ITHACA, NEW YORK — The major daily paper of Ithaca, N.Y., the Ithaca Journal, is, like eighty-two other daily papers in America, part of the Gannett chain. Over the last decade or so, Ithaca resident Ed Sutherland, who writes business news for computer blog Cult of Mac, started to notice a change in the paper. Over time, much of the content in the Ithaca Journal became virtually identical to that of the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin, another Gannett paper that serves a city fifty miles away.
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This struck Sutherland, who’s been a journalist of one kind or another since the 1980s, as a problem. “They began sharing presses and eventually they began sharing editorial workers,” Sutherland explains. “Now you can’t tell the difference between the two, so the local coverage is disappearing. That’s what got my attention; I was just looking for a news source.”
In January 2010 Sutherland started the Ithaca Independent, an online newspaper covering Ithaca, with a focus on local government and politics. The Independent is something of a work in progress. With limited funds and few contributors, Sutherland’s publication doesn’t really compete with the Journal yet. Sutherland, who spends about three hours a week putting out his publication, essentially seems to work to provide a little extra, hyper-local coverage to Ithaca residents. Sutherland is the Independent’s only employee and right now he runs the Independent while still maintaining his full-time job. During his regular work day, Sutherland searches for local news to investigate further for the Independent. Later, he’ll follow up with sources, write articles in the afternoon, and publish in the evenings.
With these limited resources the Independent still manages to produce four to five original articles per week on civic life in Ithaca. Typical articles involve a story like “Kusznir Wants All-Candidate Voter Registration Drive,” a recent piece about a mayoral candidate staging a voter registration drive to try to increase voting in the upcoming election. The Independent also specializes in crime reporting. In June Sutherland reported that the Ithaca police arrested a couple after officers found 638 envelopes of heroin in the couple’s apartment.
The mayoral election, in particular, is a source of much interest to Sutherland. A typical mayoral race in Ithaca is not so heated, but a number of candidates have jumped in this year, allowing Sutherland an opportunity to back up his talk of more substantive local coverage. As he explains, “I’ve been running ‘this is what the candidate’s been saying, and this candidate filed objections against this candidate’s material,’ and I go through the different candidates’ financial filings and give the readers a background on where the money’s coming from and how it’s being spent. And that detail is just not present in the local coverage of politics.”
Ideally, Sutherland would like to devote more time to the editorial side of the publication. As the only employee, though, he spends a lot of time involved with social media and advertising for his paper. “I’m slowly trying to work myself out of the ad sales business,” Sutherland says. “And into the writing, but I still have a lot of problems with getting area contributors.” He currently has four regular contributors, all of whom he found through their writing on local events for other sites. He doesn’t pay his writers. The site isn’t self-sustaining yet and he’s the only person maintaining it. He would very much like to find more contributors to his site, particularly people to cover of “the meat and potatoes of reporting,” as he puts it: “Meetings, the police station, and all that kind of stuff.”
Sutherland runs the Independent as a sole proprietorship. He estimates if the publication earned at least $2,000 a month it would be self-sufficient. Then he could pay contributors. “I’m not into getting work for free,” Sutherland says. “I am a writer who relies on being paid for my work; I don’t want to take advantage of others. But right now they’re getting publicity.”
And publicity is where it starts. The more publicity he gets for the Independent, the more advertisers and writers he can attract—all to the betterment of local news. That’s important because, as far as Sutherland is concerned, it looks like many local papers have given up on such things.
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