SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA — 2006 was a tumultuous year for news in Santa Barbara. The daily Santa Barbara News-Press was experiencing a very public conflict between the publishers and editorial staff that resulted in waves of resignations and firings–a situation which ultimately led the National Labor Relations Board to find that management committed unfair labor practices after the staff voted to unionize. Four years later, the local news site Noozhawk believes it has helped fill the void left by the fiasco in the city’s news coverage. The next task, which it’s addressing with equal rigor, is to find a way to make ambitious online local news financially viable.
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Though it was founded in 2007, Noozhawk was several years in the making. William Macfadyen had spent about two decades as a newspaperman in what he now calls “fossil media.” He resigned from his job as front-page editor of the News-Press in 2001, shortly after The New York Times Company sold the paper to a new owner. Moving to the business side of things, he co-founded a local weekly newspaper that was editorially successful–even award winning–but that never caught on with advertisers. He shut it down in 2005, and then began another try, this time shopping out a business plan for a local news website. Eventually, he convinced several advertisers to pre-pay for space on the site during its first year, and Noozhawk was born.
Macfadyen initially thought his site would operate like a general-purpose newspaper, only without the paper. Everybody working on the project came out of a newspaper background, and at first “didn’t truly appreciate the voracious appetite of the web,” Macfadyen says. It didn’t take long for the small staff–two news reporters, one sports reporter, and one managing editor–to realize they just couldn’t cover everything in a city of approximately 90,000 people.
Noozhawk’s strategy since then has been to pick its battles and let reader submissions make up for the rest. The site has learned to focus its editorial efforts on those topics that are of most interest to readers. Macfadyen constantly pours through Google Analytics data about reader behavior on the site and chooses editorial directions based in part on what readers deem most click-worthy. He supplements the traffic data with anecdotal evidence from clients, as well as regular contact with community groups. One of the first traffic-based changes Macfadyen made to Noozhawk’s coverage was to kill the high school sports section, and thus the sports reporter position. Conversely, the site hired a business reporter last year due to demand from readers, advertisers, and the business community.
For Lara Cooper, who has been a reporter with Noozhawk since 2008, the hardest part of her job is recognizing the limits of their resources. “You’re going to miss a lot of stuff,” she says. “We have to cover those really big issues that nobody else is getting to.” She and her colleagues have become known for their attention to coverage in the areas of K-12 education, health, land use and planning, and hard news.
According to Cooper, twenty-six, the reporters produce both copy and photos for somewhere between one and four stories a day, which makes it rather difficult to cover breaking news, especially with a staff of three. With staff-generated content and community submissions, Noozhawk posts about twenty-five to thirty stories a day, says Macfadyen. Managing editor Michelle Nelson processes the copy and posts it remotely from Eugene, Oregon. (“It’s the World Wide Web, and we take full advantage of it,” explains Macfadyen of the largely production-oriented position.)
Noozhawk has had success earning revenue through partnerships with local media organizations. After he canned the sports coverage, Macfadyen teamed up with Presidio Sports, a local site dedicated to high school and college sports news, for a revenue-sharing agreement. Noozhawk’s sales team–consisting of two full-time employees and one part-time–sells ads for Presidio as well, and Noozhawk keeps a portion of the revenue. Macfadyen has set up a similar arrangement with specialized outlets like Santa Barbara Surfer and The Charger Account, the student-run news site at a local high school.
The site has also pursued sponsorships tied to specific editiorial projects. An ongoing series on prescription drug abuse–the result of a collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism–has produced more than two dozen articles and garnered sponsorships from such entities as treatment programs, a pharmaceutical company, and community foundations with an interest in health issues. Noozhawk is transparent about the sponsorships, telling readers up front who is helping the news organization fund the project.
“I see these as significant opportunities for Noozhawk,” says Macfadyen. “The more we do, the better for us.” Although Noozhawk is shifting more of its focus toward partnership opportunities, the site is still primarily funded though ad sales. Some years have been better than others. Macfadyen says Noozhawk made out pretty well in 2010, but sales began to trail off in the last quarter and the trend continued into 2011, which “has been grim all along.” In late spring he had to implement an austerity plan that, among other things, called for him cutting one of his half-dozen regular freelancers and renegotiating some payment schedules for others.
“Right now, we’re flirting with breaking even,” he says. And the site is steadily building traffic; currently Noozhawk gets about 5,000 unique visitors a day, according to Macfadyen’s own numbers, and the site sends out a free e-mail blast to 8,000 subscribers every morning. He’s determined to find a way to make online news financially sustainable, and even though this is the hardest he’s ever worked, he says the work is very energizing.
“I think part of it is it’s just a historic opportunity. We’re pioneers; there’s no road map for what we’re doing. It’s completely up to your entrepreneurial wit,” Macfadyen says. “Somebody’s going to figure this out, and I want it to be me.”
City: Santa Barbara