NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. As many newspapers struggle, cut staff and stories, Web-based publications hope to fill the void. Some are national in scope, but many more are local - in some cases, very, very local, focused on a town or a neighborhood, even on a block. A few employ paid professional journalists who do original reporting on politics, education, crime. More use volunteers to aggregate stories from existing newspapers and other online sources.
So far these so-called hyper-local sites have as much difficulty attracting advertisers as their print-based brethren. Some are non-profits, funded by foundations. More are commercially oriented and rely on investors in it for the long run. What's not yet clear is how these news sites compliment other local media, and where newspapers close, if they can fill their function.
Later we'll talk with a lady who gets all your Ralph Fiennes love letters. She answers celeb fan mail. But first, hyper-local news sites. Do you go to a local Web site to get your news? How does it compare to the local paper? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. There's also a conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Investigative journalism demands a lot of time and money. Many worry that it could disappear with newspapers. Last week, though, a Web site called VoiceofSanDiego.org won a major investigative journalism award. Editor Andrew Donohue joins us now from San Diego. And congratulations.
Mr. ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, VoiceofSanDiego.org): Thank you very much. And thanks for having me.
CONAN: And two of your reporters worked for months digging through public records to expose a corrupt public official. I think you'd agree on the expensive and labor intensive description. Was it worth it?
Mr. DONOHUE: Well, it was definitely worth it, though I do want to challenge the expensive notion a little bit. I think one thing that we've proven is that if you do something on the Internet, it's amazingly more efficient. And if you come in with a clear mission that you're going to do investigative reporting and sort of leave some of the smaller things, maybe some of the smaller meeting stories or some of the smaller press release stories to the side, that it really isn't that expensive of an endeavor at all.
CONAN: Though you had to keep those reporters on staff for months while they're presumably not producing a whole lot of stories for your Web site.
Mr. DONOHUE: We do. But they are - they're producing other stories. In this particular instance, and there's kind of two different ways you can do these investigations, this was what is called the rolling investigation. So you're doing stories every time you're finding out more information. So this produced months and months and months worth of content for us, sometimes five, six stories a week.
CONAN: So on the investigative front, more of the Watergate model. Here's this development, here's this development, here's this development, as opposed, well, working quietly for months and months and months and finally, here's a big blockbuster.
Mr. DONOHUE: Sure. And we do that that, too. We just had one that had a big two-part series on a massive mortgage fraud scheme that was going on here in San Diego and other places in California. So we do that as well. But I think it is important to note that, you know, when you're doing something as Internet journalism, it just doesn't cost all that much money. We don't have to spend very much money on the printing press or the paper or the distribution or anything like that. We're not doing international reporting, so we're not flying reporters to Moscow to dig up a document or something like that. So on a very local level, investigative reporting does not have to be very expensive.
CONAN: Yet you say you're able to do that, at least in part, because somebody else is covering the meetings and doing what you call press release journalism.
Mr. DONOHUE: Sure. Exactly. And that's - I think that's what's important to realize is for a long time, you know, the last 20 years and 30 years in a lot of cities in America, you're just had one monopoly paper, and that's been the only place where you could get any of that information. And I think that's the important thing that we're starting to see now. Yes, we're seeing a massive financial crises in correction in newspapers, but we're also starting to see more and more competition among more and more different publications. And I think that's ultimately a good thing.
CONAN: And what's your business plan? How do you pay for that?
Mr. DONOHUE: Sure. Our business plan isn't a whole lot different than yours, actually. We do, you know, fundraising, we…
CONAN: It'll never work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DONOHUE: Well, you guys have been around for quite a while. So we have a lot of faith. But, you know, everything that you guys do, minus the government funding, and then we do get online advertising. So that sort of supplants the - it's almost the same amount of percentage that you guys get from government money.
CONAN: So it's donations from supporters, and also you get donations from foundations.
