Life After Newspapers: One Reporter Takes on the Island of Alameda

    by Ryan Sholin
    March 18, 2009

    Bit of a busy couple weeks for those watching the newspaper business. The presses stopped at the Rocky and the P-I, Clay Shirky and Steven B. Johnson took turns penning big think pieces about the Future of News(papers), and — good news — the San Diego Union-Tribune looks like it will sell to a private equity firm.

    So what does life after newspapers look like, especially in major-metro-adjacent neighborhoods?

    I asked one reporter-turned-blogger about the local news site she started after leaving the Bay Area Newspaper Group, the chunk of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews that includes the Oakland Tribune and a squadron of other papers up and down the San Francisco Bay.


    Michele Ellson, who I worked with in Oakland when I interned on the investigative and enterprise-heavy regional desk there, launched The Island in February 2008 to cover the city of Alameda, a 10.8-square-mile land mass in San Francisco Bay.

    Her first lede? I live here.

    Michele answered these questions by e-mail this afternoon:


    1. When you left your job as a reporter, did you have any plans to get back into journalism? What drove you to start covering local news in Alameda?

    I left my job to have my second child, in May 2007. But I did have plans to get back into journalism. Part of the reason I left was out of deep frustration with the direction in which newspapers were headed. And I was intrigued with the possibilities of working online, specifically with the opportunities that it presented to sort of change the news that gets covered and change the way that news gets covered.

    I started covering local news for two reasons. One is practical: With two small kids at home, it’s what I can do. But another is that local news really isn’t being covered well by papers right now. Their resources are shrinking, and with papers becoming more corporate, I think the focus on being local and having a commitment to a local community sometimes is not there.

    Having this online platform has offered me the opportunity to offer that commitment. I also think that in terms of creating a business plan and making a site pan out financially, having a local news site that covers one communities or a few small communities – places that can be covered by one or two experienced people – might be easier to support financially than a metro right now.

    2. Take us through a snapshot of a typical day at The Island. Are you out on the beat reporting? Working the phones? Managing content and comments?

    All of the above – while taking care of two kids.

    Today’s schedule included stops at two local cafes for a piece I’m running on local coffeehouses, a tour of our former military base for a project on redevelopment plans there, pictures of environmental cleanup taking place there, a stop at a local boat business to check out a tip.

    Right now I’m catching up on e-mail, reading comments, updating my main story for the day and checking the local papers and blogs for news. Tonight I’ll probably sit down for three or four hours, something I do five nights a week, to write tomorrow’s stories.

    3. It looks like you’re running this on WordPress with a sort of magazine-style theme right now. Can you tell us a little bit about the decisions you’ve made about your publishing platform and what sort of thought goes into it?

    After dragging along for almost a year on Blogger – which is really limited – I spent some time looking at the different WordPress themes to see what was a good fit for the look and feel I wanted for the site and also the amount and type of content I was looking to support.

    I chose WordPress because it seemed like a good midpoint between ease of use and quality of presentation, and I think it has kind of an industry standard look about it that legitimizes it in the eyes of my readers. I had looked at some of the more newspaper-y themes but didn’t feel like I could generate the content at this point to support something with that much air in it. At some point I’ll probably want to upgrade so I can have fixed pages – with their own unique second and third columns – for links and stuff like that (and for ads).

    4. What’s the revenue model so far? I see some banner ad positions — any other ideas? Have you thought about a local business directory, for example, or taking donations?

    I just upgraded to a page with ad spaces, so for me, the first job is getting those boxes filled. If I can do that, I’m basically earning what I was getting at my last reporting job.

    The next step would be to find other avenues for advertising. I think the big thing I could do here would be to put together a real estate ad page, because that’s where the money is in our city. Obviously, with the market being where it is, that’s not a short-term strategy. But I’m operating in a bedroom community, so I think that’s where the money is going to be.

    I am also offering classified ads, so that’s a small revenue opportunity.

    5. What’s the one piece of advice you would give an out-of-work journalist with thoughts about covering their own neighborhood online?

    Be ready to work. Hard.

    I’ve found covering local news to be a lot more challenging than I expected, and in some respects a little more challenging than covering an issue beat.

    For one, you have to be able to speak intelligently on everything from education policy to municipal finance to, in my case, environmental cleanup issues. And people are so invested in these local issues they aren’t shy about letting you know when they think you’ve messed up — in the most personal and derogatory terms possible, I might add.

    That’s another thing that I think was a shock for me in moving from print to online – the shift in what your readers want and expect from you in terms of their psychic needs (which shift from information to attention-getting, sometimes) and the kind of engagement they anticipate. I figure it’ll take a lot of work for me to fine-tune that engagement level.

    Thanks, Michele.

