ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND — Eye on Annapolis, a website covering Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and capital city of Annapolis, has forged a pragmatic model for local news coverage, carving out a niche for itself among the city’s media by providing readers quick and frequent news updates. The site focuses on breaking news including traffic reports and crime, as well as a community calendar, coverage of local politics, education, business, and columns written by residents. (Check out 16-year-old Fish Stark’s smart and savvy column “From the Classroom.”)
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“We don’t do the in-depth stuff; we have no problem handing that off to the newspaper,” says John Frenaye, the founder and publisher of the site. “And we don’t have a problem handing off the really hyperlocal stuff to the Patches.”
The site employs the familiar tone of a neighborhood blog to push out a wide-range of news coverage and press releases. Frenaye thinks of the site’s style as “Cliffs Notes” to the news of the day.
“We’re not finding a lot of people who want a whole lot of detail,” he says. “I’m kind of like Joe Friday from Dragnet. ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ That’s a lot of what people want.”
Eye on Annapolis launched in 2009 after Frenaye, a businessman who owned several travel agencies, noticed that the Chesapeake Bay area was lacking a comprehensive online-only news source. In the ensuing years, Eye on Annapolis carved out a niche in the local news marketplace which includes daily newspaper The Capital and seven Patch sites. According to Frenaye, Eye on Annapolis averages 90,000 unique visitors a month. (CJR could not independently verify that statistic.) The site has over 46,000 “likes” for its affiliated Facebook page, which is less the voice of the publication and more a discussion forum for all things Annapolis.
“We’re still continuing to see growth,” says Frenaye. “We’re finding the stories that really resonate with people and getting the ‘shares’ and the ‘likes’ and the ‘tweets’.”
According to Frenaye, advertising sold against these traffic numbers fully supports the site’s present costs. Frenaye pays himself a monthly salary that fluctuates according to ad revenue and expenses. Though the site is not his sole source of income, it currently takes 90 percent of his working time. He currently pays Stark (the student columnist) and one other freelancer who contributes both photography and writing. Frenaye hopes to pay more contributors, but does not feel that revenues are stable enough to do so yet. He says a future compensation program would probably be pegged to a reporter’s performance in terms of page views and social media activity. All of the site’s advertisers are local businesses or institutions and they pay between $340 and $700 per month for banner ads with steep discounts given for three and six month contracts. The site has upwards of twenty ad slots on its homepage.
“I have no desire to deal with national brands, I want local business,” says Frenaye. “That’s what our whole mission is about, being local.”
It’s also a strategy that Frenaye says he believes can be profitable. “The Washington Post and our local newspapers are looking towards subscription-based models, but I’m not going there yet,” he says. “I think it’s a viable business model down the line but I’m in a better position not doing a subscription and growing my readership from people who don’t want to buy a subscription.”
Eye on Annapolis has a media partnership with WBAL, the Baltimore NBC affiliate, and runs the station’s top regional headlines each morning. For this service, the site receives a monthly fee that supports operations, and WBAL receives traffic from readers who are brought to WBALTV.com when they click on stories.
Although Frenaye authored a column for MSNBC.com on the travel industry for a while, he does not have previous experience as a working journalist.
“We do try to abide by best practices of course, but none of us has a journalism degree,” says Frenaye. “I don’t consider myself a journalist.” Eye on Annapolis is an example, he says, of a blurring line between citizen reporting and professional journalism. In the final product, however, “We try to be as ethical as possible, we follow style rules and stick to the facts as we know them. When things are opinions they are tagged as opinion pieces.”
The site may eventually find itself delivering more than cliff notes to its readers. Since the economic recession, the region has experienced difficulties including spikes in crime and tumult in the local education systems, according to Frenaye. Private school enrollment is down and public school classrooms are overcrowded and have had several instances of serious violence and bullying.
“People are concerned about that, and want to know what to do,” says Frenaye, who believes the local school board and police have tended to sugarcoat the problem. “I wouldn’t say that we’re a watchdog, but if something falls in my lap I’m going to run with it.”
Eye on Annapolis Data
Name: Eye on Annapolis