Why do local independent news sites die?
After returning to Davidson, North Carolina from a year-long trip to Asia in 2006, David Boraks decided to start blogging about his neighborhood.
At the time, the nearby daily paper had pulled back from his area, and Boraks felt his neighborhood was going undercovered, he said. His blog eventually became DavidsonNews.Net, and he later launched CorneliusNews.Net, a similar site for a nearby town.
But after advertising began to dry up, Boraks made the decision to shutter both sites in June 2015, ending a nine-year run.
"As a long-time journalist, a strong, accurate, timely, compelling news site was not the hard part," Boraks said. "The hard part was running the business."
For Boraks and other digital news entrepreneurs that have started sites across the United States, it’s a common situation: Small staff sizes and inexperience on the sales side of the business pin all the pressure for success on one person. While mainstream news organizations face challenges like layoffs and cutbacks, the local, independently-owned publications that have replaced them face their own set of threats. Sometimes, the owners of these operations are forced to make drastic decisions when faced with diminished earnings or burnout: sell their businesses or shut them down entirely.
Two types of people generally start these hyperlocal, independent organizations, said Matt DeRienzo, the executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, an organization that serves these outlets. The first is out-of-work journalists. The other? Business leaders in a community trying to fill a niche.
But some journalists just don’t have the business savvy to make it work. “People thought that [because] they’re great journalists, they do great journalism, and the money would just flow in,” DeRienzo said.
Joni Hubred-Golden was one of those out-of-work journalists. Previously a community editor at Patch, she was laid off in January 2014. Though she was hesitant about selling ads, Hubred-Golden launched Farmington Voice in August 2014 at the insistence of community members and other community journalists.
“I had all kinds of people telling me how much they missed Patch … I knew there was a demand,” she said. “Talking with a couple people who’d actually started their own websites was very encouraging, and [they] just said, ‘if you really feel this is what you want to do, you just have to go do it.’”
After a nearly three-year run, Hubred-Golden decided to stop publishing on her website in March 2017 but still keeps up an active Facebook page. She ran the site with her now ex-husband and realized after a divorce that keeping up Farmington Voice wasn’t sustainable. But Hubred-Golden found herself unable to sell her site.
“I think there’s just a little part of me that holds out some hope that at some point I’ll be able to revive it,” she said.
In the final months of his operation, Boraks courted several offers for his sites, but ultimately decided to just close them down.
“There was really only one serious offer, but it was way less than what I thought the business was worth. It would’ve required me to put up my reputation as a journalist,” Boraks said. The buyer wanted to turn it into a marketing site.
DeRienzo is optimistic about the future of hyperlocal news operations that have replaced downsized or eliminated newspapers, he said. In the two years since he’s been involved with LION, the organization has seen a 50 percent increase in membership, from 100 members in 2015 to 150 today. About 15 sites dropped off the membership rolls during that period.
In some cases, this attrition is pre-planned, DeRienzo said. Many founders of independent news sites are counting on shuttering them before long.
In Patch’s January 2014 downsizing, Susan Larson lost her job as a Patch editor in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A half-hour after being laid off, Larson started a Facebook page called Fredericksburg Today, which she eventually used to launch an independent news site of the same name.
In the three years since that January morning, Larson built her own hyperlocal news source covering the Northern Virginia city, mostly by herself, managing news coverage, advertising and revenue. She started the business with an exit plan in mind: Keep up the site for 10 years before retiring to Vermont, where she’s always wanted to live.
But after landing a job in Vermont, Larson decided to sell the site.
“Three years and some months in, I had this great opportunity come up and I thought, ‘why wait 10 years?’” she said.
Boraks has since entered back into the mainstream journalism industry, working as a reporter for WFAE public radio in Charlotte. But his work at DavidsonNews.net taught him the importance of connecting with audiences online.
Now working as a library director in Milton, Vermont, Larson values the role of independent news organizations and is optimistic about their future.
“When you have more locally-owned and independent news organizations, you have a wider range of story coverage, a wider range of voices and opinions being heard, and I think that’s vital,” Larson said.