    A few resources I’d recommend for former newspaper reporters looking to get started online in their neighborhood:

    • BeatBlogging to find out what’s working for reporters blogging their way to success inside and outside conventional news operations.
    • Placeblogger to get indexed and track what other neighborhood bloggers are up to.
    • Outside.In to track blogs and news in your town.
    Tagged: alameda blogs community local media oakland reporting
    • Tom Honig

      Great article. After all the think pieces, it’s nice to hear from someone who’s on the ground and working a local beat. Very inspiring — and a good reality check for those of us who think we can just dabble. Good luck, Michele, and thanks, Ryan.

    • Hal Davis

      Agreed. Clay Shirky is fine. This helps us understand how to get from A to B.

      This is my first exposure to this site. Hallelujah.

    • Doug

      It is nice to see a reporter going out and doing something instead of whining about the plight of their industry. What she is doing is the future.

      After looking at her site, one bit of advice I would give her is to put googleads on the site until she can sell her own. I believe it gives her site more credibility and will make it easier to sell the ad positions. I would also recommend she write sponsored articles on local businesses for a fee. They last forever and offer good SEO benefit to the business. It is a good deal for everyone.

    • @Doug – Your ‘sponsored articles’ idea is pretty interesting — some of the largest niche blogs do this with ‘sponsored posts’ and disclaim pretty clearly that they’ve been paid to give their opinion about a product/service/site.

      I don’t think it hurts their credibility, but as a reader, the first thing I do when I see ‘sponsored post’ in my RSS reader is hit the ‘J’ key to skip to the next post.

    • Janine

      I’m a former newspaper reporter living in Alameda who was recently introduced to Michele’s site. She is doing an amazing job (which is even more impressive given how little childcare she has!) In addition to the SF Chronicle (which never really covered our little island even in good times), Alameda still has two print newspapers (one owned by the large chain Michele used to work for) and one locally owned, as well as its own magazine. But Michele is scooping them all, and The Island has become the go-to place for news. I hope she can make it work financially.

    • Doug

      @Ryan: I know what you mean about what they do on niche blog. I am not sure I would do exactly what they are doing, but it would be something similar.

      My idea actually comes from a print community weekly that I did some consulting work for that did something called a “Business Review.” It seemed to be a pretty popular feature and they generated good revenue from it. It would be kind of a human interest article on the business owner and talk about their business and what they do. I think that guy got like $300-400 a pop. Keep in mind his was print only and 10,000 or so weekly circulation. The added benefit from a web perspective is that the business owner gets a positive marketing piece that will most likely rise pretty high organically.

      So, I am not saying doing a paid article/review of some other blog or of a product that someone can buy on a web site that has no connection to the community she is covering. I think an article about small businesses in the community and their owners would be worthwhile. You could even do video clips and embed them in youtube. I think they should be marked as sponsored articles, but as long as they are informative and community-focused, I think it is something that would work for her and I don’t think people would mind it, understanding that they have to generate revenue.

      Your point is well-taken about the RSS feed. Keep in mind that I think most readers will come directly to the site instead of through an RSS feed. So you may lose a few that way, but I think the upside outweighs that concern.

    • Luis

      Good article. Thanks, Michele, for your insight.

    • Dustin Pate

      Great article, Michelle. It’s very discouraging to see the newspaper business go downhill so quickly but it is great that journalists still have the passion to move into this new era. I think it is so great that you have been able to transition to online journalism, especially with two kids. I know most journalists are complaining about the online transition and are not doing much to ensure that they would keep their jobs if their newspaper went online, but you are the beacon of hope that shows it’s not all over. I hope that other journalists will see this and share the same passion you do to start a new online revolution of journalism in their communities as well.

    • Dustin Pate

      Great article, Michelle. It’s very discouraging to see the newspaper business go downhill so quickly but it is great that journalists still have the passion to move into this new era. I think it is so great that you have been able to transition to online journalism, especially with two kids. I know most journalists are complaining about the online transition and are not doing much to ensure that they would keep their jobs if their newspaper went online, but you are the beacon of hope that shows it’s not all over. I hope that other journalists will see this and share the same passion you do to start a new online revolution of journalism in their communities as well.

    • Meghan

      Newspapers may be going downhill but I think it is great that Michele started her own news page. If other journalists start their own pages like Michele more opinions will be available and less restricted. Also smaller towns like Alameda can get more local news and news that better relates to them. Most newspapers are already online so journalists should not have a problem with that transistion. Also being able to write whatever they want should be an incentive for journalists to start their own news page.

    • Jesse Pleasants

      I think this is a good idea… local sites like that are nice. My neighborhood has it’s own website where small things are reported on by reporters and it really brings the community together. It’s also really easy to see what’s going on in your own community. It’s cool that she is taking the time and working for something like that, kinda branching out on her own… I like it, and I’m sure the community appreciates it as well.

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