I have this recurring dream where I have to go back to college, to finish something. A class, my degree … it’s never quite clear. This fall I find myself actually back on campus for real, as the James K. Batten Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. And this Thursday night at 7:30, I’ll be giving the annual Batten Lecture, “CommunityNews-dot-Net: How the Web is Transforming Community News – and Communities.”
You’re all invited. The lecture is in Tyler-Tallman Hall of the college’s Sloan Music Center. Find the details and read Robert Abare’s interview with me about the visiting professorship at Davidson.edu, “Batten Professor to Discuss Community Journalism.”
Jim Batten was a legend throughout newspaper company Knight-Ridder Inc. and in the Charlotte Observer newsroom where I worked 1993-2000. He stood out among the newspaper executives of his era because he came from the newsroom side – he was trained as reporter – not the business or marketing side of our business. Batten died too young, of a brain tumor, at age 59 in 1995.
He also was a 1957 Davidson College graduate and the year he died, Davidson was able to create the James Knox Batten Visiting Professorship in Public Policy thanks to grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Knight-Ridder Inc.
Designed as an interdisciplinary professorship, the seat has been held by a variety of professionals and academics, including journalists. I’m grateful to the Batten family and to the college, for the opportunity. It’s a bit of a milestone: I’m the first journalist to hold the professorship who works entirely in the emerging world of online journalism, and in community news in particular.
That’s not to say that what we do here at CorneliusNews.net and DavidsonNews.net is some kind of high-tech magic. It’s still community journalism – the name of the course I’m teaching this semester.
Our classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons this fall have followed two main threads. We’ve been discussing The Big Picture, the evolution of the news industry. And students have been reporting community news for articles, videos and graphics. Their work has appeared on a class website and in both The Davidsonian student newspaper and on DavidsonNews.net/CorneliusNews.net.
We’ve been talking about the nature of community news, not White House politics or Wall Street, but what happens in Town Hall and at small businesses on Main Street. At their best, community news sites like our network are an electronic and updated version of the old community newspaper, sans printing presses or delivery trucks. Just as in the newspaper newsrooms of my early career, we hold to traditional journalistic standards and practices, while also taking advantage of all that the medium offers – including endless space for news and the ability to supplement coverage with audio and video where appropriate.
Our discussions also have included the business side of news. As I have built these community websites over the past seven years, I’ve also come to realize I’m no longer merely a journalist, but a news entrepreneur. That means balancing the daily rush of news with the monthly challenge of meeting a financial budget. It’s not easy, and while there are plenty of examples of financially successful news websites, our company still isn’t really one of them. We live month-to-month, always in search of the next advertising contract or the next voluntary payment from a reader (our two main sources of revenue). We’re at about break-even right now, but one or two lost ad contracts and we’re back in the red.
That’s the challenge for online news startups like ours. It’s not figuring out how to deliver community news – our readership numbers show we’ve proven that. After starting out with just a few hundred readers in Davidson our first year, we now attract 70,000 unique visitors (readers) per month, according to Google Analytics. Our network reaches readers throughout the Lake Norman area and in Charlotte, with the largest sources of readers in this order: 1) Cornelius; 2) Charlotte; 3) Davidson; 4) Huntersville; 5) Mooresville. Readership in the latter two communities likely will surpass Davidson in the next 8 or 9 months. And then we’ll have a dilemma: How do we provide front pages (like CorneliusNews.net and DavidsonNews.net) to those readers as well? We’ll need additional reporters and the revenues to pay for them.
Solving that equation is the real goal for community news startups. We’re working on it, and watching others who are doing the same thing. I’ll talk about that more on Thursday night. Please come for a progress report.
David Boraks has been a journalist for more than 35 years and founded DavidsonNews.net in December 2006.