DavidsonNews.net has been online for 3 years and 10 months, and by now many of you are used to finding town news on an independent local website. That’s a great thing, though sites like DavidsonNews.net are hardly the norm in most towns and neighborhoods across the U.S. As DavidsonNews.net evolves, we’re continuing to win national recognition, and we remain a model others are watching closely. After attending a conference of local news publishers in Chicago recently, I’m more optimistic than ever about the future of local news.
DavidsonNews.net was identified recently as a “promising local news site” by researchers at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute.
And I was invited to Chicago Sept. 24-25, along with about 75 other publishers, for the Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010. The conference was organized by Michele McLellan, of Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri and the Knight Digital Media Center, and Jay Rosen, of New York University and Pressthink.org. It was one of the first national events of its kind to bring together publishers of local websites like ours.
The group in Chicago was a diverse one, from 20-somethings who have grown up with the web to grizzled veterans who started local news sites after their traditional journalism careers ended – some by choice and others in the massive downsizing of American newsrooms in recent years. (There’s a lot of talk in our business these days about how local websites are disrupting and threatening traditional journalism. I don’t think we are. The layoffs and shrinking of news staffs at big media companies have been the big disruption, even without the growth of a new web-based news industry.)
In preparation for the Chicago conference, we (and some of you) participated in research by Ms. McLellan and her Reynolds colleagues, answering questions and sharing information about the site, and by posting their reader survey on our site. The survey found – not surprisingly – that most most people (74 percent) like the ability to get local news on the web.
A total of 1,138 people who read 19 local news sites around the country responded to the survey. In Davidson, 139 of you took the time to answer the questions last spring. (Thanks!) Among DavidsonNews.net readers who responded, all said they visit the site at least several times a week, and about one-fifth said they visit the site more than once a day. Many respondents said they like being able to access breaking news as well as in-depth stories about the town or their neighborhoods. And about half rely on the site for its local advertising.
NEW MODEL HERE?
Folks around the country are watching sites like DavidsonNews.net as they search for new models for delivering news and information at the very local level. Yes, you’re a guinea pig of sorts, in a grand experiment.
As I’ve said before in this column: What we’re doing isn’t the future of local news, it’s the present of local news. And it’s not just about the news. It’s also about building and strengthening community. In providing you with a daily news update, an all-in-one community calendar, and news about your neighbors, we’re helping in some small way to get us all on the same page. We’re writing for our community, not merely about it. And that can only strengthen the fabric of our community, even as it continues to grow.
I’m inspired in part by memories of my childhood in Connecticut, when it was a thrill to read about our own neighborhood – and sometimes about ourselves – in the local daily newspaper. Although we are journalists, with professional judgments about news, we also rely on you to tell us what’s news. Yes, we need to cover Town Hall, the finances of the local cable system, or break-ins in your neighborhood. But we also want to be there for new business openings, celebrations, school awards, big events on the Village Green. It’s all news to us.
As one Davidson respondent on the RJI survey said: “(DavidsonNews.net) is the only source for Davidson-focused news. They also provide personal interest stories that relate to Davidson and Davidson’s people, not just hard ‘news.’” Said another: “It builds community.” And still another said: “In spite of the modern delivery means, it feels very old fashioned in the focus on people and events close to my home.”
Meanwhile, as a journalist, I’ll admit my first impulse in starting DavidsonNews.net had nothing to do with running a business or selling advertising. But at both the Chicago conference and in the survey, I was reminded how important local businesses are. Nearly half of readers who responded to the survey (46 percent) said they rely on the site for local advertising. And publishers at the conference noted that small businesses are an important community within our community, one we need to pay attention to.
EXPERIMENT? NOT ANY MORE
Personally, the Chicago conference was a real shot in the arm. I enjoyed swapping stories and expertise with other folks from around the country who have my job – publishing websites for their communities and neighborhoods. I picked up a few business tips – about marketing and advertising. And I’ve brought back ideas for making the site even better.
I’ve returned to my desk recharged and with a renewed sense of optimism about our experiment. In fact, after nearly 4 years in business, it’s time I stopped calling it an experiment. We are still financially a bit shaky, but as your daily readership and regular financial support show, it’s a viable service with a bright future – both here and in other communities.
We aren’t all the way there yet. The major dilemma facing most of us is how to pay for what we’re doing. In comparing notes with fellow publishers, I learned that DavidsonNews.net is among the more successful so far – and we are barely breaking even.
We rely on a combination of advertising revenue and reader payments – I like to call them “voluntary subscription payments.” Advertising on the web is far cheaper than comparable advertising in print newspapers, and consequently it does not begin to cover our expenses. We need readers like you to chip in and help support us.
So let me make another plea: If you find value in DavidsonNews.net, we invite you to do your part by making a payment. Make it annually, quarterly or monthly – it’s your choice. Some readers recently have begun automatic monthly payments through their online banking services. Others have signed up for our convenient reminders, which prompt them to send in their payments.
HOW TO SUPPORT US
You can find out more on our “Support us” page, http://davidsonnews.net/support/.
David Boraks is editor and founder of DavidsonNews.net, and has been a journalist for more than 3 decades. Read more about him and the rest of the staff on our About Us page.
Michele McLellan’s list of “promising local news site”
University of Missouri survey results: “Community news site users more satisfied compared to their local mainstream news sources.”
Observations and links to related information from the Block by Block Community News Summit on Twitter, hashtag #bxb2010.
Sept. 28, 2010, J-Lab.org, “Taking it to the Next Level.” J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer with observations on the Block by Block conference.
Sept. 28, 2010, Columbia Journalism Review, “Money, Volunteers, Money, Patch, and Money: (What community news site owners worry about.)” – a report on the Block by Block conference.
Sept. 27, 2010, Nieman Journalism Lab, “Once you’ve launched, what’s Phase 2 of a community news startup?”
See previous “Letter from the Editor” columns, CLICK HERE>