Public-interest news website integrates radio, podcasts, Web streams

Photo by Patrick Breitenbach on Flickr.

Paul Bass is executive director of the Online Journalism Project, a not-for-profit that promotes and publishes public-interest news websites.

Ten years ago I stumbled across a blog called Baristanet, and believed I may have seen the future of local news reporting.

Ten years later I stumbled across podcasts called “Reply All,” “The Read,” “States of the Re:Union” and “Dear Sugar”… and wondered if I had seen the next model for local news reporting.

Those podcasts have nothing to do with New Haven, Conn., the city of 130,000 people where I have worked as a reporter for 35 years. They don’t do local journalism. But like the Baristanet blog—where readers in New Jersey were helping to develop in real time a story on a bomb scare, then analyzing it in the context of a changing community’s demographics and values—the podcasts suggested a new approach for reporting or interacting with “the people formerly known as the audience,” to borrow a phrase from media guru Jay Rosen. They suggested a way of reviving an endangered journalistic species—thoughtful radio reporting and conversation with a targeted listenership—with new tech and distribution tools.

Maybe, I thought, that model can inspire us to try something new in keeping quality local Web journalism thriving in New Haven.

We tried something new in 2005. We launched an online-only, not-for-profit news site called the New Haven Independent. It combined old-fashioned reporting—of neglected zoning and school boards, neighborhoods, ward-level elections, criminal-justice issues—with multimedia tools that enabled us to tell stories and develop an ongoing, high-impact civic conversation in new ways—at a fraction of the previous cost of doing business. It felt like a model for local news reporting 2.0.

Ten years later we’re still here. (Hallelujah!) We publish editions in New Haven, the lower Naugatuck Valley and Branford. We break a lot of stories and interact with a diverse readership. We feel that what we do every do matters. And we have a lot of fun. (Plus we can pay health insurance and salaries competitive with other local media.) Readers in New Haven need to read both the legacy monopoly daily print newspaper and us—not just one or the other—to stay informed and get involved.

To remain in business, and broaden our mission, we’re now experimenting with a new idea: combining a daily local news website with a local radio station. Out of one newsroom. On one website. With one combined staff, doing the job on multiple platforms.

We have obtained a low-power FM license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). We have erected an antenna and are in the process of converting part of our office into a studio. We have lined up dozens of local people to host shows, some from our staff and freelance roster, some from community circles.

The plan is, beginning in mid-August, to broadcast shows each weekday from 4 a.m. through 3:59 p.m. over 103.5 FM in New Haven and Hamden (another not-for-profit has the other 12 hours); to Web-stream our station 24 hours a day on the Independent website; and to repackage programs as podcasts that feed, and are woven into, stories on our site (as well as distributed separately through services such as iTunes).

We’re doing the project in conjunction with La Voz Hispana, a Spanish-language newspaper with whom we share office space and articles and host public events.  Members of an African-American newsweekly with whom we also collaborate and a Latino theater troupe, along with a Muslim fitness-trainer, a salsa dance instructor with radio experience, an activist police officer, and a former U.S. congressman, are among the other people who have signed up to host programs. The operator of a New Haven online-only radio station for unsigned hip-hop artists plans to serve as our morning drive-time deejay. We have some money to do an edited, reported series.

I believe that we can build on our existing journalism at the Independent, that we can reach deeper into the community, deeper into issues, with this expanded format.

Thanks to a two-year grant from Knight Foundation, we have the money to hire staff to produce shows and make sure we’re on the air. Some of our other funders enabled us to obtain the FCC license, buy and install the antenna, and equip and build our studio. Our friends at WNPR are helping to train our producers and give us other pointers.

That gets us started. Will we able to say in another 10 years—or even four or five—that we’re still here, reporting on New Haven and sparking meaningful civic dialogue?

In testing that proposition, I believe our project will signal whether a new model can help sites like ours survive and grow, and new ones develop, in communities throughout the country.

It turned out that the first wave of city-based online-only new sites that had the staying power over the past decade operated on that NPR not-for-profit philanthropic model. Think of Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, The Lens NOLA  (Some of the best state reporting, as well, is coming from thriving not-for-profit sites like VTDigger and CT Mirror.) Our sites have succeeded in replacing most (though not all) of our out-of-town foundation funding with sustainable local philanthropic support.

Still, sustainability remains a challenge—just as it is (perhaps more so) for traditional corporate-chain-owned for-profit local print dailies. It requires continual experimentation and reinvention in tandem with retaining our basic mission of smart, no-partisan, analytical shoe-leather reporting.

I also look at how community radio has met the same fate as print journalism: Corporate chains devoured and then closed all New Haven’s radio newsrooms since I began working as a reporter here. A corporate chain (Tribune) even bought, gutted, then closed our alt-weekly. Meanwhile I look at how my daughters and their peers get much of their news these days: They download their favorite podcasts and listen to them on their own schedule. I look at how more and more drivers can access the Internet (as well as play podcasts) in their cars. I believe a not-for-profit public-interest operation with a combined print-radio DNA—connecting with people through their computers, their phones, their dashboards—might offer one promising model for local journalism 3.0.

Whether or not that proves true, we’ll have a great time finding out.

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