When the website New West was founded, it had grand ambitions. The digital news outlet blended local and regional reporting to tell stories of growth and change in the Rocky Mountain West. Today, however, New West has been dormant for over six months, and is now transitioning to its third owner since it launched in 2005.

The site went dark without much warning. In September, a splash page went up saying that New West was in the middle of switching offices, but the message has since been taken down. New West’s most recent tweet, on August 31st, makes no mention that it will be the last for a while, and the site contains no acknowledgment of its own inactivity. Despite no new stories, people still leave comments, and there’s no spam buildup, so things appear maintained.

New West’s struggle and its evolution is in many ways a microcosm of the story of online news. Founded in 2005 by Jonathan Weber (who went on to help create The Bay Citizen), New West came onto the scene as a for-profit with a multi-pronged business model, mixing ad revenue from the site with a conference business that organized events and hosted experts to speak on development in the Rocky Mountain West. The content came from both experienced reporters and members of the community who wanted to contribute (often referred to as the “pro-am” model). The site occupied a unique niche, with news about energy, agriculture, wildlife, politics and culture, with a distinctive regional focus.

It covered six states: Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico.
But when the region was hit hard by the recession, especially the housing crisis, New West’s conferences no longer earned enough money to sustain the site by themselves. “We had a successful editorial enterprise,” says Weber, but without the other piece of the business, there just wasn’t enough money coming in. “There are very few examples of original journalism supported solely by online ads,” says Weber. “The revenue generating potential we thought was there, it just wasn’t really there.”

So Weber sold New West in 2009 to one of the site’s original investors, Trevor Loy, kicking off what Loy calls the “second phase” of the company, led by him and former vice president of sales at Interactive One, Lynn Ingham, who did not respond to interview requests for this article. Loy says they maintained the conference business, “only in a legacy way,” and set out to cut costs and raise advertising revenue to salvage the business. They outsourced their CMS and IT maintenance, and poured resources into ad sales.

But the necessary money still wasn’t flowing, and Loy says his “revelation” came after concluding that the site’s regional coverage area was making advertising very difficult. “There’s no natural community of advertisers for whom the editorial content, and therefore the customer footprint, is of particular relevance or interest to merchant advertisers,” says Loy. Readership was too widespread for local businesses, who “wouldn’t advertise in a publication 50 miles away, let alone a different state,” says Loy, but was too concentrated for the national retailers, who would rather go to the truly national publications to “most efficiently get to every possible customer they can.” In September, publishing on New West was paused as the search for a new owner began.

Loy’s been an investor in this site since its roots in 2005, and became lead investor in the 2009 ownership change. He says if he could do it over again, he would partner with an existing organization that already had relationships with advertisers in the area. This is the type of company that will emerge as New West’s next owner: “A faster path to sustainability was to marry New West with another owner who already had a regional advertising focus.” Though the transaction has been finalized, Loy declined to name the new owners, or describe their plans for the site.

Loy also said, if he were to get a do-over, he would “increase the amount of high quality, professionally authored content,” but rather than do this with experienced journalists, he would rely more on people with a “passion for what they’re writing about,” since “money only works as a motivator in absence of some bigger mission.”

To illustrate his point, he references the local food movement. “The people who really care about locally grown food, a subset of them are good writers, and are interested in exposure and communicating what they know to the community,” he says. “So while it helps to pay them something, the idea of expert reporters and writers, where you assign them all types of stories, I don’t think that works,” says Loy. “People who love their job are quite happy to do it for free or a minimum payment.”

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.