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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.
One of the Dispatch’s biggest challenges has been to forecast the amount of ad space, or inventory, it will have each month, because this fluctuates greatly depending on how much traffic the site gets. On occasion, the site has had to turn advertisers away. To deepen and diversify its inventory without taking on too much risk in increased editorial costs, Hopfinger plans to bring established Alaskan blogs into the Dispatch under a revenue-sharing agreement.
At first glance, the statewide profile of the Dispatch seems to set it apart from smaller local sites. But Rogoff and Hopfinger stress that Alaska’s agenda-setters constitute a kind of village, one spread among Anchorage, Juneau, Washington, and Houston. They share a narrow and well-defined set of interests: federal funding, government regulation, the oil industry (hence the Houston link), transportation, Sarah Palin, and so on. One of the site’s most successful features is its “Bush Pilot” blog, focused on the small-scale aviation so critical to Alaskan life.
“It’s like a small town,” Hopfinger says. “The flipside of that is there are fewer people and fewer businesses.” But he adds that the Dispatch has benefited from the kind of boosterism that smaller community sites enjoy. “You get an opportunity as an underdog. People want to see us succeed,” he says.
An emphasis on a small and well-defined community sets apart most of the online-only local news outlets that began to dot the web about five years ago. These run, generally, from professionally staffed hard-news outlets such as the Dispatch to news-oriented community blogs like Baristanet and West Seattle Blog. Wherever each site falls along that spectrum, none of these grass-roots ventures has either the assets or the built-in costs of local sites backed by established newspapers or television stations. (For a detailed discussion of costs, see Chapter Seven.)
The grass-roots sites also face a different set of problems than do large-scale, networked hyperlocal ventures such as Patch, and, to a lesser extent, the original TBD. Patch is hardly a legacy newsroom. But it does have to succeed on a scale that justifies AOL’s vast editorial, infrastructural, and ad sales investments (and that compensates for the company’s declining income as an Internet service provider). If only a few of the 700-plus Patch sites take root and thrive in their communities, that won’t be enough for the enterprise to succeed; for the business to make sense, the bulk of them have to work.