critical eye

News havens

Dan Kennedy shows why news startups matter
July 1, 2013

The New Haven Independent is almost surely the smallest news organization ever chronicled at book length. Founded in 2005 by veteran journalist Paul Bass as a nonprofit publishing exclusively online, it employs five full-time journalists to cover a city of 130,000. It writes straightforward local news stories about community meetings and crimes and government. And, according to the Independent’s own biographer, media critic Dan Kennedy, there’s no guarantee that it will survive beyond the next few years. It says a great deal about the state of journalism that we’re willing to look into such tiny corners of the industry for hope and inspiration. It says even more that such a look can prove worthwhile.

Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a former media columnist for the late Boston Phoenix, spent nearly four years observing the Independent, interviewing reporters and readers, and analyzing everything from the site’s coverage of a murder case to its handling of online comments. His new book, The Wired City, is the result. Though the book bills itself as a study in “reimagining journalism and civic life in the post-newspaper age,” Kennedy doesn’t really spend much time on grand pronouncements or prescriptions for the future of local journalism. Rather, he delivers a thorough and sober chronicling of one “post-newspaper” news startup and its relationship to the city it covers.

The Wired City:
Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age

By Dan Kennedy
University of Massachusetts Press
192 pages, paper $22.95

While the local news startup space varies widely–from sites that are little more than a single journalist relying on reader donations to nonprofits with multi-million-dollar annual budgets–all startups are relative frail when compared with the expectations placed on them by the industry at large. When discussed in abstract terms, startups are expected to be the standard bearers of journalistic innovation. When discussed in specific terms, the field is far too diverse to summarize, with a few better-funded startups meeting these expectations, and others barely getting by.

Kennedy puts the Independent in context by calling it “one of about a half-dozen local and regional online-only news sites that are large enough and ambitious enough to have established themselves as a significant new journalistic genre.” Though Kennedy’s criteria for including organizations in this headcount are vague, his list includes most, if not all, of the startups that have gained notoriety in the larger industry, most notably Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, and the St. Louis Beacon. The Independent is relatively small compared to the likes of Texas Tribune, which employs more than 20 journalists. But the Independent earns its keep as a nonprofit by reporting on “efforts to reform New Haven’s troubled public schools; development proposals large and small; retail-level politics; traffic; and issues involving the city’s police department. . . .”

None of these issues, according to Kennedy, were being covered with any real depth or consistency by the New Haven Register or other local outlets. While Kennedy says that he sometimes finds himself “wishing for more perspective in the Independent’s stories,” he thinks that, given its limited resources, Bass has made the right decision to run the site as a breaking-news service publishing short items. Despite its small size, the Independent succeeds in covering many issues comprehensively.

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Kennedy spends a good deal of time getting to know the reporters at the Independent and chronicling their daily routine. Bass, the veteran New Haven newspaper reporter who founded the Independent, is mentioned often. (The focus on Bass is very much warranted because, as Kennedy writes, “the Independent would not exist if Bass hadn’t come to New Haven.”) But Kennedy also frequently ventures outside the Independent’s newsroom to document just what kind of impact, if any, the publication is having on the community.

Kennedy’s efforts to talk to consumers of journalism are hugely important. The relationship of a newspaper or radio station to its community is generally well understood; the relationship of an online-only nonprofit to its community far less so. In the case of New Haven, at least, Kennedy makes a compelling argument that, even with its small newsroom, the Independent is able to have the kind of impact it (and its funders) are hoping for, and is an effective “force for civic improvement” in New Haven. Kennedy’s analysis stands as a rigorous proof of concept for the work of the Independent and its peers.

* * *

The Wired City doesn’t have anything resembling a central thesis. (This isn’t a flaw. Way too many “future of journalism” books and reports waste their time trying to argue grand, overarching theses that almost always fall apart on closer analysis.) But on the rare occasion that Kennedy does try to make a larger point about the journalism industry, he usually addresses what he sees as the benefits of the nonprofit over the for-profit model in local journalism.

