FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA — Plains Daily debuted in March 2010, the brain child of North Dakota conservative talk-radio host Scott Hennen, who was previously best known around the state for interviews with former vice president Dick Cheney and presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, among others. Bachmann has been a particularly vocal supporter, calling him the “voice of today’s Tea Party patriots,” though Hennen himself might prefer the title of “Chairman of the Common Sense Club”, as he declares on his personal site.
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Plains Daily offers readers a similarly bold claim: “Someone IS Reporting This Stuff.” But Hennen says that his idea for the site was to be different from talk radio, instead training his sights locally and doing something that can be hard to find online: original reporting.
That effort has produced what Hennen says are traffic numbers of upwards of 300,000 people monthly. “Our ‘secret sauce’ on building traffic has been by linking, featuring and highlighting the Plains Daily stories from the radio show, my website, and on our blog, SayAnythingBlog,” Hennen says. (The numbers, which are impressive for a state of around 650,000 people, could not be independently verified. If true, they would rival those of the state’s largest newspaper, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, whose website gets nearly 400,000 visitors a month, according to Quantcast. Plains Daily’s Facebook page has around 500 “likes.”) Whatever the traffic, the site’s relatively short online life has given it an imprint on the state’s politics that, Hennen would argue, is hard to ignore. “We saw an opportunity to be a true independent online news source,” he says.
The site employs four full-time employees between its writers, its web design staff, and ad sales personnel, producing stories that often take the form of boilerplate conservative muckraking, like a large number that blame state government for apparent waste. Many of the other stories have a particularly Dakotan feel, including a number of recent ones that have focused on the prosecution of seven oil companies for allegedly killing more than two dozen migratory birds—a prosecution which Hennen and the site contend is politically motivated, since wind power farms were not being similarly prosecuted, even though, according to Plains Daily, they kill many more birds. Another series of stories that appeared earlier in the year criticized North Dakota State University president Dean Bresciani for traversing the state in a private plane, costing the state more than $300,000 annually, the site says; still other stories highlight a state-owned convention center in Grand Forks, N.D., which has yet to turn a profit.
The site’s articles can vary in quality and ambition, from some that are merely summaries of Hennen’s radio show to long write-ups of records requests or interviews with officials. One example of the latter was an earlier controversy over a conference for the state’s teachers that planned to train them how to become friendlier to gay and lesbian students. Plains Daily exposed the conference, and, after 225 e-mails from readers to the state, the conference was later postponed. “It’s not my position to say I believe they have to teach this or teach that,” Kate Bommarito, a reporter for the site, said in an interview with CJR earlier this year. “But the people of North Dakota are thinking they’re going to teach this or teach that. Now they have their say.”
Bommarito also said in the same interview that the goal of the site was not to support conservative causes but to “accurately portray what’s going on” and find out “what people have said on both sides of the issue.” Bommarito added that her larger mission is to “let readers decide what they want to think or what they want to follow up with.”
For his part, Hennen says that the purpose of the site is to fill in gaps in coverage left by in places that newspapers in the Peace Garden State no longer can. “We’ve also seen a void in investigative reporting, partly driven by a lack of media ownership/competition in the region,” Hennen says. (Forum Communications, a conglomerate, owns a number of the state’s largest dailies, including The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Grand Forks Herald.) “Too many important stories were going uncovered by the traditional media in the state,” Hennen says, “particularly at the state capitol.”
Plains Daily operates as an extension of Hennen’s for-profit corporation, Freedom Force Communications, which was formed in February 2010 and acts as an umbrella company to house Hennen’s consulting, public relations, marketing, fund-raising, and lobbying efforts. Hennen built Plains Daily based partly on the strength of his radio show and personality, but he sees no conflict between his public persona, his electoral and lobbying activities, and the site’s journalistic mission. “Since I have never exercised any editorial role with the straight news/site, it’s never been an issue,” Hennen says.
Hennen says that Plains Daily’s revenues come entirely from advertising, which the site sells both directly and through ad networks. He refuses to discuss revenues or profits, noting that Freedom Force is a private company. He also declines to say what he pays the site’s contributors, other than to say that it is an hourly wage.
Whether or not Plains Daily’s approach to journalism is sustainable will to some extent be determined by North Dakota’s future. The state has been in the midst of a continuing oil-boom, which has padded state coffers but also tightened the resolve of Hennen and the writers at Plains Daily.
“It’s easy to be conservative when the money’s not there,” Bommarito said. But with prosperity, “there’s the question of how much do you grow and how much do you not.”
Hennen says that he is optimistic for the future of the site, adding that he named the site as such in hopes that it might extend its conservative brand of news beyond North Dakota someday. “We chose the name ‘Plains Daily’ in order to grow throughout the surrounding states if/as opportunities arise,” he says.
(Additional reporting was contributed by Sam Eifling.)
Plains Daily Data
Name: Plains Daily
Principal Staff: Scott Hennen, president and CEO; Charlie Nickoloff, COO; Logan Little, creative director; Kate Bommarito, reporter.
Affiliations: Parent Company: Freedom Force Communications
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