TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — [UPDATE:The Florida Independent was closed by its parent, the American Independent News Network, on April 27, 2011, just before the site’s second birthday. CJR’s detailed profile of AINN’s refocusing on a national audience after shutting down all but one of its state sites can be found here.]
Launched in May 2010 with a $352,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, The Florida Independent is the newest member of CEO David Bennahum’s American Independent News Network (AINN). There are nine state-wide news sites in the nonprofit network, including sites for Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, Texas, and Minnesota. After its first year in publication, the Florida Indepenedent has found a niche in the Florida media scene with beats that include the Florida legistature, environment news, and reproductive rights.
- Read more about The Florida Independent
Typical Florida Independent stories examine the consequences of legislative policies, chronicle lobbying activity, or update readers on legislative deal brokering. The site offers a serious-minded editorial mix that both supplements and contextualizes the journalism of other outlets in the state.
“We ask ourselves ‘How can we separate ourselves from our competition? Is there an angle that’s unexamined, or a topic they’re ignoring?’” Levey-Baker says. Within months of its launch, the site broke a story about then-gubernatorial candidate (and current governor of Florida) Rick Scott, and potential overcharges to Medicare by his company, Solantic. The story triggered a press conference—exactly the sort of “impact” editors seek.
AINN is a news network with an established national-wide brand, but individual sites enjoy editorial leeway. The Florida Independent is developing its own style. The site kicked off the 2010 election season by hiring experienced investigative journalist Tristam Korten. Focusing on longer-term investigations was a way for the site to stand out from other outlets’ frenetic campaign journalism. “Our readers are more involved and more connected,” says Levey-Baker. “We want to be on the list of sites you’ve gotta check out if you’re invested in Florida politics.”
Despite the site’s serious bent, the Independent’s reporters avoid wonkishness. Articles are short and readable. “All the writers have honed their voices,” Levey-Baker says. “It’s hard to write about a proposal that would limit the amount of tax revenue the state of Florida can obtain. It’s tough to make that subject come alive.”
The Independent pays its reporters a stipend, meaning reporters are paid monthly for a set number of stories. Some of the reporters write elsewhere, like Virginia Chamlee, who also reports for the Courthouse News Service. Editors recently decided to focus what had been five stipends worth of money on four employees. “We learned it’s better to concentrate more responsibility on one person than spread it out,” Levey-Baker says. The new arrangement enables one reporter, Travis Pillow, to do a full-time Tallahassee beat, something the site did not have previously despite its focus on politics. Levey-Baker says Pillow is often the only reporter in assembly meetings. (The Independent’s other two reporters are Marcos Restrepo, in Broward County, who covers labor, immigration, and healthcare issues, and Chamlee, in Jacksonville, who reports on reproductive rights and environmental issues. Because of their geographic divide, writers communicate via Skype, e-mail, or the telephone.)
According to AINN CEO Bennahum, roughly 5 percent of AINN’s network-wide income comes from ads. “We see advertising growing to ten to fifteen percent at most,” he says. “No matter what, foundation support remains critical to what we do.” By sharing resources such as administrative staff and web development across the network, AINN can save on expenses. “It’s why our site is unique,” he says. “That level of efficiency is something most [local news nonprofits] don’t have.” Despite hopes to increase ad revenue, Bennahum says foundation support remains critical to the network’s journalism.
The Florida Independent is only nine months old as of this writing, but it reaches about 30,000 people a month, according to Quantcast. This number spiked to 40,000 during November’s elections.
Levey-Baker believes the Independent adds critical diversity as local papers limit reporting and syndicate content from larger outlets. “We are serving an audience that needs this kind of information,” he says. “You see a consolidation of journalists in Tallahassee… Having that extra voice is really important.”
The Florida Independent Data
Name: The Florida Independent
Principal Staff: Cooper Levey-Baker, editor; Travis Pillow, reporter; Virginia Chamlee, reporter; Marcos Restrepo, reporter.
Affiliations: Business: Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, Community Foundation of North Florida, The Schooner Foundation, Randall Bono, Christopher Findlater.
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