Mr. DONOHUE: Yes, we do. And I think the key there is people started to see, probably a lot like public radio or public television, people started to see a gap between what they wanted from their newspapers and what they were actually getting in community news. And so if the marketplace wasn't filling that niche, they decided, how do you do that, then? You fund it through philanthropy. And, you know, we think that there's a long record of Americans funding their journalism through philanthropy. It's now that we're confronted with this crises with newspapers that I think people are starting to understand a little bit more how important that sort of news, investigative reporting, in-depth reporting is to their community. And people here in San Diego have been very willing to fund that.
CONAN: Do you accept stories from people in the community, or is all of your content produced by professional journalists?
Mr. DONOHUE: All of our news content is done by professional journalists. We have op-ed, you know, contributions just like a newspaper does in its op-ed pages, and then we also have what's called Cafe San Diego. It's sort of a community blog for the day for activists, community members, businesspeople, politicians - anybody who has something to say, we give them a blog for the day and they go with it.
CONAN: And do you publish things like reviews of local restaurants, the movie reviews, that sort of thing?
Mr. DONOHUE: No, we don't. We're not trying to be what the daily newspaper used to be, which was this sort of general accumulation of everything. We don't believe that we're going to be your only source of information in the day. What we are after is the best stories, the best quality of life, local, impactful stories that we can find.
CONAN: And are those strictly hard news, or do you do features as well?
Mr. DONOHUE: We do features, but, you know, we do it from the sort of angle of why is this important to you, as in perhaps a neighbor or a colleague of this person, you know, if we're doing a profile or something like that. So, you know, they tend to be issue-based, but we do, you know, we do a fair share of feature reporting as well.
CONAN: We're talking with Andrew Donohue, editor of the VoiceofSanDiego.org, a small Web site - well, getting bigger Web site in San Diego, California, won an award last week from the group Investigative Reporters and Editors. Believe me, it's a prestigious award. Where do you do to get your news? Do you go to local Web sites? If so, how do they compliment other local media? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve's on the line with us from Des Moines.
STEVE (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Steve.
STEVE: I just wanted to say that I'm a senior citizen, and as a result, I probably like the hard copy better. However, I also read some of my news online because of the immediacy of it and the convenience of being wherever I want to be. But I also - I'm a Web master, and trying to collect news in a particular sport in just our state, I understand the aspect of it, trying to put everything together on one page so that people in a hobby situation or something can go to that site and get information.
CONAN: The Des Moines Register, of course, one of the best-known newspapers in the country.
STEVE: Yeah. And I think people around here are kind of, you know, like everywhere else, they wonder what's happening with it. It's turning a little more into a local paper, I think, and that's maybe because of being owned by Gannet. But still, you know, they don't cover every activity - in my case, sports, my particular sport, which is running and triathlon. They don't cover it the way we'd like to see it. And so that's where those little hobby-type Web sites come into play, and that's what I do.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Steve. Appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And I assume you have competition like that in San Diego, too, Andrew Donohue.
Mr. DONOHUE: We do. You know, I have an uncle named Steve in Des Moines, so I was afraid he was calling to prank me. But luckily, that wasn't him. We, you know, I think what you're seeing, like Steve was talking about, was there's a whole class of, really, information junkies on much more specific topics, like you said, you know, running or track, or maybe it's just politics, or maybe it's just education. And I think that's what Web news - news sites on the Web are really starting to appeal to people because they're going a little bit more in-depth.
It doesn't have to be, you know, information doesn't have to be crafted for this mass audience, the same people that are going to pick up, you know, the housing section, or the local section or something like that. So the Web is a really powerful tool for really digging deep and really satisfying, you know, that sort of itch for the junkie.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Sara(ph) in West Harrison, Indiana. how can a free online news service run by volunteers grow from doing unbiased coverage of local government to doing investigative reporting? Is there a risk of losing the trust of our readers in the factual coverage if we venture into controversial issues?
