CHARLESTON, SC — When a Union Army officer surrendered and removed the American flag from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the Civil War had begun. Less than thirty miles away and 150 years later, the Confederate flag was flown again at the new home of Annie Caddell, whose relatives fought for the South, to the dismay of her neighbors in the historically black community of Summerville, SC. After a petition to the city council and protest march failed to bring down the flag, locals built a fence to block the view–so Caddell raised the flag on a higher pole.
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The conflict lasted for months and was reported on by local daily The Post and Courier, the local broadcast stations, and the Associated Press. TheDigitel, a news website based in nearby Charleston, took a different approach to the story. Rather than put a reporter on the ground, the site created a page dedicated to ongoing recaps and links to reporting by other outlets. TheDigitel founder and senior editor Ken Hawkins wrote the updates – four small items in total, spanning the course of more than a year – but, in the spirit of the site, which combines aggregation with user participation, the byline reads: “By Ken Hawkins, but enhanced by others.”
Every story on TheDigitel is topped by a similar shared byline. Those “others” enhancing stories may be any number of the 4,000-plus members in the site’s Open Community program, which allows registered users to upload their own stories and, most unusually for a news site, edit any item currently on the site. Changes to any article are reviewed before going live, and users can track revisions by viewing the article’s history.
“The idea is to blend a traditional online media model with a wiki and multi-user blog,” says Hawkins. The site publishes an average of one citizen-contributed story a day.
“People can submit a story and go through an almost identical workflow that we do,” says Hawkins. To assist its contributors and local bloggers, TheDigitel periodically hosts workshops on writing with a news perspective.
Hawkins and his roommate, Chris Giganti, created TheDigitel in 2008 (the name is a combination of “digital” and “telegraph”). Both had years of design experience at newspapers, including Charleston’s The Post and Courier, and started TheDigitel to create an easier way for citizens to find comprehensive local coverage that didn’t require visiting multiple outlets and blogs.
“In a nutshell our aim is: To not-re-report, but to act as concierge,” writes Hawkins on the about page. “Connecting folks to the best in local coverage.”
The approach to aggregation is what Hawkins calls a ‘reporter’s notebook,’ in which stories are summarized, often with a headline, teaser, and links to sources that cover various perspectives on the event. For example, when a slaughterhouse-bound cow escaped and ran into traffic, TheDigitel linked to The Post and Courier‘s report and included footage from NBC News 2. Curious readers might occasionally click-through for additional coverage, but the story recaps would likely suffice for most people.
“We refer people to other outlets readily,” says Hawkins. “If we can direct someone to a better story, we should.” This allows TheDigitel to focus on its original coverage areas: local food, technology and the environment.
“Getting a small investment in 2009 gave us more energy and allowed us to expand into other markets,” says Hawkins, referring to its venture capital funding from Palmetto Investments and Exchange Group. The following year, TheDigitel launched an extension site in Beaufort, a town with an older demographic located further south near Hilton Head Island. TheDigitel Myrtle Beach launched in 2011 in one of the state’s largest tourist destinations, located 100 miles north of Charleston. Each hyperlocal site has community-specific content on its homepage, but shares regional stories. Of course, the site’s also share the same corporate structure, server, and web design. Advertisements can be placed locally or network-wide.
Both Charleston and Myrtle Beach are served by a full-time editor who works with a part-time reporter to publish original content. For example, at TheDigitel Charleston, which receives 40,000 unique visitors a month, Ken Hawkins and Amanda Click will post an average of eight stories a day–half original reporting and half aggregated, usually as recaps that contain links. (Hawkins also writes the bulk of the content for the Beaufort site.)
As visitor traffic increases, so does revenue, dependent on display ads at $10 per 1,000 impressions (see the site’s ad kit here). TheDigitel has an investment partner who oversees the business, which currently brings in around $6,000 a month in ad revenue from Charleston alone, according to Hawkins.
Among recent experiments in advertising was TheDigitel TV, where screens streaming ads and headlines from the site were installed at local restaurants and retailers, including nine Dunkin Donuts’ locations. Although it was a creative form of digital delivery, it was phased out for being too labor-intensive.
In 2009, TheDigitel launched its own widget for “Dynamic Ads,” allowing sponsors to instantly update text on their ads via Facebook and Twitter feeds–available for the same $10 price as standard ads.
Alternative revenue may soon come from selling TheDigitel itself–or rather its model.
“We hope to offer a service where you can buy TheDigitel package to set up a site in your own community,” says Hawkins. “We would offer business support, allowing them to focus on being content producers.”
The site’s only mention of distributing a printed-paper edition came in the form of an April Fool’s prank. After the exposing the fake story, Hawkins wrote, “…what we’re doing at TheDigitel is only possible thanks to the Web.”
City: Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Beaufort