In as many months, two pioneers of hyper-local news websites have decided to leave those sites for jobs in the public sector. Debbie Galant, who launched Baristanet.com eight years ago, announced earlier this week that she’s accepted a job at Montclair State University, and last month Shawn P. Williams left the site he founded three years ago, DallasSouthNews.org, to work in the Dallas Mayor’s office as a digital media strategist.
What do the departures say about the maturity of independently owned and produced hyper-local news?
The sites are based on different business models: Dallas South News is a non-profit focusing mostly on blacks and Latinos living in the Southern sector of Dallas, Texas, while Baristanet – focused on several suburban towns in Northern New Jersey – has been profitable basically since year one, the founders told Poynter. They also offer two contrasting views on their future success.
Galant, a journalist and author, immediately handed over control to co-owner, Liz George, an editor and writer who Galant has worked with almost from the beginning; George is now CEO of Baristanet. Along with George, Galant leaves a team in place responsible for advertising, editorial and everything in between. Galant told Poynter in a telephone interview that she will remain co-owner of the site, may write occasionally and will make herself available to give advice. Operations at the site, which saw its strongest revenue month in history in May, will continue as they had under Galant, George told Poynter in a separate interview.
Nearly 1,600 miles away few, if any, updates have been made to Dallas South News since Williams’ departure in June. The board of directors that governs the site is still searching for a replacement – people who are willing to work for no money, at least initially, board member Neil Foote told Poynter in a telephone interview.
Williams, a former pharmaceutical sales representative, served as both editor-in-chief and publisher of Dallas South News. Foote said the board will likely bring on two different people to fulfill the roles: An editor-in-chief dedicated to editorial content and a publisher in charge of fundraising.
“We’re in transition,” said Foote, who is President/CEO of Foote Communications, a public and media relations consultancy. Foote is also a senior lecturer at the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism and has worked with nationally syndicated radio host, Tom Joyner, for the past 12 years.
“As [Williams] expressed his desire to move on, no one on the board felt that it was time to shut down. Instead, it was a time to still figure out this model for the future,” Foote added.
“The major brands, primarily The Dallas Morning News and local TV stations, cover all parts of Dallas, but no one has really focused on the day-to-day coverage of Southern Dallas. There are probably eight to a dozen African American publications and probably as many Hispanic publications that are out there doing it at their level, but not with as sophisticated an online presence as Dallas South News.”
(Disclosure: I was an editor-in-chief of two of the African American publications in Dallas; Dallashapps.com went out of business after I left and the other still uses the website template that I created nearly 12 years ago.)
Williams declined to name the person being considered to take over the website. He did allow that the editor is someone with a journalism degree, but isn’t someone who is necessarily in the media business. “They are still somewhat of an outsider,” Williams said in a telephone interview.
Dallas South News relies on donations and advertising to cover operating costs; raising revenues has always been a challenge. The site will remain a non-profit. The site also relies on volunteers to do everything from writing, providing video, to administrative work and photography, Williams said. This year the site also received a grant that allowed Williams to hire some freelancers, and students at Southern Methodist University began providing content for the site as part of their curriculum through a partnership between Dallas South News and the school. Foote said the board wants to continue its partnerships with SMU and with the University of North Texas as well.
When the site first started, Williams did most of the work himself. Eventually about 30 volunteers contributed to the site. He left to take a job – a steadier source of income – where he could continue doing some of the same things he did with his website. Williams tweets about events happening in and around South Dallas and helps “make people aware of the growth and development taking place in the community.”
Like Williams, when Galant started Baristanet in 2004, she did most of the work herself. She did most of the writing, training of writers, and recruiting. She worked with the director of advertising by helping her with advertiser negotiations. Galant was involved with any site redesign and navigation, special pages and special projects. She was the tech liaison, communicating what the team wanted, which was then interpreted by someone who wrote code. “Basically it was sort of like running a pizzeria,” Galant said in a telephone interview. “… From taking out the trash to talking to the customers to dealing with the neighbors, every aspect of the business, large or small, I had a hand in.”
Baristanet covers a number of suburban towns in Northern New Jersey, receives more than 9,000 visits a day, and up until this week was run by both Galant and George, both journalists. Baristanet has inspired the launch of local news sites in Pittsburgh; Brooklyn; New Haven, Conn.; Watertown, Mass.; and Red Bank, New Jersey.
George declined to provide specific revenue numbers for the site, but said in May the site earned 1.5 times more than it typically does in monthly revenue. She also said that she doesn’t know whether her new role will become a full-time job. “I’ll wear all the hats [Galant] did plus the hats I already wore,” she said. “This is a seven-day commitment.”
In addition to leaving a strong team in place and stable ad revenues, Baristanet also benefits from a special program sponsored by the Patterson Foundation, which provided the team with a course on self-publishing and a coach who will continue to work with them through the current transition, Galant said.
If there is one bit of advice she could pass along to others running their own hyper-local websites, or those interested in running one, Galant said it would be to pace yourself and get help.
“Try to get as many people on your team as you can, even if that means splitting your profits with other people so that you don’t burn out, and so that you will have more eyes on the community,” Galant told Poynter in a telephone interview. “It really does take a village to build a hyperlocal website. I do know people who do it solo but I do fear for them, and their health and sanity because it is a lot of work. I would say be very excited, but pace yourself.”