PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KANSAS — On November 21, 2011, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback spoke to a group of high school students on the importance of being active in their government and community. Senior Emma Sullivan wasted no time in exercising her First Amendment rights when she tweeted: “Just made mean comments at gov Brownback and told him he sucked, in person. #heblowsalot.” Brownback’s communication staff flagged the tweet and notified the school program; Sullivan was sent to the principal’s office where she promptly refused to issue an apology. Prairie Village, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, could not contain the “controversy,” and it spread to NPR, CNN, and The Washington Post, lending Sullivan 15,000 new Twitter followers.
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While national media outlets rendered the story in black and white, the town’s hyperlocal media site, Prairie Village Post, focused on shades of gray. Editor and founder Jay Senter, who graduated from Sullivan’s school, covered multiple angles, including stories on Sullivan supporters who spoke out at a board meeting, parents who requested administrative records, and community members who began an e-mail campaign in defense of the principal’s handling of the situation. In the end, it was Governor Brownback who issued an apology for over-reacting to Sullivan’s online outburst.
“Our mission is to be the place where the community does its community things online,” says Senter, “where people go to have an online version of a coffee shop discussion.” Other than the Sullivan story, the site’s content wouldn’t normally spark such heated discussion, but it addresses daily government, sports, events, and business news. The site covers the Prairie Village, Fairway, and Mission Hills communities outside Kansas City, a combined area of about 30,000 people.
With his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and experience as a staff writer for the Lawrence Journal-World, Senter previously aimed to fill coverage gaps on the Kansas side of Kansas City by starting a site called KC Free Press in 2009. The site was a large-scale, staffed operation. The site had large staffing and high costs by online startup standards. When financial problems shut it down after six months, Senter downsized and began the Prairie Village Post, which covers a smaller area.
“My big take-away was that filling a real geographic niche seems like a much more solid business proposition,” says Senter. “You know it’s going to work because you live there and know the area.”
The Johnson County Sun, the community’s weekly newspaper for thirty years, closed this past August, leaving the Prairie Village Post as the largest local outlet for news. Senter says the site gets around 40,000 page views and 10,000 unique visitors a month. “There’s no general audience anymore,” says Senter. “Our niche is geographic. If it doesn’t happen inside our coverage area, we’re not going to cover it.”
Stories are short, photo-intensive, and often encourage readers to respond and participate. Popular examples include an article on the nearby running routes of a local ultra-marathon enthusiast, the “Where’s that at?” series asking readers to identify the location of a detailed photo, and mayoral campaign articles which invite candidates to address issues submitted by readers.
Each post aims to be “authentically local,” which is the name of a national branding campaign for independently-owned hyperlocal sites, of which Prairie Village Post was a founding member.
Senter is the only writer for the site, which he updates before or after his job in the communication department at the University of Kansas Hospital. Content is posted on average three times a day, Monday through Saturday, with an additional “Food on Friday” post from his wife Julia, who shares a recipe of the week.
Prairie Village Post is part of the Northeast Kansas News Network, which is part of J-Lab’s Networked Journalism project. The network is experimenting with content sharing and ad networking between the Lawrence Journal-World and four independent online news sites in Kansas. In addition to revenue from the grant, Senter says the Prairie Village Post earns about $1,500 a month from over a dozen small business advertisers in Johnson County. The for-profit site is incorporated as part of Senter Communications, LLC, an online marketing firm that gives Senter the opportunity to attract alternative revenue by providing services like website development, multimedia production, and PR consulting.
Prairie Village Post’s homepage prominently features a photo of a stone statue by Annabella Campbell that sits at the town’s entrance. The statue depicts a pioneer man, woman, and child facing westward. One could see parallels between the figures in the statue and Jay Senter’s pioneering efforts on a different frontier: digital news. But Senter says he understands that it will take a village effort to sustain the site.
“These are your neighbors,” says Senter, who grew up just a block away from his current home. “We try to write with personality and not shy away from voice, but we need people to understand that we’re trying to be fair and are not interested in getting into ideological scuffles. That’s especially perilous at the local level.”
Prairie Village Post Data
Name: Prairie Village Post
City: Prairie Village
Principal Staff: Jay Senter, editor and founder; Julia Westhoff, food writer.
Affiliations: Northeast Kansas News Network
CMS: WordPress - OpenSource (.org)