A 2006 report on “value creation” in journalism, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, put the lesson bluntly: “specialize or localize.” As the report explained, “Because of the increasing range of information sources, greater abilities to access material from anyplace at anytime, and requirements to create tight bonds that lead to loyal consumers, news organizations will have to move away from the unfocused, something-for-everyone, one-size-fits-no-one news products characteristic of the second half of the twentieth century.”
Of course, not every news outlet can be the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, with long-cultivated expertise in a valuable and time-sensitive brand of information. For most, the clearest path to “adding value” lies in paying closer attention to their immediate community. The Harvard report put this drily: “To be competitive and create economic value, media will need to increase their differentiation, and thus exclusivity. The most effective way to do so is to create value through local coverage that is linked to the lives, aspirations, and understanding of individuals in the locations in which they live. It is this kind of coverage that other news providers cannot do well.”
That’s the theory. But TBD, Patch, the hyperlocal sites launched by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and many others like them have yet to produce a commercially viable proof-of-concept. The list of success stories in local online news hasn’t changed much in recent years; it contains mainly small, grass-roots community sites. If nonprofit ventures with significant foundation funding, such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, are removed from the list, most of what’s left are Baristanet, Alaska Dispatch, The Batavian, West Seattle Blog, and a few others.
These ventures vary in their business models and the kind of journalism they produce. What they have in common is limited resources, a narrow coverage footprint, and no claim to the corporate efficiencies of their larger peers.
Alaska Dispatch is a statewide news site launched in 2008 by the husband-and-wife reporting team of Tony Hopfinger and Amanda Coyne. In 2009, philanthropist and former U.S. News & World Report executive Alice Rogoff bought a majority share; the founders stayed on as editors, and the Dispatch was relaunched with a mandate to build up a newsroom and dedicate itself to serious political journalism.
Today the site has a full-time editorial and web staff of ten, up from just two at launch. It also uses paid freelancers. Total staff costs run in the neighborhood of $650,000 per year. The Dispatch saves money by avoiding print and delivery costs, which is an especially serious expense for dailies in Alaska. In late 2008 the Dispatch’s print rival, the Anchorage Daily News, ended rural air delivery to the state’s remote outposts.
Rogoff says the Dispatch doesn’t stint on the costs of covering the Alaskan frontier. The newsroom is attached to an airplane hangar in Anchorage, and access to Rogoff’s airplane has made it easier to cover distant events like the Iditarod sled race. (The Dispatch also drew praise for its reporting on the 2008 Point Hope caribou massacre and subsequent trial.) Tony Hopfinger says the site focuses on statewide political news and analysis—exactly what many small dailies have cut in favor of covering murders and car wrecks.
The site’s founders say that commercial success is integral to the mission of the Alaska Dispatch. Even the “About Us” page repeats the message: “Because the owners of the Alaska Dispatch believe that journalism must and will ultimately pay for itself, the site is a for-profit enterprise, relying on online advertising and sponsorship.” When she became publisher, Rogoff committed to backing the site until it turns a profit, which she expected to happen in three years. Now, about two years in, she won’t disclose financial details but says the Dispatch is on track to meet its goals.
The Dispatch does appear to have found a niche in Alaska’s news ecosystem. Roughly 125,000 unique visitors generate more than 1 million page views each month, impressive statistics in a state of just over 700,000 inhabitants. According to Hopfinger, the site has about thirty to forty advertisers at a time; its ad rates run from $150 to $1,550 per month, with a guaranteed minimum of 75,000 impressions. Though pricing is by the month, the site will oblige advertisers who would rather buy by the amount of traffic—hence the guarantee. And the Dispatch’s modest entry-level rates compare favorably with print alternatives.