Mr. DONOHUE: You know, that's a great question. No, as long as you set up all the rules. I mean, one of the things - one of the most important things, I think, that we've done from the start has been very clear with what our rules are. You know, we don't - we raise money, but we don't allow any of our fundraising to interfere with our news content the same way newspapers have always worked hard to try to not let the advertising interfere with the news content, as well.
So I think if you set those rules up, and you're very honest and open with people, and you're open and honest with your readers, you're going to have to take on those controversial issues because those are the things that people want to read about.
CONAN: Let's go now to Warren. Warren with us from Okemos in Michigan.
WARREN (Caller): Yes, hello.
WARREN: I just wanted to comment that this emergence of the very local media is opening up an opportunity for a layer beneath that, and that would be trusted suppliers of data for aggregators.
CONAN: And what kind of data are you talking about?
WARREN: Well, we've chosen to specialize in the event listings, which tends to be something that's very commercial. And we've developed an alternative, which is a free database. We take event listing data. We will wrap in metadata, make it available for aggregators.
CONAN: And event data meaning - is that a movie schedule?
WARREN: Primarily very local things, for instance, a fish fry at the VFW Hall or a local women's club.
CONAN: So community bulletin board kind of material.
WARREN: Exactly, except it's actual event listings and then it's subject to metadata that makes it more easily aggregated. So we, for instance, iCal is a common format or xCal.
CONAN: I see. And are those things that make sense to you, Andrew?
Mr. DONOHUE: Yeah, they do. You know, newspapers not only have had a monopoly in a lot of cities on the actual news content and opinion content, but also just on information in general because they were the people with the distribution means. And now you're seeing that people - you don't need to go to your daily newspaper to get the weather anymore. And there's a weather Web site that's going to give you even more in-depth information.
You don't necessarily need to go to your local newspaper to get a movie review because maybe there's another movie reviewer in New York that you trust a little bit more, or maybe there's, you know, a very specific movies Web site. And the same way with event listings and all that sort of stuff that a lot more people can get involved in a lot more different and specific information on the Internet.
CONAN: Warren, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
WARREN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Good luck to you. And Andrew Donohue, again, congratulations.
Mr. DONOHUE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Andrew Donohue, editor of VoiceofSanDiego.org, with us from a studio there in San Diego. Coming up, what's the business plan for all this investigative cyber ink? We'll talk with Jon Brod, the co-founder and CEO of the hyper-local news site, Patch.
And we want to hear from you. Do you go to a local Web site to get your news? How does it compare to the local paper? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As many newspapers struggle, the era of the ink-stained wretch might be giving way to the laptop-carrying wretch. Some Web news sites are hoping to fill the investigative void left by failing newspapers.
Do you go to a local Web site to get your news? If so, how does it compare with your local newspaper? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is Jon Brod, co-founder and CEO of Patch. That's a hyper-local Web site that publishes in three northeast New Jersey towns: South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JON BROD (Co-founder, CEO, Patch): Thank you very much for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And what's the genesis of Patch?
Mr. BROD: Well, patch.com, as you mentioned, is really - the simplest way to think about it is that it's an online real-time newspaper dedicated to individual communities. We combine professional original journalism with community contribution to delivery community-specific news, sports, schools, government information, as well as announcements, events, business listings, volunteer opportunities and more.
CONAN: And this is as newspapers in that part of the country, well, I assume they're going through the same kind of struggles as newspapers everywhere else.
Mr. BROD: Exactly. As major metropolitan daily newspapers unfortunately struggle, they are cutting back coverage, largely at the community level. And we believe at Patch that this has created a void in sort of the quantity, quality and access to information at what we would consider the all-important community specific level.
CONAN: And of course the reason the newspapers are having trouble is because they're having trouble getting advertising. It's not necessarily, they say, so much a readership issue as an advertising issue. How are you funding - you have many fewer costs like the Voice of San Diego, but how are you funding your operation?
Mr. BROD: Exactly. We - you know, I would start by saying our costs, when you compare Patch.com's costs to a like-size daily newspaper, and you take out the cost of ink, distribution, print, significant overhead, you're left with about 4.5 percent of the cost of a like-size daily newspaper. And the way - on the revenue side, the way that we generate revenue is 100-percent free to users. And we have a two-pronged approach to revenue.
