Just over a year ago, amid the blood-letting in the American newspaper business, I lay awake in bed and realized that for the first time in more than three decades, I was no longer a journalist.
Former reporter, former editor, former newspaper general manager; I had a lot of former titles, but nothing in my new employment – a communication and marketing job at a local private school – sounded connected in any way to my life’s work, which had been so rudely interrupted.
After a few weeks of indulging in self-pity, I began hearing myself sound like one of those retirees who used to come back to the newsroom over the years and bore we very busy sorts with war stories that always seemed to imply that the old days were better and we still in the trenches were not as good as they had been.
That’s when I started the work of remaking myself for the world of modern communication. I stopped defining myself by the source of my income and began what turned out to be a completely open-minded re-examination of what had become of the information world I had led as a newspaper reporter and editor for those three decades.
As with the economic recovery, the healing isn’t done yet. The money ain’t what it used to be. But in the last year, I have learned much and have found myself occasionally almost saying I’m glad the axe fell when it did. Unemployment has a way of improving focus.
Today I am again a journalist, but not the kind I could have even conceived of a year ago. I am, in fact, a writer, editor, photographer, videographer, and owner of a nascent journalism institution that is literally re-teaching me the business as I soldier on.
I have a day job in a school, but even there I have remained the journalist in their midst, creating a communication system based on the belief that honest information, well-delivered to a target audience, can be crucial to the success of any institution seeking to serve its customers and maintain the public trust.
But it is in my “public service’’ where the lessons most relevant to my old job have been learned.
Just as 2009 turned to 2010, I launched a local news website for La Mesa, California, the town in which I live. Its goal was simple: keep costs near zero and deliver the best local news in the city’s 100-year history.
LaMesaToday.com was born and in its first year has by volume, and perhaps quality, succeeded in bringing unprecedented focus to journalism in this town. We gave our site the motto “Love Where You Live’’ and expressly stated the goal of news and civil discussion aimed at improving life in the community.
Using a platform that allows for easy transfer of stories, comments, photos and videos between members and keeping me, a journalist, as the moderator of all content, we began giving daily attention to a city of 56,000 that had been only occasionally visited by reporters from the San Diego metro newspaper over the years.
In a matter of months I had left the general manager’s office at that metro newspaper and was back covering council meetings, interviewing candidates, taking my own photos and trying to make it all as presentable as my skills allowed on LaMesaToday.com. I had moved from a career in which I was the editor of reporters vying for Pulitzers each year, to working with civic-minded citizens as we explored new ways of covering the news.
It was a bit of a shock for local officials not quite used to having a journalist with 30 years experience visiting city commission meetings that had never seen a real, live journalist before.
When a local landowner proposed a major redevelopment, including high rise towers, this little city found itself receiving the sort of journalistic focus usually reserved for the larger, more complex city of San Diego to its west.
And toward the end of our first year of covering La Mesa like a blanket, things got even stranger for the city when Patch.com, AOL’s attempt to crack the local news market, chose La Mesa to plant its first flag in San Diego County.
Suddenly, most events of any size in town had two and sometimes three journalists, taking pictures, recording video and publishing with a regularity and speed unprecedented in the city’s first century. Often in La Mesa, you could find video and photos of community events presented even before those events had ended.
Of course, none of these efforts, including my own, would be listed as a success yet. Patch.com – which I consider the high-cost approach to local news on the Web — continues to spend AOL’s money with full-time employees and a generous freelance budget. But the revenue hasn’t followed and if I had betting money to spend, I’d short the AOL stock.
My own year in the trenches of this online local news world has convinced me the small margins on which most local businesses operate make the traditional advertising model tougher to emulate. In fact, we purposely haven’t pursued paid advertising in our first year. Rather we wanted to build trust, a track record of accuracy and imbue our effort with the elements of community service that have always been the main motivator for the working journalists of my generation.
We have offered our platform and our nascent skills in business partnership with local merchants – even creating and publishing free advertising for home-grown business “partners’’ who have been struggling through the poor California economy today but agree to spread word of our site to their customers. We meet with community groups and teach them how to use slideshows as viral marketing tools for their next endeavor.
And throughout, we have maintained, in our own fashion, the wall between editorial and business. My partner, Gina Garcia, a former NBC camerawoman, and a marketing expert and local realtor in her day jobs, is the publisher and general manager. I am the editor. And in ways that have made me smile at times, the same tensions that existed between the advertising and news sides of the San Diego Union-Tribune will occasionally rise in this two-person, still-not-for-profit operation today.
There are times I get nostalgic for the immense resources and audience a metro newspaper editor or reporter has – or had — at their fingertips. I sometimes wonder how much more quickly we could build this local news institution if we simply could afford to advertise in the still-ubiquitous metro newspaper. But then I remember that we are actually working in a new space.
The metro newspapers never got down to this granular level of local journalism because they operated on a higher octane fuel, larger profit margins and, frankly, sought the most profitable low-hanging fruit. We are endeavoring to build a new model here. Though I am more convinced than ever that newspapers should be fighting this war themselves, I’m sure the low margins and the long gestation period for efforts like this give them pause.
Still, for what it is worth, some early lessons from the trenches:
- It is easy to vastly improve local journalism when it is de-linked from the costs and limitations of print. Paying for it is the tougher putt. Delivering the kind of revenue newspapers generate may be beyond reach in our lives.
- In the crowded and increasingly fragmented online world, people understand and seek out well-produced journalism. They know it when they see it and they value it.
- The scorecard in local Web news will not be page views as much as a site’s ability to attract and maintain e-mail lists. 500 local e-mails are worth more than 5,000 page views from unknown viewers. And those lists will be a clear and measurable index of trust the readers have with you.
- At least in the transition to a full, digital economy, the relationship of the website to merchants must be more of an “agency’’ relationship, serving as advisor, guide and advertising service and probably in that order.
- Success will demand keeping costs low, partnering with a community that must continue to see journalism institutions as public servants of integrity as well as local business establishments.
Chris Lavin, Editor of LaMesaToday.com, is a former senior editor and general manager of the San Diego Union-Tribune. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for the Finger Lakes Times, the late Rochester Times-Union and the St. Petersburg Times. He is currently employed as Director of Communications and Marketing for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, Ca. He can be reached at ourtown@LaMesaToday.com