STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI — As the results of the 2009 Starkville municipal elections rolled in, Robbie Coblentz waited in city hall and posted the results in real time via iPhone to the Twitter feed of his local news site, Starkville Now. Not long after, he was contacted by the nearby Tupelo, Miss. Daily Journal and the Columbus, Miss. Commercial Dispatch, wondering just how Coblentz was able to beat them to the punch.
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“The local newspaper tried to keep up with us from a posting standpoint, but they couldn’t get the data uploaded in time. They were having to call their web person back at their office… whereas I was able to grab numbers and directly load them,” Coblentz says.
A self-proclaimed “bleeding edge type of guy,” Coblentz owns and operates Broadcast Media Group, a video and multimedia production company based out of Starkville. Starkville Now, on the other hand, is more pleasure than business: “I joke that most businessmen my age have expensive hobbies like golf, or hunting–and Starkville Now is my expensive hobby,” Coblentz says.
The site is unincorporated and does little by way of generating revenue to cover costs, but does post daily on areas including local government, politics, economic development, and education. “These are areas that I have a lot of contact with and have a serious interest in,” Coblentz explains.
Starkville has a population of 25,000 and is the home of Mississippi State University. It’s also the county seat, and yet, to Coblentz’s mind, it didn’t have the type of twenty-first century news service that one might expect in a college town and center of governance. “The local newspaper, like most smaller newspapers, has faced budget and staff challenges as the industry has changed. Their concentration was more on crime and education with some city government. I felt like there was, as is, a gap in business and political coverage for the city.”
Local news beyond newspapers is also limited: “Here in Starkville we have a locally licensed, lower power television station that has no news department and the other television network affiliates are about seventy miles due north of us, so you really don’t have a local [television] news component here.”
Coblentz launched the site in January of 2008, hoping to provide consistently updated local news, both aggregated and original. “I’m truly an entrepreneur and I saw a need that wasn’t being met by the local paper… I saw a big need for a little more of a current method of communication,” he says.
Starkville Now is updated daily with the help of one of Coblentz’s staffers from his production company, who works on the site roughly ten hours a week. Much of the site’s content is aggregated stories from two local newspapers, the Starkville Daily News and the Starkville Dispatch. Under a “handshake agreement,” Starkville Now is able to publish the first several paragraphs of news stories from both papers, and the papers are free to run whatever original content Starkville Now produces as they see fit. The site has a similar content sharing agreement with the Daily Journal and Commercial Dispatch. In addition to aggregation, the site publishes originally reported content from freelancers–usually on municipal boards and other functions of and happenings in city government–and opinion columns from Coblentz and guest columnists.
Coblentz has little expectation of making Starkville Now a profitable endeavor. “At this point we don’t really have any [revenue] generation,” he says. “We’ve done some barter ads and we’ve done some revenue generation in the past.” In the hope that the economy is on the way to “climbing out” from its current slump, Coblentz hasn’t ruled out the possibility of monetizing the site. “If we revised the business model and actually dropped in some resources where we employed maybe two or three part-time reporters, we would look into pulling in a salesperson to generate some sales.” Coblentz is currently toying with the idea of a Starkville Now iPhone app.
For now, the site is a way for Coblentz to focus his interest in news and voice his concerns as an active member of the Starkville community. Community involvement is a chief motive in his carrying on with Starkville Now, and in fact the site came to replace an ambition to run for public office.
“I came to the realization that I could probably do as much, and sometimes more, to have an effect or have a seat at the table from a public policy standpoint [through Starkville Now],” he says. The site retains a neutral tone despite Coblentz’s one-time aspiration, and if a news site can spare someone the indignity of running for public office, it’s already gone a long way towards proving its worth. How the site’s journalistic aspirations shake out in the coming years will determine the rest.