NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT — The nonprofit New Haven Independent, which has been delivering serious-minded local news to residents of New Haven, Conn., and the surrounding area since 2005, takes a lot of pride in how it interacts with the community. In fact, the site’s editor maintains that its readers are as integral to the editorial process as its reporters.
“Our readers do our typos,” explains Paul Bass, editor and founder of the site. Bass, who has been a reporter for thirty years, thinks that the New Haven Independent’s nonprofit model can be used by others to help bring vigor back into community journalism. He believes a paper’s focus should be on reporting, not profits. “It goes back to the old-fashioned purpose of a newspaper—to promote civic debate, rather than sell toasters,” he says, deriding the emphasis many papers place on advertising.
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Although Bass worked in traditional corporate newsrooms for years, he found that his experiences in those environments felt empty and impersonal. “Corporate ownership was killing American journalism,” Bass says. While working on a book in 2005, Bass became fascinated with blogging and the medium’s ability to cultivate interaction with its readers. That’s when he came up with the idea for the New Haven Independent. It took him three months to raise his starting budget of $80,000, and another two months to get the site up and running.
The big difference between the New Haven Independent and for-profit newsrooms, according to Bass, is that the Independent has no human resources department, no bureaucracy that might interfere with innovation. “We make decisions fast,” he says.
This model seems to be working. In 2010 The New York Times called Bass “one of the most watched exemplars of scrappy, low-budget, high-impact local journalism.” The site, funded by individual donors as well as foundations, has seen its annual budget grow from $80,000 in 2005 to $575,000 today. A grant of $50,000 from the Universal Health Care Foundation for health care reporting was an early boost for the site. Financial support has also come from Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Betsy Grauer Realty, and a philanthropist named William Graustein. The site now has nine full-time staff who edit and report, as well as freelancers. Bass has even been able to create a sister site, the Valley Independent Sentinel, which covers Naugatuck Valley.
Bass estimates that reporters produce about fifteen to twenty new stories a day for the New Haven Independent, mostly hard news on schools, government, and the economy. Stories range from short blurbs to longer, more detailed pieces. Typical stories are of local interest, but the site can hold its own when one of those stories goes national. The Independent’s coverage of the murder of Annie Le, who was a PhD student in pharmacology at Yale, garnered national attention, especially when the site scooped media outlets like the Times on getting the name of a suspect.
Google Analytics shows that the site attracts about 180,000 unique vistors a month, though Bass is skeptical of the figure: “According to that, more than 100 percent of the population views the site.”
The site shares office space with Spanish-language newspaper La Voz Hispana, and often collaborates with them on stories. Bass says that the partnership strengthens the Independent’s role in the community, reaching an important audience. Although New Haven is perhaps best known as the home of Yale University, it has a growing Hispanic population, which the site wants to reach.
Despite the Independent’s close working relationship with its readers, Bass points out that the citizen doesn’t replace the reporter. “They want us to be the professionals—to do the stories and frame the questions,” he says. The citizen’s job is to take it to the next level with comments and debates. Bass says that comments are carefully screened before appearing on the site, so that a more diverse group of people feel comfortable commenting. In addition, the hottest debates are highlighted in a “Today’s Debates” blurb at the top of the left-hand column of the homepage.
The Independent’s work points to an exciting time for nonprofit community journalism. As Bass argued in the 2010 Times profile of his site, “If your beat is the funeral parlor, you just think people are dying…If you step outside, you see just as many people are being born. We’re returning to an era when we get news from more than one source again, human beings, rather than one monopoly newspaper sending out as few people as possible so it can make as much money as possible. It’s a new golden age.”
New Haven Independent Data
Name: New Haven Independent
City: New Haven
Principal Staff: Paul Bass, editor; Melissa Bailey, managing editor; Eugene Driscoll, Valley editor.
Affiliations: Content: La Voz Hispana, NBC30, NPR (Connecticut); Community Foundation Support: Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
CJR on New Haven Independent:
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