She knew how to cover Flint. Now she’s figuring out how to make that coverage sustainable.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

Flint Beat belonged to Jiquanda Johnson long before she knew what she’d do with it, and long after she realized she needed to know a lot more.   

Johnson first bought the domain name flintbeat.com in 2011, when she worked as a journalist in North Carolina. She held onto it as she moved back to Michigan to work a second stint at The Flint Journal. 

By 2017, she was running a hyperlocal news site in a place she knew well, one full of stories that deserved to be told and people that deserved to be informed.

“And six months later I was like ‘God dammit. I need a job.’”

For the next month, we’re learning about people who’ve started their own news sites. What’s worked? What can we learn from where they’ve failed? What does their work show us about the landscape of local news?

Let’s talk about that landscape a little more. Last year, when the Village Voice announced it was going online only, I wrote about the online local sites where the spirit of alt-weeklies seemed to be thriving. Then, a group that represents them, Local Independent Online News Publishers, had 160 members in 39 states.

Last week, the Village Voice closed. I checked in with LION’s executive director, Matt DeRienzo. LION now has 225 members in 45 states.

If you have suggestions of people who’ve started their own newsrooms, please let me know. Now, let’s get back to Flint.

Johnson thought that if she covered a community, that community would take care of her.

“That’s bull crap,” Johnson said, laughing.

In 2017, Flint Beat brought in less than $5,000 in advertising, which basically covered the cost of designing and printing for a community voters’ guide.

Not every community can support membership programsevents or donations, she said. But every community deserves good journalism.

Johnson took a marketing job to pay her bills, and she realized she’d have to figure out the business part of starting a local digital news site.

This year, she got $5,000 toward a project from the Solutions Journalism Network, and in March, LION announced that Flint Beat was one of 10 local newsrooms chosen for local advertising mentorship program.

That came with $7,500, some of which was earmarked toward paying for an intern.

On Tuesday, the first day of school for her two kids, Johnson planned to do some homework of her own to figure out what she could bring in with ads and sponsorships. She’s working with a mentor who’s helping her assess the site and build a foundation to support Flint Beat.

“I can’t tell you the next step,” Johnson said. “When I say this is outside of my lane, it really is.”

This week was also her last week at her marketing job. The grant-funding she’s brought in means she can work as publisher full-time, and she’s working as coordinator for a program that trains high schoolers to be journalists.

If you’re thinking of starting your own site, Johnson said, know that you’ll have to wear a lot of hats. If you’re in a position to save money before launching, do it, she said, and use that money to invest in key people.

“If you can hire a business manager, hire one,” she said. “I think that that’s where I failed.”

And don’t think you’re the only person out there trying to figure it out. LION reached out to Johnson after she launched Flint Beat, and that organization’s members are now a community she relies on.

As she figures out how to sustain coverage of Flint, Johnson said she worries that wearing the publisher hat means news coverage suffers.

She gets calls from the mayor, city council members and readers asking why she didn’t attend and cover meetings.

“I get it, and when I’m not doing it, I hear it,” she said.

She wants to cover Flint’s issues, highlight solutions and bridge the gaps she sees. She also wants Flint Beat to generate enough revenue that it can sustain itself without her. And she wants to take this model to other underserved communities.

“They’re not voiceless, they just don’t have a platform,” Johnson said. “Flint Beat is that platform.”

Again, if you have ideas about who else I should profile for this series on people who’ve started their own news sites, please let me know. In the meantime, there’s a great example of the power of local news from CJR, evidence of why listening matters and a look at how newsrooms are tweaking the for-profit model. Also, there’s still time to sign up for my webinar in the Lessons from Local series.

See you next week!

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Johnson bought her site's domain name when she lived in Michigan. That's incorrect, she bought it before moving back. We apologize for the error, it has been corrected. 

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