A news future in feisty upstarts?
A quintet of local news organizations trying to gain a digital foothold.
The future of community journalism is still a rough draft. As newspapers falter, hundreds of ventures are testing models to keep local news alive.Skip to next paragraph
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They haven't had an easy time. Among the largest is Patch, a network of more than 850 "hyper-local" news sites. AOL purchased the company in 2009 and reportedly spent $160 million on it last year. But Patch remains unprofitable. In September, its websites began shifting to a format focused less on news, more on user-generated content and social groups.
When it comes to preserving local reporting, some of the most promising experiments are just that: local. Instead of plotting vast empires, an emerging tribe of innovators has pursued a different strategy. Their mantra? Think small.
From New Haven to Honolulu, media pioneers are building a new space for civic newsgathering. They're keeping watch over public officials, breaking big stories, and working to engage communities. They are as diverse as the places they represent. Here's a look at five standouts:
Voice of San Diego
Last year in a San Diego County school district, officials took out a $105 million loan for school repair. That sum wasn't remarkable. But the amount citizens will repay – nearly $1 billion between 2033 and 2051 – caused a public uproar when it was reported in August by Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit investigative news site founded in 2005. Since then, angry taxpayers have crowded Poway Unified School District meetings. Lawmakers are fighting to prevent similar deals in the future.
It's not the first time the small newsroom has had a big impact. In 2008, a Voice of San Diego report led to the ouster of two city redevelopment officials later convicted of embezzling more than $400,000.
"We're doing all we can to help people see and understand the narratives of the city and also provide accountability, public-service journalism," says chief executive Scott Lewis. The site's $1 million annual budget comes from grants, membership donations, syndication fees, corporate sponsorships, and hosting events. (Keeping a steady budget hasn't been easy, though. In December 2011, a shortfall forced three layoffs. The newsroom now stands at eight people.)
The organization's mandate also includes civic edu-cation, "helping people understand even very basic things, like how a school board member is elected," Mr. Lewis says. This fall, about 2,500 readers attended the organization's second Politifest, a public-issues fair. It included briefings on governance, mayoral and school board debates, a tournament of problem-solving ideas, a kids' area, and a scavenger hunt.
"We're trying to create an atmosphere where the city's stories are as exciting to be around as a food festival, or an ethnic festival, or the other things this place is so good at putting on," Lewis says. "When people care about stories, they follow them and participate as civic actors to influence their outcome."