The Zonie Report had an ambitious mandate—covering the entire state of Arizona—and featured magazine-length narrative pieces, blog posts, video, and aggregated links to other Arizona news outlets’ stories. Klawonn is proudest of the online magazine’s environmental reporting, including an exclusive on a manganese-polluted town along the Colorado River that came from a tipster in the state environmental office; a story on a planned copper mine opposed by its neighbors, written by a contributor who went on to write for The New York Times’s Green Inc. blog; and a piece about the affordable housing gap in rapidly gentrifying Sedona. In 2008, the Arizona Press Club gave him a runner-up award as Community Journalist of the Year.
But by the end, Klawonn, a one-man band, was so busy managing the site and hustling to build its audience that the journalism was no longer his sole focus. As he wrote in response to a Center for Future Civic Media blog post about The Zonie Report: “The Zonie Report failed because I couldn’t drive enough interest/traffic to it to make it economically feasible to continue my Herculean efforts to sustain it. I really enjoyed the work, but one has to eat.”
It turns out, he did have something to lose—his idealism—and it’s not difficult to detect a hint of bitterness in Klawonn’s announcement that The Zonie Report would close:
I learned some hard lessons in my idealistic crusade to bring better, more innovative journalism to the expectant masses. I’m leaving a lot out, but I’d like to share of them with you now and hear more about your own observations. Feel free to share.
First, the Internet audience is incredibly fickle, so the expectant Zonie Report masses weren’t there. (It turns out there were only about 8,000 of them in a state of 6 million-plus residents.)
Second, the way we consume media online does not lend itself to a deep-reading format, so short stories and truncated video (from car accidents to Britney Spears sightings to bar fights in Scottsdale) proliferate. This says something about the format, about us and about news outlets in general.
Third, it’s tough to sell ads using today’s metrics (i.e., impressions, etc.). Online advertising prices continue to head toward the floor and may never recover.
Finally, people are generally more interested in what everybody around them is doing than what’s really going on in the world. There are some exceptions, but this is perhaps the harshest and saddest lesson of all. Who knows if/when this will change.
On Thursday, he amended his original laments in a post on PBS’s MediaShift Idea Lab to include a more self-critical look at his missteps and at how other online journalists could learn from them.
Even though The Zonie Report couldn’t sustain itself, it opened a few doors for its founder. As a self-taught, new media-savvy journalist, Klawonn landed a job teaching an “Intro to Online Media” lab course at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. He’s working as the managing editor of PHOENIX magazine. And last year he won $95,000 from the Knight News Challenge for a social networking Web site and mobile service called CityCircles, centered around news and events affecting commuters on Phoenix’s downtown light rail line.
But the “if you build it, they will come” spirit that led him to found The Zonie Report is gone. He founded it under the (perhaps naïve) assumption that good writers should be paid a decent wage for their work, that people would care about issues affecting their community, that their eyeballs would find good journalism about those communities, and the ads would find the eyeballs. He was putting his money where his journalistic ideals were; now, after seeing those ideals fail, he’s no longer willing to put his own money and reputation on the line.
That said, Klawonn hasn’t given up entirely on his original labor of love. “I should have found those big names willing to go to bat for this—funders who also believe that this is a complex state with a lot of issues and that it would be great to have something that goes beyond the daily minutiae to crystallize it on a regional level,” he said. “But if you don’t have that kind of person, it’s a long road to hoe. And if that person appears, I would gladly flip the switch and give it another shot.”