Many of his points regarding the benefits of that model rely on a sloppy taxonomy. (By nonprofit he seems to mean “well-funded nonprofit,” a definition that ignores the many small, bootstrapped nonprofit operations that exist throughout the country.) His conclusion–that for-profits are often smaller and weaker than their nonprofit counterparts–becomes much more complicated when small nonprofits (not to mention the few well-funded, for-profit startups) are thrown into the mix. But his point is certainly true on a case-by-case basis, and his analysis of these cases is worthwhile.

To present one of these cases, Kennedy visits Hartford, CT, where he looks at the for-profit CT News Junkie and the nonprofit CT Mirror. (One weakness of Kennedy’s book is that all but one of the startups he visits is within driving distance of his home in Boston.) Both the Mirror and the News Junkie are run by veterans of the newspaper industry, and both offer quality coverage of statehouse news. But while the News Junkie scrapes by as a for-profit thanks to tireless work by reporter/owner Christine Stuart and her husband and business manager, Doug Hardy, the nonprofit Mirror was “born big, on the strength of $1.8 million in foundation grants intended to pay for its first three years.”

As a result, the Mirror was able to employ nine journalists in 2011, a year in which Stuart had no full-time reporters. Significantly, Kennedy notes that the nonprofit Mirror impeded News Junkie’s hopes of earning revenue off of syndicated content by offering its own statehouse coverage to Connecticut newspapers free of charge.

Kennedy expands his analysis of the for-profit news startup scene by visiting Batavia, NY, where a site called the Batavian earns revenue by running a high volume of small, affordable display ads for local businesses. He also takes a look at Baristanet, based in the affluent New Jersey suburbs, which also earns significant revenue and competes toe-to-toe with Patch, but which isn’t a source of a full-time salary for anyone, journalist or otherwise. Kennedy praises the journalism offered by these sites, but notes that their budgets, newsrooms, and missions are less substantial than those of the Independent and its nonprofit startup brethren. (Kennedy also notes that many of the same challenges faced by small startups are faced by San Diego CityBeat, a struggling alt-weekly, which has shared a city with the nonprofit Voice of San Diego for nearly a decade. When Kennedy dropped by San Diego, CityBeat‘s editor was personally updating a database of bar and club listings, a task not required of any of the staff at Voice.)

Kennedy’s conclusion: “[E]ntrepreneurs can launch lively local websites and make enough money to keep them going. What they lack is a business model robust enough to fund the sort of in-depth reporting that we associate with newspapers”–something he argues that the large nonprofits can, in fact, do.

Kennedy should be commended for his honest analysis of the challenges faced by many small for-profit startups, and his acknowledgment of the importance of the work they produce in the face of these challenges. But his conclusion that large nonprofits are in the best position to fill the gaps left by newspapers is a bit too rosy, or at least incomplete. Kennedy does note that while large nonprofits have proven that they can match (and even exceed) newspapers in quality, they have yet to match newspapers and their larger staffs in terms of the volume of coverage they produce.

But a significant oversight is his failure to mention the well-funded for-profits that don’t fit into his “nonprofits=big, for-profits=small” taxonomy. As Kennedy rightly points out, many of the benefits of large nonprofits come from their ability to fund in-depth reporting. And yet I know of at least two significant startups that are able to fund that kind of journalism with a for-profit model. Both This Land Press in Tulsa, OK, and Alaska Dispatch, in Anchorage, were “born big” but owe their genesis to private investment rather than foundation grants. Both produce excellent journalism, and both have made significant gains in earning revenue beyond their investment capital.

This isn’t to say that these startups are necessarily better positioned for long-term survival than Kennedy’s nonprofits, only that for-profit startups have proven capable of bringing in money and wielding the resulting journalistic firepower–and the industry is better for it. I’ve often wondered why more wealthy individuals haven’t helped journalists launch large, ambitious organizations devoted to for-profit accountability journalism, particularly since major foundations aren’t giving many people a chance to do that these days.

Ultimately, though, The Wired City transcends the exhausting debate over what journalism startups should look like. It gets at a more fundamental point: that news startups, both for-profit and nonprofit, matter. Their coverage is taking hold in their communities. They’re worthy of funding from foundations and private investors alike. And they’re worthy of serious, long-term study.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.