Starting an online community news publication like Open Media Boston has been, in many ways, a leap into the unknown. Since our first weekly edition in March 2008, we've been building the road as we travel. Figuring out how to produce regular original content on a growing, but still shoestring, budget. Building a staff and an audience. Raising money. Learning the technical side of social media. And always looking around the country (and world) at what other startups like us were doing.
After all, we're part of a wave of similar online community news publications that have launched over the last five years. We started up in an era when the traditional news industry saw its fortunes fall - a development which was partially self-inflicted (at least for outlets owned by multinational corporations that slashed their news budgets but still expected double-digit profits to go on forever) and partially due to technological changes driven by the rise of the internet.
Early on, we looked around and saw that no one in the news industry - from the most established operations to newcomers like us - knows precisely how to build a sustainable business model. Public, private, non-profit and hybrid news outlets are all trying solve a seemingly intractable problem: How can we get paid to produce the news needed to keep a democratic society going when everyone increasingly expects to get their news for free via the internet?
So, we were excited last January when Michele McLellan, a consultant for the Knight Foundation as well as the Knight Digital Media Center and then a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, added Open Media Boston to her list of promising local news sites. In the months that followed, Michele and her team interviewed us, surveyed our audience, and ultimately invited us to to last week's "Block by Block" Community News Summit 2010 in Chicago.
And naturally, the main topic of conversation at the summit was how to build news organizations that can survive and thrive in a difficult economic period.
But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First and foremost, the really cool thing about Block by Block was being at an event with dozens of people in the exactly the same situation I've put myself and my friends into at Open Media Boston. A bunch of self-starting coffee-achievers (decaf in my case) that spend 60-80 hours a week eating, sleeping and breathing news production. Sure, we all approach the many pitfalls that face us in different ways, but we all see the promise of the new models of journalism we're helping to pioneer.
In addition to other editors, publishers and staffers, we were also joined by academics, foundation officers, some forward-thinking corporate news officials, and people that run support organizations for online community news publications. In fact, the first conversation I had at Block by Block was with David Cohn, director of spot.us, the innovative micro-funding platform for online journalists.
Shortly thereafter, I was surrounded by my peers. Which was just great. I cannot effuse enough about how cool it was to hang out with people who immediately understand how tough it is to make an online community news publication go. So let me name some names of the people I talked to ... Denise Cheng of The Rapidian, Emily Henry of The South Los Angeles Report, Lila LaHood and Michael Stoll of SF Public Press, Jeremy Iggers of Twin Cities Daily Planet, Rachel Healy of GarnerCitizen.com (which is the online version of a print newspaper), Benjamin Ilfeld of Sacramento Press, Darren Hillock of West of the I, Nathaniel Berke of Sheepshead Bites, Peter Sklar of edhat.com and Chuck Welch of Lakeland Local.
Of course, there were a number of other people that I spoke to, and lots of other people I didn't get a chance to chat with. But that didn't bother me because I went out to the summit with a simple plan that would ensure that I got to talk to everyone in this circle and beyond on a regular basis - push for an association of the assembled online community news publications. So while there hot conversations about advertising (and complaints that there was too much focus on for-profit fundraising methods), and about whether AOL's hyperlocal wing Patch.com was going to destroy us all (I think not), and whether we should even aspire to be journalists at all any more (I vote yes), my long experience with building regional and national organizational networks told me that at this early stage, I should not be overly concerned about particular conversations in the moment.
Rather, I should focus on working to create a loose organizational structure that would help online community news publications have a sustained conversation over time. And state, as I did in the final plenary at the summit, that it's clear that online community news publications are now an identifiable community of interest. And that as such, we need to organize our new community to collectively advance our sector of the news industry.
So after a lunchtime conversation with Lila LaHood, we resolved to call a breakout session to discuss forming an association and were gratified when several people showed up on just a few minutes notice - including Bill Densmore of the Media Giraffe Project, the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the New England News and Press Association (of which OMB is a member publication), Anthony Moor of Yahoo.com and the Online News Association, Anne Jonas of the Miro Community, Chuck Welch, Linda Jue of the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism, Ben Ilfeld, Michael Stoll, and Darren Hillock.
