Patterson to back collaboration platform, training to help local online news communities reach sustainability

This post has been updated with a correction (see end of item).

A collaboration platform help local online news communities, characterized by one researcher as entering their business "adolescence," will receive support from the Patterson Foundation and possibly the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California, news entrepreneurs have been told. 


Community News SummitThe initiative will include “a platform so that the publishers can network together, which is something the publishers have said they want very much,” Michele McLellan, reported Oct. 28. “There will be access to expertise and training, particularly around sustainability, which is what the publishers have said they very much want."


McLellan, a consultant to news organizations and startups, and lead programming consultant to the Knight Digital Media Center, was among speakers at a “Community News Caucus,” on the first evening of the Online News Association’s annual convention in Washington,  D.C., Oct. 29-30.  The caucus was sponsored by J-Lab the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the Missouri School of Journalism. National Public Radio donated meeting facilities.


With support from Knight,  RJI, and the Patterson Foundation of Sarasota, Fla., McLellan was principal organizer of “Block by Block: The Community News Summit,” which drew more than 70 local online news community entrepreneurs to Chicago on Sept. 23-24.  In remarks at the Oct. 28 Washington, D.C., gathering, McLellan said the Knight Digital Media Center and Patterson would support the “platform,” offering training and access to expertise. 

J-Lab’s director, Jan Schaffer, added in remarks to the D.C. gathering: "It's very clear to us that the real work to be done now is not in the birthing stage but it is in the adolescent stage ... to sort of move up the Bell curve of innovation.” Schaffer, who’s institute, liked the USC center, receives funding from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, said local online news community entrepreneurs are looking for help raising revenues, using the Wordpress platform, marketing and business planning, and help with mobile technology and search-engine optimization strategies.


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Schaffer said her research over half a decade, which has included managing Knight Foundation mini-grants to startup sites as well as creating training materials, suggests there are only about 12 U.S.  local online news community sites which are throwing off sufficient revenues to support their entrepreneurial operators. 


"Sites that are started by individuals with real knowledge of the community really cook,” she said, but added: "Except for about a dozen people in the country right now, it is not a business yet ... but I think it very much can be and will be . . . this is not journalism of the future it is journalism of the present."


Local online news community entrepreneurs who mingled and chatted at the Oct. 28 event echoed Schaffer’s and McLellan’s observations about their needs.

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 "We just need to start building relationships with them so we can share things that work,” said Laurie Cirivello, director of The Rapidian, in Grand Rapids, Mich.


"We need an engaged community,” says Erika Owens, editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.   "I hope to meet people doing similar things and learn  . .  . systems that work for them."


Cirivello and Owens operate not-for-profit sites. By contrast, David Boraks opted to set up in Davidson, N.C., as a for-profit business.  Between 8% and 10% of his website readers subscribe voluntarily, paying an average of $63 a year. He hired a salesperson to sell advertising, and is now working to get businesses to “sponsor” the site.   He thinks of DavidsonNews “as being both a service for my readers and a services for the small businesses in my town."


"Hopefully we can get a lot more sites like this going and can become a real industry,” said Boracks. “I guess there might be a need for an organization that is the practitioners themselves getting together to talk about what we do and look at common issues."


The key need for LONCs is an effective advertising format,  according to John Ehrlich, who has been selling online ads for in Chappaqua, N.Y., since the site began four years ago. He says things in the LONC industry are now moving quickly.  "To me this virtual piece of paper we publish on is rich with opportunity and if people aren't learning more about it they are hurting themselves,” says Ehrlich. "This is the form that is the most cost efficient, the most effective, has the best tools available. The future is enormously bright for this."


Bloggers around Santa Barbara, Calif., want to collaborate in starting an independent, non-profit investigative news site, according to Warren Schultheis  a visual artists who also runs the for-profit, ad-supported City 2.0, an aggregation service for 300 blogs around the California coastal city.  Schultise says he hopes to see exploration of “the middle ground between profit and not-for-profit.”


NOTE: This replaces an earlier version which incorrectly stated the Knight Foundation itself would support the collaboration platform. McLellan said the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California, which is funded in part by the Knight Foundation, is expected to provide support, along with the Patterson Foundation.