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