NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — After scraping by in New York City for several years as a freelance journalist and screenwriter, in early 2009 Ben Mintz was offered the chance to live in New Orleans for three months to work on a script. Like many before him, he was seduced by the storied city and decided to stay permanently.
But Mintz still missed some of the BIg Apple’s savvy, if smart-mouthed, local news blogs like those at New York magazine, Gothamist, and Eater. So he tried to approximate that model for the Big Easy, launching the NOLA Defender in late December 2009, with a plan to focus on producing and aggregating arts coverage.
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The problem at first, Mintz says, was that there wasn’t enough news to aggregate. The Times-Picayune, the city’s principal news source and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage, had just gone through a round of deep staff cuts in 2009, and the paper’s arts coverage was diminished. So Mintz began to re-envision NOLA Defender as a provider of original reporting, and by the time of the site’s “hard launch,” in March 2010, Mintz says he had a much clearer sense of what he had to do.
“We looked at what they weren’t covering, and tried to fill those holes,” Mintz says, referring to beats like the opera, visual arts, and the theater. Mintz also sent reporters to big city press conferences, mixing much of their original reporting with “cut through the crap” analysis. Other beats he left uncontested, like crime, which he says the Times-Picayune still does best. “We weren’t really going to scoop them,” he says.
Reader response, at first, was tepid, but has picked up considerably, Mintz says, to the point where he’s drawing around 100,000 unique visitors a month. (This figure could not be independently confirmed by CJR.) Mintz and managing editor Levi Bruce shoot to publish at least two longer posts of about 1200 words every day, in addition to several 500 word posts.
Mintz originally started the site with business partner Michael Weber, who focused on tech and design while Mintz focused on content. Over the summer of 2010, Mintz bought out Weber’s share in the site, and soon after that attracted some private investment money. (He declines to say how much.) In the fall of 2010, the site got its first office, in a warehouse, where Mintz still sleeps most nights. (“That’s obviously not a permanent situation,” Mintz says.) Around that time Mintz also settled on a model for contributors that he still uses today, publishing young, primarily low-paid or unpaid writers, many of whom are still looking for their first clips. “They come in and they want to be Hunter S. Thompson,” Mintz says.
In March 2011, the site made an even bigger splash in the wider New Orleans community when Mintz recruited noted local theater critic Jim Fitzmorris to write reviews for the site. Fitzmorris’s first post drew immediate attention, Mintz says, drawing 1,000 readers overnight. “Hiring someone with a little bit of name appeal was a big breakthrough for us,” Mintz says. Other big hits for the site followed, including a scoop in December about the passing of local blues legend Coco Robicheaux. A month later, the site asked former LSU star cornerback Patrick Peterson for a prediction on that night’s BCS National Championship Game, which featured LSU and Alabama. Both posts drew enormous numbers of traffic, especially the Peterson story. “It crashed our server,” Mintz says.
The site costs around $4,500 a month to operate, Mintz says, including rent, Internet service, insurance, cell phone service, occasional coding, and payments to some of the writers. Mintz has also made some strides toward establishing a steady stream of advertising revenue–primarily through direct sales–but he says that finding reliable ad sales staff was difficult. “We’ve had a bunch of people,” he says, adding that the staff has since stabilized a bit, with two salespeople working on commission. As for the writers, Mintz concedes that little or no compensation isn’t ideal, but he says that many of them are happy to have any gig at all. “We give them a chance to be published, and they learn a lot,” Mintz says. “We kind of slipped into being a farm team for outlets that pay a little better than us.”
The site’s financial numbers are tracking to what Mintz expected, but he says the site lost money in 2011. He says that this will be critical year for NOLA Defender to turn its first profit.
“We’re breaking into the first year where we need to make some cash,” Mintz says, adding that the site could probably benefit from some help on the technical end of things. But he’s optimistic that it will ultimately flourish. “I’ve definitely got another year in it, and hopefully a lot more,” Mintz says when asked if he was planning to stick it out. “It’s been really, really difficult, but, all that aside, we’ve come a long way.”
NOLA Defender Data
Name: NOLA Defender
City: New Orleans