The first is a do-it-yourself advertising solution, which allows these community-specific businesses and organizations with three clicks of the mouse, a swipe of a credit card, and in less than 30 seconds, to create high-quality Internet ads on Patch. And then we supplement that with an advertising sales representative, who reps a cluster of Patch sites, who both evangelizes the do-it-yourself solution, as well as takes more traditional orders for more classic Internet advertising on Patch.
CONAN: And are you covering that 4.5 percent of what it would cost to publish a comparably sized newspaper?
Mr. BROD: Well, we're 11 weeks old. We couldn't be happier with our initial success by every sort of measure. In our first month of operation, full month of operation, which was March, we're already at month 15 in terms of our projections for page views and uniques. And so while its early days were very encouraged by the initial uptake - and we are confident that over time we'll be able to exceed the 4.5 percent of costs and create a very profitable business.
CONAN: And help pay back some of the venture capitalists who have invested in this idea in the hopes that it will produce a lot of money someday.
Mr. BROD: That's exactly right. I mean, I would say - you asked me sort of the genesis of Patch.com. It's important to note, I think, that Tim Armstrong, who was the former president of advertising and commerce at Google and is the current CEO and chairman of AOL, really came up with the idea for Patch back in October of 2007.
He and his family, Tim and his family, were looking for ways to volunteer in their hometown of Riverside, Connecticut. Tim turned to the Internet, not surprisingly, went through newspaper sites, government sites, volunteer sites and more, and got incredibly frustrated at the lack of information at the community-specific level.
He then called me. I was at the time running his private investment company, and said I think there's something here. And over the next several weekends we dug deeper and realized that the problem wasn't only relegated to volunteer information at the community-specific level, but in fact was kind of a larger issue of news and information in general.
And as we dug even further, we realized that this wasn't only an issue in Riverside, Connecticut, which happens to be one of the most-resourced towns in the country, but is, in fact, sort of pervasive in every-town, every-community, USA.
CONAN: And we wish Patch and every other journalistic enterprise all the best in the world, but we do have to note that there have been many other, well, similarly optimistic sites launched like this that have fallen by the wayside, and I'm sure you're aware of that, too.
Mr. BROD: Yes. I think there are really a handful of things that differentiate us from current competitors and historic attempts at this that have not done as well. The first is that we are really focused on professional journalists.
We hire one professional journalist for every community that we go into, and these communities are sort of 20 to 50,000 populations. We think that's really important. It ensures quality of information, it ensures that we have comprehensive information and it ensures that we understand the rhythms and nuances and uniqueness of each community. And that we can solicit user-generated content from within.
The second thing, again, is the low cost. We are 4.5 percent of a like-size newspaper in terms of cost. And the third is where we are in time. And what I mean by that is, you know, the local advertising business is a $96.2 billion total business. About $13 billion of that is currently online. And that's projected to double over the next four years. So we think that given all of those factors, we're really well-positioned to, over time, create a profitable business and be successful where others have failed.
CONAN: Let's get some more listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Bob's on the line from St. Louis.
BOB (Caller): Hello.
BOB: This is Bob Duffy. I'm associate editor of the St. Louis Beacon, and our operation was actually helped very much in the early days by Andrew and Voice of San Diego. So I just - I wanted to weigh in with a voice from the Midwest to tell you about the Beacon and how we are serving a local population with a newspaper where many of us work, to run the Beacon staff, the Post-Dispatch, which is struggling.
And we are actually about to celebrate our first official birthday next week on the 28th of August. And we have a robust following. And we have a staff of about 17 editors, reporters and business folks. We are a not-for-profit organization and did that deliberately so that we would be able to distinguish ourselves from…
CONAN: The newspaper.
BOB: …profit-driven operations.
CONAN: And Bob, if that newspaper were to go away tomorrow, would the Beacon fill that hole?
