PORTLAND, OREGON — When the news broke that the former model and millionaire’s widow Anna Nicole Smith had died, the story seemed to capture the interest of virtually every local TV station, major news network, and newspaper. But all Jeff Martens of Portland, Ore. wanted to know was the score of the previous night’s high school basketball game. Frustrated by Smith’s death dominating the seeming entirety of local news coverage, Martens set out on his own to provide the kind of news he himself would like to read. Thus, without any formal training as a journalist, Martens launched ThePortlander with friend Jeremiah Kastner. Founded in 2007, the site now boasts as many as 60,000 page views a month (with the slowest months in the 25,000 range), despite the fact that for Martens, who is also the founder and CEO of tech startup CPUsage, it remains only a part-time endeavor. (Kastner remains a partner in the site but has since moved on to found news aggregator TheDailyGlobe.)
- Read more about ThePortlander
The site’s original format was essentially what Martens calls a “Digg clone” for Portland news. Readers could vote stories “up” or “down”, and the most popular items became the most prominently featured on the site. A decent idea, but the site struggled to generate much interest. “To be perfectly honest, that didn’t work at all,” Martens explains. “So we kind of mothballed that.”
In 2009, the site re-launched in its current format, which Martens describes as a “newspaper format” with a stronger focus on original reporting and content. Traffic increased almost immediately and the site began to generate buzz in the area.
According to Martens, the site’s success derives from its focus on localized stories tailored to an audience that likes reading short, informal content. Whereas other outlets may take a more comprehensive and long-winded approach to something like college football, Martens believes that “most people just want to know who won, who was the star player, what was the score–they don’t want to have to read six different articles to get that information.”
Despite Martens’s aversion to Anna Nicole Smith, the Portlander is willing to go after celebrity and lifestyle stories of popular interest as long as there’s a local news angle. When a contributor caught wind of the fact that the next Twilight movie would be filmed in Portland, the Portlander was the first to run the story, which was soon picked up by local TV stations and newspapers. Another scoop broke the news of the impending closing of numerous area restaurants owned by a local chain.
Martens, a self proclaimed “news junkie”, enlists the help of roughly five regular volunteer contributors, each of whom writes on his or her own schedule, typically about topics of personal interest. One contributor covers Portland’s new major league soccer team; Martens writes about the local tech scene, college football, and other passions. His weekly re-cap during football season is one of the more popular features of the site.
Revenue generation is a somewhat secondary consideration for Martens, and he’s content to let most of it come to him via Google Ads. He says it’s enough to “pay for hosting and allow me to take my contributors out for beer or coffee or things like that.” Martens believes the site’s traffic could support more revenue, but doesn’t have the time to pursue direct ad sales. For now, the Portlander remains a part-time effort, but it’s a particularly robust version of the no-full-time staff web news genre, with content updated daily and spread across a wide range of general news topics. As Martens notes, “Given the amount of time we put into it, we’re pretty happy with [the site]”.