A news future in feisty upstarts?

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

By , Correspondent

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    A home page screen shot of 'This Land' website from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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The future of community journalism is still a rough draft. As newspapers falter, hundreds of ventures are testing models to keep local news alive.

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.

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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."

This Land Press (Tulsa, Okla.)

A century after W. Tate Brady helped found the city of Tulsa, Okla., his brand was everywhere: Brady Theater. Brady Historical District. Brady Tavern.

But time had buried an ugly truth: He was a Klansman. He helped tar and feather union members. He was an architect of the city's 1921 race riot. In September 2011, a new multimedia company published a meticulously documented account of the history.

Michael Mason, founder of This Land Press, thought 50 people might come to a panel discussion about the story. Then he ran out of chairs.

"I'd never seen 500 people turn up to talk about an article," he recalls. "And the room looked like Tulsa ... people of all races. It spanned the class range."

This Land publishes in print, audio, and video with an emphasis on long-form, narrative features. Backed by more than $1 million in venture capital, the two-year-old company expects to be cash-flow positive in August and employs 13 editorial and production staffers. Its most widely read stories include a profile of Oklahoma-born Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing classified documents to WikiLeaks, and investigations of sex abuse at a suburban megachurch and local police misconduct.

"If you tell a good story, and you do it without preaching, then readers bring their own honest reactions to it," Mr. Mason says. "It's a primal impulse in us to share and communicate through stories."

Honolulu Civil Beat

Since 2006, Hawaii's annual school bus fees have tripled to $72.4 million. But taxpayers didn't realize they'd been taken for a ride until the fall of 2011, when a news outlet revealed that competitive bidding for contracts had abruptly halted three years before. That story prompted a state audit revealing the scope of the disaster.

"No one else in this state does that sort of in-depth reporting," says Patti Epler, editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, which broke the story. Its motto? "Change begins with a question."

Launched in 2010 by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay, and Randy Ching, a former eBay executive, Civil Beat is dedicated to public affairs journalism and livening up local discourse. Its six staff writers, called "reporter-hosts," unearth the news and facilitate online discussions. The site charges $19.99 per month for full access and does not disclose subscriber numbers.

This summer, Civil Beat ran a series called "Hawaii's Vanishing Voter" and co-created a mock election on Facebook to push back at low voter turnout. In 2008, with Honolulu native son Barack Obama on the ballot, fewer than half of eligible voters went to the polls – the nation's lowest state turnout.

"We said, 'Hey, we don't care who you vote for – we just want you to vote,' " Ms. Epler recalls.

New Haven (Conn.) Independent

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

"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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