BOB: Well, I hesitate to answer that question because I certainly wish the Post-Dispatch nothing ill. We have positioned ourselves to do something a bit different. I mean, while we are covering the local scene thoroughly, it's a question of going deep on stories and really concentrating.
CONAN: So you are a compliment to the newspaper, as opposed to a…
BOB: I would say indeed we are, yes.
CONAN: Okay, and there would be a loss to the community if the newspaper went away.
BOB: It certainly would be, yes.
CONAN: Okay, well, well, Bob, congratulations. Happy birthday.
BOB: Thank you very much. And give my best to Andrew.
CONAN: I will. He may be listening, so (unintelligible) to see.
BOB: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Leslie(ph), Leslie with us from Farmington Hills in Michigan.
LESLIE (Caller): Yes. I guess why I love my local newspaper, by the way, which is the Detroit Free Press (unintelligible), and the thing that I miss is that when I would go into diners or restaurants that I frequent, there's a copy of the paper. It's, like, oh, did you see the story about - and everyone can pass that story around. Did you see the editorial, or the op-ed or whatever? And it created that instant community because you can pass something around to that person who hadn't seen it. And you have this water-cooler type of effect that creates an instant community with people who you probably wouldn't normally community with.
And while I'm not saying Internet news is bad, I mean, I do use it, but I use it more as a supplement than in place of. I guess that's what I'm saying is that Internet news doesn't have that kind of did you see, you know.
CONAN: And Jon Brod, I'm sure, would be the first to say we've all emailed a lot of stories to each other, but not necessarily to people we don't know or run into in the diner. And I think Leslie's point, Jon, is that it's different.
Mr. BROD: It is. And I was going to make that point about email. I think, also, commenting is important, right? So on every, you know, at Patch and in most hyper-local sites, you can comment on every article and really express your opinions and I think create almost a virtual community that way.
But, again, I don't think this is necessarily about replacement. I think this is very complimentary. You know, we're all about strengthening communities. Our entire mission is about strengthening communities and improving the lives of residents through information. So anybody who's contributing, you know, to the ecosystem of accurate and good information at the community-specific level we think is terrific, whether that's a newspaper, a blog, a radio station Web site, et cetera.
CONAN: And Leslie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
I wanted to ask, do you do investigative journalism? Do you see that as part of your mission? And I hesitate to point out here too, a lot of local papers around the country did not do a lot in the way of investigative journalism and the watchdog function was - well, the dog licked more than it barked.
Mr. BROD: Right. It's something that we debate and discuss a lot in the office. I would say we don't do a ton of it now. We're really focused on sort of, you know, breaking news, news about government issues and incidents, school boards, sports, businesses, et cetera.
But I think as we learn - again, we're only 11 weeks old - we're going to understand what our consumers and our communities are really interested in and then we can better serve them, whether it be investigative journalism or some other form.
CONAN: Email question from Martha in Little Rock. What about the future of documentation? When technology changes or busts, without hard copies of newspapers, how will future historians research and evaluate information?
Mr. BROD: Is that a question to me?
CONAN: I guess so, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You're the guest here.
Mr. BROD: Right. I think it's - I think it's an interesting one. I think that technology, while it may crash occasionally and far less so than it used to -I've been in the business for over 10 years - it's pretty much there and I think will actually end up being a better archiving system than paper in the future.
CONAN: Here's another e-mail comment, this is from Jessie in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm a native of Minnesota, a political junkie who's been living in Minnesota for many years - excuse me, in Massachusetts for many years.
I still try to keep track of what goes on in Minnesota. And of course the biggest news story there has been the U.S. Senate recount. The Legacy national media has done a poor job of covering that story. The best way I've been able to keep up with the happenings in the recount has been through some very strong local Internet-only sites like MinnPost, theuptake.org, and MinnesotaIndependent.com.
They all make great use of social networking, online chats and Twitter. Without them, I'm afraid Ken Rudin would be my only source for coverage of the story. Oh, heaven forefend.
