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A news future in feisty upstarts?

A quintet of local news organizations trying to gain a digital foothold.

(Page 3 of 3)

Truancy is usually a problem among students. In New Haven, though, it was the school board members who didn't show up.

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"The board of ed members had more absences than the people who get thrown out of high school for absenteeism," recalls Paul Bass, who founded the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online news site. In 2007, the Independent revealed that the average board member skipped out on one-third of the board meetings; the mayor had missed 15 in a row. The investigation was spurred by reader questions in one of the site's well-trafficked comment sections.

Founded in 2005 on an $80,000 budget, the Independent now has a full-time staff of four and spent about $280,000 last year, according to Mr. Bass. It relies mostly on foundation support, along with donations, corporate sponsorships, and advertising.

The Independent has drawn national attention by hosting multimedia town-hall sessions, where topics ranged from school reform to gun violence. The events are live-blogged by journalists and elected officials, with hundreds of readers in the audience and more chiming in online. But Bass believes the Independent's most important role is more old-fashioned: "It's the day in, day out, reporting that propels the most civic engagement. Local reporting is the raw material for democracy."

The Ann Arbor (Mich.) Chronicle

Dave Askins knew he was on to something when citizens started showing up at local meetings with printouts of his stories.

"I won't say that the kind of coverage we offer is universally embraced as something people enjoy," acknowledges Mr. Askins. But readers weren't lugging the sheaves of paper around for pleasure reading. They had them for reference.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle is known for running exhaustive accounts of public meetings – many exceeding 10,000 words – under the slogan: "It's like being there."

Askins and his wife, publisher Mary Morgan, founded the iconoclastic online newspaper in 2008. A year later, the city's only print daily, The Ann Arbor News, became – following layoffs – a twice-weekly print and daily online publication. (Advance Publications, the paper's parent company, applied a similar model to The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

After those cuts, the Chronicle added a "civic news ticker" to provide faster – and shorter – news items. Its revenue has reached $100,000 annually and is growing at 16 percent each year, Askins says. Advertising dollars and voluntary subscriptions keep the lights on. "It's paying the bills, but the rewards are not financial," he explains. "You take vacations in 45-minute increments."

He and Ms. Morgan both write for the site, and employ half a dozen freelancers. Public officials quote their reports as they would a historical record.

"It provides, for those people who want it, an incredible resource for information about how our public bodies are doing their work," Askins says. "[It] makes this community a better place to live in."


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