The discussion quickly moved to whether we should form an independent association or whether we should just join the Online News Association en masse. Of the editors at the meeting, Ben Ilfeld pushed hardest for an independent association, and I pushed hardest to join the ONA - which may surprise some viewers. Essentially, Bill Densmore raised the issue of just joining the ONA early on in the meeting, and Linda Jue suggested that we could be a subsector of the ONA, and I saw the wisdom of that approach. Given that most of the publications in attendance - and many that were not, but would likely participate in an association - are poor and overextended with largely volunteer staffs, it seemed logical to me that it would be better to join an organization that already existed than to start a new one. The ONA has been around for about a decade, has staff and holds an annual conference. They have resources and infrastructure. Any new association would have to take a long time building all that good stuff up, and could easily fail to do so fast enough to make a difference. [Check out the minutes of our association discussion here.]
The ONA also has a lot of members that are high up in online corporate media. So it may strike some folks as particularly odd that I of all people would want to join such a group. But it shouldn't. I want to talk to people in big corporate media on a regular basis. I want to know what they're thinking and what their plans are. If online community news publications are going to remain independent, it's important that we develop a relationship with our counterparts in the online corporate press. First, because I think if they know us personally, they'll be somewhat less likely to move to crush us. But also because they don't necessarily know how to make online news operations sustainable any more than we do. So more heads on the problem will certainly help.
During the conversation, I suggested that at least some of us who plan to join the ONA should plan to attend the ONA annual convention in Washington, DC later this month, and try to get a meeting with the ONA board about helping us establish a caucus or division for online community news publications. We can then ask for a certain amount of dedicated staff time from the ONA, and use that paid time to organize our network.
That idea was favorably received, but we did not really resolve the issue of which approach to take. Regardless, it looks like those of us who want to join the ONA are basically going to go ahead and do that. I haven't heard anyone state that they were planning to form an independent association in the considerable online chatter among summit attendees since last week, but if one forms, we'll just figure out the relationship between the two efforts as we move along.
But one thing that makes the ONA strategy more tenable came to light right after the association breakout session. It turned out that Susan Mernit of Oakland Local (who I only got to say hi to in person), and Michele McLellan are both candidates for the ONA board. So after the summit was over I put out the following proposal to my fellow editors via Twitter
1) we encourage Block by Block attendees to pay $75 and join the Online News Association
2) once a number of us have joined ONA, we push to get votes for Susan Mernit and Michele McLellan for the ONA board
3) a number of us then attend the ONA conference in DC in Oct., and meet with ONA board members as discussed at BxB
4) at that meeting we work to get ONA to start a (staffed) division or caucus for online community news pubs
It goes without saying that Twitter doesn't allow for much in-depth explication of ideas; so I'd like to elaborate here on the rationale for my proposal.
An association is basically a network. Like any other network, an association exists to organize long-term communication among its members. Much of this communication will take the form of information exchange on any number of topics of common interest. Out of these discussions will emerge various working groups. And concrete action can then be taken by those working groups upon consent from a majority of association members.
The actions taken by an organizational association representing a group of online community news publications will doubtless follow the pattern laid down by innumerable trade associations before it - we'll create services that will help our member outlets, we'll lobby in the political arena on issues that affect us, we'll establish relationships with like-minded associations, and we'll almost certainly look at ways to improve the financial picture for our sector.
That is to say, you can expect to see calls for a national advertising syndicate or a group deal with an existing syndicate. Which would definitely be a useful thing. However, there are publications like SF Public Press that have no intention of taking ads and want to think harder about non-profit funding mechanisms. Then there are publications like Open Media Boston that want to expand the definition of public media to include the large percentage of online community news publications that operate in the public interest - and then find ways to avail ourselves of public funding.
The main point on funding then is that any association of online community news publications will need to organize our funding base. So for advertising, we'll need an ad syndicate. For grants, we'll need a funding consortium. And for public money, we'll need a reform movement to expand the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's mandate (as I stressed recently in my presentation at Public Media Camp Boston).
But first things first, online community news publications need to organize ourselves into an association. I've followed my own prescription this week by joining the Online News Association. There's been buzz about the idea among some Block by Block Community News Summit 2010 attendees.
Now we'll have to see how many other publications follow suit, whether Susan Mernit and Michele McLellan win ONA board seats, and if the ONA board is game to work with us.
I, for one, will watch these developments with interest.
Anyhow, Block by Block was a blast. McLellan and company did a bang up job organizing the event. And no matter what happens, the news industry will now be forever changed by the addition of an innovative new force to its numbers - the online community news publications.
Open Media Boston is proud to count ourselves among their ranks. And that, above all, is why we attended Block by Block.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston
Follow the conversation about Block by Block and plans for the future with on Twitter using the hashtags #bxb2010 and #bxb2010next.