And that's - Jon Brod, you understand, you exist in the context of a huge universe of other online sources.
Mr. BROD: Absolutely. But we are hyper-focused on hyper-local, I think. And by the way, we love MinnPost, and I think that that's terrific how that emailer is using that site.
We think that there are a lot of, you know, outlets who are doing a nice job of covering regional news, national news, and international news. But at the community-specific level, again, we believe that there's a void there that we're trying to fill, not only with our professional journalists and their original journalism, but also by linking to other credible sources who are contributing to that hyper-local ecosystem.
CONAN: Jon Brod is cofounder and CEO of Patch, a hyper-local news site which publishes in three New Jersey towns and soon to be, well, I guess, everywhere.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Mary. Mary with us from Wakulla County in Florida.
MARY (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Mary.
MARY: How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
MARY: I was just calling in to say that I actually am the (unintelligible) publisher of a hyper-local news site here in our county. And we're about 27,000 people. We started the site in 2005 because we had a weekly newspaper but we didn't have any daily source of news at all in the county.
And so we started this Web site, and it has grown incredibly in the last four years. And I think it filled a need for people to be informed on a daily basis of mainly events and things that are happening in the county.
CONAN: And how many people of those 27,000 in the county read your Web site?
MARY: Well, we have about 15,000 unique visitors a month, and we have about, I think we had 650,000 page views last month. We have a newsletter, an e-newsletter that is open for subscription. It's a free subscription. And we have about 4,000 subscribers to that e-newsletter right now.
CONAN: And are you making money?
MARY: A little bit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: Not a lot, because I'm a one-person shop, and I do not have time to really go out and sell advertising. But any ads I do sell are through networking or just people contacting me through the Web site. You know, people contact me. I really do not go out and seek it. But we make enough to have a little bit of a supplemental income.
CONAN: And do you, in addition to publishing things like, you know, newsletters and events and that sort of thing, do you hold public officials accountable?
MARY: We did for - when I first started the Web site, I was - I got very involved in our local politics and went to county commission meetings and reported on the meetings every week. And we really had a lot of government information on the Web site.
And then, as time went on, I became so busy and also found that it was hard to - in a small community, it is really hard to become controversial because you know everybody and…
CONAN: And they know you.
MARY: And they know you, and they hold - they - I think they really felt like it was a personal thing on my part at times. And that was very hard for me to deal with.
CONAN: I can understand that, yeah.
MARY: Mm-hmm. So…
CONAN: Mary, we wish you the best of luck.
MARY: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
And we'll go to this e-mail from Roger in The Dalles in Oregon. As a newspaper editor, I can applaud enterprising reporters for local online entities who actually attend the boring meetings for the kernels of news and report the things their neighbors need to know.
But I'm tired of the Internet ripping off and reposting our material. I agree with Dave Zeeck of the American Society of Newspapers Editors who wrote in 2007, when someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say, oh, yeah, so tell me again how many reporters does Yahoo have at city hall, how many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq.
Jon Brod, does he have a point?
Mr. BROD: You know, at Patch, we really take a media-agnostic approach to our hyper-local news and information. And what I mean by that is we want to deliver this content to our users however they want to experience it, whether it's on our Web site, whether it's via an e-mail, whether it's via a mobile device or standing in line looking at a monitor in a grocery store or at a coffee shop, or an aggregator, whether that's Google News or Yahoo News.
And so, you know, our feeling is you have to deliver this information to people where they want it and when they want it. And if that's at Google, then that's fine with us.
CONAN: Well, again, thanks for being with us today and good luck to you.
Mr. BROD: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Jon Brod, the co-founder and CEO of Patch, a hyper-local news site now publishing in South Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn in New Jersey.
Coming up, the next time you ask Chad Michael Murray to your prom, remember, he's probably not going to be reading your letter. Shelley De Angelus will though. We'll talk to her about celebrity fan mail reading. Stay with us.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION coming up after the news.
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