Journalism Caught in a Web
The once-mighty Los Angeles Times has nearly halved the 1,500-strong editorial staff it had 10 years ago. In the last year alone, the paper put more than 100 top-flight writers and editors on the street and deleted its prestigious Washington, DC bureau. The news is the same at newspapers and magazines across the nation as the down economy and retail bankruptcies slay the advertising stream that is the lifeblood of publications. What's more, news audiences are growing, but only if you realize that a whole generation of readers is migrating online, where bargain-basement ad rates can't usually support the kind of staffing and salaries old-school reporters are used to.
What's a journalist to do? Some are making pink lemonade out of pink slips. Kevin Bronson, who spent two decades at the Times, was laid-off as an entertainment editor there last year. He started the paper's first music blog, Buzz Bands, and took it with him when he left, establishing buzzbands.la as Los Angeles' premier outlet for news, reviews and previews of up-and-coming indie acts. "The fact that I had the blog at the Times helps," Bronson says. "I was lucky to have had that niche at the paper."
Audiences have been healthy, he says, and people even recognize him in Hollywood club-land as the Buzz Bands blogger. Bronson gives big ad placement to major indie club Spaceland in exchange for hosting his site. But advertising revenue is slow going so far.
The story's the same for Diane Lindquist, a 40-year journalism veteran who took a buyout at the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007. Her site, mexbiznews.com, aggregates English-language coverage of the Mexican business scene and includes her original financial reporting, taking advantage of her years on the border business beat at the Union-Tribune.
Before leaving the paper, "I was getting inquiries from around the world from people interested in my beat," Lindquist says. "I felt my readership was beyond the circulation of the Union-Tribune."
With her site off the ground, Lindquist has offered training and advice to a half-dozen laid-off reporters in San Diego. They don't have to look far, however, to find the cutting-edge of journalism. The 4-year-old VoiceofSanDiego.org has received accolades for its investigative journalism as well as for its business model. The online-only operation employs a handful of staff writers (one was laid-off from the Union-Tribune) who aim their pens at must-read scandals.
The Voice's business model? Nonprofit. The site takes money from foundations, big donors and individual readers. The strategy has not only worked, but it has spawned several copycat operations across the nation. "Hardly a week goes by without a call from journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets," according to a glowing profile of VoiceofSanDiego.org in the New York Times.
"I think we're finding here in San Diego that people still want to have the sort of in-depth investigative reporting they're used to seeing in newspapers, and they're willing to pay for it," says the site's executive editor, Andrew Donohue. "It's a public service that they fund like a museum. And not only are we staying afloat, but we're growing."
Donohue offers this advice to prospective online publishing entrepreneurs: "The biggest thing is to do good stories. As soon as there's a blockbuster story on our site, readership spikes. And know your personality. You can't be everything to everyone."