot Bucks that keeps a running tally of city council campaign contributions. He supplements the civic news with analysis; his breakdown of the 2011 State of the City address by Fayetteville’s mayor chided it as “a kitchen sink inventory of anything positive that the city government was connected with.” He appears weekly on the local NPR affiliate to discuss some issue of local interest, offering him a platform on an established medium.
The political coverage helps to build what Spencer hopes will be a distinct news brand, and it also falls under the bailiwick he developed while working at dailies. A 1998 graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., he worked as a reporter for about five years in central Arkansas, covering general assignment stories, cops, nonprofits, and Conway for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He made a detour to Fayetteville for a year and a half of law school, before bailing “back to the warm embrace of journalism,” as he puts it, at what turned out to be his final paper, the Morning News. He was a county reporter when he was laid off in April of 2009, about six months before the Morning News and the Democrat-Gazette merged, ending what had been one of the nation’s last fierce newspaper wars.
“I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom,” Spencer says. “People in a newsroom and trained journalists will notice things about your stories no one else will, and they will take pride with you when you scoop something in a way that the average reader won’t generally.
Still, he says, a return to papers holds little appeal: “I’ve tasted the sweet freedom.”
Laid off in April, Spencer had Ozarks Unbound up by June. Already he finds himself in another media battle, this time with the online-only Fayetteville Flyer, which relies on entertainment and events coverage to drive its readership. “There’s an interesting dynamic here because there’s competition on that really new front,” Spencer says. “In Arkansas, there’s no other place where that’s the case.” Spencer experimented with, and ultimately abandoned, an events calendar. He found it too time-consuming, and a difficult space in which to distinguish his site. In the calendar’s place he has taken to posting news and event press releases on his site with an “Announcement” header. Not futzing with every concert or play that comes to town leaves him free to do more original reporting—including the occasional culture piece on a high school battle of the bands or a downtown Oktoberfest.
Spencer relies on advertising, some merchandising, and small donations from readers to help pay the bills. It’s going slowly. His initial plan was to build a news product before selling it to advertisers, and to encourage reader buy-in—the better to allow for brave editorial. To date, though, he’s struggling for both ad and reader dollars. His latest offer to readers: a tiered system of donations that earns increasingly handsome recognition—a handwritten note, a T-shirt, recognition on the web site. The top prize is an opportunity to assign story ideas.
After more than a year, he has banked only $700, and is pushing to move the site beyond what, monetarily at least, he worries is effectively a hobby. “But I’m pretty much in it for the long haul, figuring out how it’s going to work,” he says.
Ozarks Unbound Data
Name: Ozarks Unbound
Principal Staff: Christopher Spencer, owner and publisher.
Affiliations: KUAF (local NPR affiliate), The Food File, Google News.
CMS: Custom CMS