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.”

Soliciting contributions from community members has its perks. It obviously saves money, gives a place for community members to express themselves, and can attract a readership of people who are interested in the same issues as the writers, and that traffic and be leveraged for advertising dollars. But at what point does a venture like that just become another content farm, or another About.com, with bland, badly written articles by people with no critical distance from their subject matter? Loy concedes that this type of content doesn’t work for everything. “I get that some types of stories need to have some standard of fact checking,” says Loy, but, that being said, he reiterates: “the premise that paying pros creates a higher quality product, that’s a wrong assumption.” In his experience, he feels there is actually an inverse relationship between payment and quality: “The people who are not quite as good are the ones who usually demand more money.”

Loy’s perspective, of course, does not necessarily reflect the opinion of other individuals who were involved in New West. His observations come from his standpoint as an investor, or as he said, a “non-journalist.” “There seems to be a curious spectrum in the journalism community that quality is a function of dispassion, which may have been true at one time, when the media industry was more concentrated,” says Loy. From a business perspective, Loy’s interested in a for-profit media company that can actually survive, and make some money. “All the hand wringing about the future of media, at least half of it is the result of people not being comfortable with what actually does work,” says Loy. “A lot of media organizations are writing their obituaries by taking that stance.”

He goes on to say that the “eat-your-peas school of journalism, that’s what Jon [Weber] called it, that’s just not what works anymore. In my view, the market has spoken. In terms of viewership and readership, what people care about is how someone curates content, someone who is passionate about the community. Nobody seems to care that much if they are biased.” And for those who do this as a career? “People who view themselves as, ‘my skills are in dispassionately telling a fact driven, unbiased story, and I expect to get paid a professional salary to do that,’ are getting beat in every arena by less professionally trained, more passionate curators around content in that arena.”

But it’s not just a question of bias, or passion, or professional vs. amateur, but one of producing consistently readable content, and developing reliable writers. Courtney Lowery, who served as editor and food and agriculture contributor until 2010, co-founded New West with Weber, and says the citizen journalism part of their site made a lot of sense. “Our theory, shared by a lot of thinkers in the media, was there’s all these engaged citizens in these communities, and we can offer a voice for them.” They tweaked the idea a lot. “We started out with this submit your own article, we eventually called it a citizen journalism section, then we called it unfiltered,” says Lowery. But making it work proved challenging. “We found out that writing is work, but we all knew that. Doing big-J journalism is even more work, so it was difficult to get people to write about that.”

“On the other hand,” says Lowery, “we had people who wanted to do what we now know as blogging; the here’s-a-window-into-my-world sort of writing.” Lowery says this approach proved successful, and the community blog section, as it came to be called, cut contributors a check based on the amount of CPMs they received. Still, it was a delicate balance. “It was sticky from a trust standpoint for our readers. It was difficult to differentiate to our readers, like ‘hey, this is stuff we really stand behind, and this is stuff unfiltered by us.’” She says the pro-am model is still one that needs to be figured out, and its not as simple as it sounds. “It takes a smart editor to find and cultivate these writers, keep them happy, and put it together in a way that makes sense and gives context to where these voices fit in the community landscape.”

Whatever direction New West goes next, those who have worked on the site care deeply about its future, and will be watching. Weber called New West his “baby,” and Lowery recalled a recent e-mail chain where she and some other New West contributors recalled some of the site’s best moments. It happened when the site’s archives, which had been locked down when the site went dormant, were opened back up. “We had a round robin on e-mail, reliving some of the best things in the archive, and some of the cool and interesting things we had done,” says Lowery. “The site was ahead of its time, and that was one of the things that was difficult to overcome. I hope that it has a next iteration.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.