TAMPA, FL — In 2008, Rosemary Goudreau was laid off as editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune. She found work in public relations, but missed the constant immersion in issues and ideas afforded her by life in a newsroom.
“On the other side of the fence, I saw the need for a place that made it easy to know what people were talking about, and for people to get their issues on the agenda,” Goudreau says.
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Goudreau thus considers Florida Voices, which she founded in December 2011 as a website that gathers diverse opinions and commentary on the most important issues affecting the state, a product of her experience both in and outside of media.
Most of the contributors on Florida Voices are former newspaper journalists, journalism academics, and lawyers. One columnist is a Republican state senator who chronicles her last year in the Florida legislature through a weekly column. Her unique insider perspective on Florida politics has drawn more traffic to the site than any other feature so far.
“We’re standing up for opinion journalism, which is not just opinion, or ‘here’s what we think,’ but ‘here’s what we know, so here’s why we think it,'” Goudreau says. “We hope to create [an] audience around that, by making it easy to know what everyone is saying.”
Editorial pieces are organized by topic, such as “housing” or “immigration.” The verticals for each of these “key topics” contain all of the items Florida Voices has published on the issue thus far, as well as providing links to other Florida news publications and websites that have weighed in on the topic via published editorials, op-eds, or letters to the editor.
Pieces are also arranged by region. Readers can find content pertaining to their locale by clicking on a map graphic that is color-coded red or blue according to the region’s political leanings. Each day, the editorials and columns published in Florida publications are compiled and arranged according to their topic on the left panel of the homepage (the feature is called “Stirring the Pot”).
Another popular feature among readers is “Topical Breezes“, a weekly roundtable that invites different people from across the ideological spectrum to answer a hot-topic question. Associate editor Rich Bard is in charge of recruiting the relevant people to participate in the discussion each week. After the writers submit their pieces, they are published simultaneously.
The website’s “My Turn” feature allows concerned businesses, organizations, and citizen groups to submit their own op-eds on various issues. Readers began responding to these pieces with well-written letters-to-the-editor, so Goudreau decided to publish these responses as feature articles on “My Turn” as well. A recent op-ed on alimony law by a Florida attorney generated reaction from readers across the country.
Readers who wish to comment on articles are required to set up a free account. The account also allows them to freely post their opinions on any issue in the “Your Turn” section. Throughout the site, readers are encouraged to submit their own “letter to the editor”.
“We solicit commentary from influence leaders on the key questions facing Florida and encourage our audience to participate in the discussion,” Goudreau says. “But we’re finding that engagement is slow-going, [which is] something we hope to change.”
Less than six months old, Florida Voices is still building its online audience, but already has a strong presence in print. Layoffs at editorial boards across the state created a strong market for Florida Voices content, which Goudreau syndicates to six daily and twenty-two weekly Florida newspapers.
“Editorial boards play an important role in a community. They call out bad behavior, they stand up for their citizens, they give people pats on the back. Editorial boards are a third the size they were five years ago. But those editors who remain still want to put out compelling pages… so we’re here to help,” Goudreau explains.
The syndication service is an important part of Florida Voices’s business model. Goudreau notes that, at present, it makes up about 80 percent of the site’s total revenue. (She declines to release revenue figures). The remaining 20 percent of revenues come from advertising on the website–which comes in the form of both direct sale display ads and a professional service directory. Basic listings in the directory are free, but “enhanced listings” start at $50 per month.
Goudreau is responsible for the editorial content. Rosemary Curtiss, the site’s president and publisher, handles the business side of the operation. Each provided seed money for the site, which Goudreau calls a “bootstrapping start-up.” The editors are freelancers who are paid for their work. While the site did not initially pay writers for their submissions, Goudreau recently implemented a small honorarium to compensate them for their work.
Goudreau hopes that the Florida Voices model can eventually be adopted across the country as a way to keep professional opinion writing in the public sphere.
“We think we’ve found the sweet spot, a niche in syndicating state columns. Good writers who know the state and have something to say, and bring an interesting perspective,” she says.
In the future, Florida Voices would like to partner with public relations agencies, businesses, or citizen groups that are interested in public dialogue, and be paid to write op-eds for them as another source of revenue. But Goudreau notes that concrete plans have not yet been made, and a model is still in the works.
“What I learned, and what people told me is, you start somewhere, you give it your best effort, and then you learn as you go,” she says.
Florida Voices Data
Name: Florida Voices