Seeding the News Ecosystem

February 26, 2014

Ten years ago, I attended a gathering in South Orange that would change my life. was holding a meetup to recruit bloggers. I was writing a story about the New Jersey blogosphere for the New York Times.

During the meetup, the legendary Jeff Jarvis mentioned his idea for hyperlocal news sites. The concept, as he explained it, was to get several bloggers in a town together, create a brand around a place, and start to attract small advertisers like pizzerias and dry cleaners.

I had just started blogging a few months earlier, and already felt like I had the Gutenberg press in my back pocket. My father had been a successful entrepreneurial journalist in Washington, DC, running a newsletter about food safety, so I felt secure in having some publisher blood. Most importantly, the New York Times had recently taken me off the Jersey column, a bi-weekly perch where I chatted about everything from rattlesnakes with lawyers to liability waivers for children’s birthday parties. I had discovered, early, what thousands of journalists would come to learn in the coming decade: I was disposable.

So I decided to grab the reins of my own life and started Baristanet, a news site about Montclair and environs. As it turned out, Baristanet made a splash and hundreds of would-be news entrepreneurs were emboldened by my example to start sites of their own.

Fast forward a decade. On Wednesday, Jan. 29, hundreds of local editors at Patch lost their jobs. In New Jersey, where Patch started, the wreckage was particularly severe. Nine editors were left to run the 89 Patch sites that had been built in New Jersey, plus 47 more in Pennsylvania.

I believe many of those displaced Patch editors can become independent owners of their own hyperlocal sites. And the NJ News Commons, with support of the Dodge Foundation, is putting up money and energy to help make this happen.

Last fall, we seeded seven new hyperlocal sites under a program called Grow & Strengthen.  Using money from the NJ Recovery Fund, we gave out micro-grants of $4,000 to news entrepreneurs looking to start news operations in NJ.

But money was only part of the equation.  We also gave the founders training, individualized coaching and a monthly peer-to-peer mentoring program where they could discuss their challenges with their fellow founders. In a survey we conducted just last week, all but one told us that the supports — rather than the grants — were the most valuable part of the program.

This spring, we plan to take a new cohort under our wing. Although we are targeting ex-Patchers, the new Grow & Strengthen is open to any budding news entrepreneur in New Jersey. We will have nine slots and plan to repeat the coaching and the peer-to-peer mentoring. We will also offer micro-grants — although the amounts of those grants may vary. In addition, we can now offer all prospective new sites a free ad-ready, easily deployable WordPress news theme called Blargo, developed by Broadstreet Ads for the first Grow & Strengthen group.

To kick off the process, we are offering a one-day workshop on How to Start a News Site on Tuesday March 11. During the workshop, we’ll explain how to think like an entrepreneur, the challenges of running a local news operation, how to deploy Blargo and some basics on selling ads. Jeff Jarvis will be on hand to offer his best advice. And we’ll explain the application process for the new Grow & Strengthen class. Sign up here. Spots are going fast.

In 2004, when I started Baristanet, I didn’t have a coach — let alone a grant — and there weren’t best practices for hyperlocal news sites or, for several years, peers.

Today’s local news entrepreneurs are lucky to have a big leg up, not just because of the programs we offer but because of the support of LION Publishers, a trade association for indie news sites, and other groups.

Which doesn’t mean that starting a hyperlocal site is easy or a path to riches. We can guarantee, in fact, that it will be exhausting. Major cop stories will break on weekends, and as a news site owner, you’ll have to ditch everything to get to the scene. There will be technical snafus, disgruntled advertisers, obnoxious commenters, bellicose public officials.

But we do know, 10 years later, that running your own news site is possible, noble and satisfying. And we’re here to help. Take us up on it.