BENTON, ARKANSAS — “Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney.” Scary words if you’re a city official caught using public property for campaigning purposes. Just two weeks after launching First Arkansas News, founder Ethan C. Nobles, whose ‘about’ statement above is brief but bold, broke such a story after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the e-mail records of Arkansas congressman Steve Womack. When photos circulated showing a Womack campaign trailer filled with removed signage of campaign opponents, Womack violated a political practices act by sending an apology to the opponents from his mayoral e-mail address. The story eventually diffused, but not before other outlets picked it up and began noticing First Arkansas News.
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“It’s gratifying to print something like that and have the traditional media follow us,” says Nobles. Since entering the Arkansas blogosphere in 2010, the Benton-based site has attracted over 100,000 unique visitors before its first birthday. Meanwhile, Nobles has remained an executive for Benton/Bryant Realtors Association, posting one or two original stories a night during his off time. Most stories aren’t investigative and don’t result in hate mail, though he’d oblige, but maintain a conversational tone on politics, news and entertainment.
With years of experience at the Benton County Daily Record and Springdale Morning News, Nobles has attracted an all-volunteer squad of contributors, many of whom are former reporters themselves. The volunteers are rooted in communities throughout the state and the stories they cover are most often specific to their area.
“It’s for those of us who can’t quit writing, can’t quit reporting,” says Nobles. “Driven by whatever obsessions we might have.”
For Nobles, those obsessions are real estate and pre-TV radio serials. Besides posting an extensive listing of open houses in the area, which he updates for free, one section is devoted entirely to streaming original broadcasts from the Old Time Radio catalogue. Listening to the original episodes of “The Adventure of Superman” and “Blue Beetle” from the 1940s may seem odd to its average demographic of thirty-five to fifty-five-year-olds, but the juxtaposition between a bygone outlet and an emerging one seems to fit the light-hearted hodgepodge of the site.
Other content is what you’d expect—news about birds falling from the sky (OK, that’s an exception), commentary on the Razorbacks and interviews with state authors—all produced by a volunteer staff that includes a poet, a web developer, a dog sitter, and a creative consultant, each with editing and posting capabilities through the site’s WordPress.
With no corporate oversight, deadlines, or regular staff meetings, the self-described “never-say-die writers” are free to publish whenever, whatever, and from wherever. “If we’re not paying them anything,” says Nobles, “best I can do is let them go and be creative.” Still, such creativity does not accompany lax values. Well-researched, honest reporting is consistently produced under the astute libel-detector Nobles, who earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas.
After a failed attempt to attract advertisers by forming a cooperative with seven other Arkansas startups, Nobles began thinking outside the ad box for an alternative revenue model. Drawing from the site’s niche among classic American radio fans, Nobles began a conversation with Donald Pitchford, a comic book artist and president of the Lum and Abner fan society, and Chester Lauck Jr., whose late father was the co-creator and voice of Lum and Abner. The radio comedy aired from 1931 to 1954, resulting in thousands of shows and seven films based on the rural community of Pine Ridge, Arkansas. Because most of the original live broadcasts were not recorded, Lauck Jr. gave Pitchford permission to interpret the original scripts into comic strip form. The strips are posted every Sunday on First Arkansas News.
Cultural preservation groups and longtime fans of the comic have begun sponsoring the project, and Nobles hopes that revenue from print newspaper syndication of the comic will help sustain the First Arkansas News into the future. Until the site is able to draw consistent revenue from advertising, the money from Lum and Abner sponsorships are its only significant revenue source. (Revenues are divided between Pitchford and Nobles.)
Despite financial uncertainties, the volunteer staff will continue to experiment with new ways to draw revenue, while sticking to their journalistic training. First Arkansas News exists because its contributors want it to, or, as the Flaming Lips are quoted as saying on the First Arkansas News about page, “because we could—and nobody stopped us.”
First Arkansas News Data
Name: First Arkansas News
Revenue Sources, Other: Sponsorships and syndication of “Lum and Abner”, a radio serial that ran from 1931 to 1954 translated to comic strip form.
Principal Staff: Ethan C. Nobles, founder; Jamie Smith, reporter; Edwin E. Smith, reporter; Theresa Komor, reporter.
Affiliations: Google News, Google Ads
CMS: WordPress - OpenSource (.org)