April 24, 2008

The Zonie Report is an online, independent media site that covers statewide issues in an unusual way.

At a time when news organizations are struggling for innovative ways to cover state news (see the recent story sharing partnership in Ohio), it could be a model for independent sites in other states.

The site, which is updated weekly, uses text, audio, video and slideshows to cover how Arizona is changing, tackling subjects as diverse as air pollution and battles over Native American lands.

The multimedia stories are a team effort. For example, a story we’re publishing next week is a profile of the Grand Canyon superintendent. A reporter and I spent a day at the canyon with the park superintendent just days after a biologist died there of the plague. OSHA crews and park officials from D.C. were coming to town. Tourists were all over the place. It was great video; I shot it, my freelance videographer edited the piece and packaged it for the Web, and my freelance writer (an ASU grad who was one of my best students) wrote the piece. In other cases, I write the piece and take my videographer on assignment. I also have a freelance photographer that works for me pretty exclusively.

The back of the house is all me. For presentation, I designed the site myself. The Flash used for the story slideshow on the homepage is created by me. I create the Soundslide presentations. I also edit and update all the content that comes in, including photos and links.

I juggle all of this while working full-time as associate editor at PHOENIX magazine and teaching at the Cronkite School. And yes, I drink lots of coffee.

Are you earning money on this site and what’s your business strategy?

Klawonn: So far, revenue is very slow but starting to flow in. For the most part, my magazine job — plus cash I squirreled away for a master’s degree — continues to subsidize the site.

But that’s changing. I’m creating a match-making function on the homepage for readers to find Arizona-centric nonprofits to support. The marketing for this listing is just beginning, and the nonprofits are all over it. There are thousands of them here. I’m charging them to be listed. Interest has been slow, but it’s picking up. I hope this is a valuable service, affordable, and steady cash for our coverage.

I’m trying to build some niche traffic … to sell cut-rate advertising to independent, Arizona-centric businesses like B&Bs, dude ranches, coffee roasters, brewers, artisan shops, that kind of thing.

My goal is to combine that revenue with the money from the annual nonprofit database, hire a few of my best students and do this full-time.

What are some of your other goals?

Klawonn: In the end, I’m hoping this thing is a model for other states where:

  • Statewide coverage has been scaled back (which is pretty much everywhere)

  • Innovative j-schools want to explore multimedia (which is happening more and more), and

  • Independent print pubs want to get in on the game, but can’t afford to open their own multimedia shop in-house.

How else are you distributing your content aside from your site?

Klawonn: I have created an iTunes podcast for some of our MP3s where users can download some of the interviews from stories and one-on-one “debriefings” I have by phone with my correspondents — sort of a takeoff on what NPR does.

In what ways are you connecting with the community you’re covering?

Klawonn: I’ve started doing my Editor’s Blog on camera and out in the community. Each month, I’m going around to various independent, locally-owned businesses in Arizona (mostly Phoenix for now) and doing a vlog from their store that I screen personally. They host it in exchange for a quick plug. Most of them end up linking to me, which helps with SEO and gets the word out in a grassroots way. So far, I’ve got interest from a top-tier physical therapy clinic, coffee roasting house, hobby shops and a few others. (The hobby shop owner has 2,500 Web subscribers she wants to refer to The Zonie Report.)

What advice do you have for people interested in starting something similar in their states?

Klawonn:  First, chat up your colleagues. Is this a good idea? If they created this, how would they do it? If they were a reader, would they surf this? Join some online journalism groups to network, track the latest trends or ask for tips on storytelling techniques.

Second, know the competition. Find the largest papers, and then find where they do not have bureaus. Are there regional or rural newspapers in the area? Find out what all of these are offering on their Web sites. Do they have video? Audio? Multimedia packages? Or is it just AP’s national video service for AP subscribers? Find the multimedia and geographic holes.

And finally, spend some time surfing the stories on these Web sites — from the major dailies on down. Pay close attention to the topics covered and, more importantly, the number and tone of comments posted on those stories. Use this as an unofficial readership survey of what people want to know more about. Then focus on those topics exclusively. Make those your landing pages. Make it your goal to own those topics and build your brand around them. Then offer RSS feeds to rural/regional newspapers in areas of high-bandwidth that may be starved for unique online content. This builds traffic.

What lessons have you learned from this project that would be useful to other online journalists?

Klawonn:  First, be judicious with the multimedia elements you use to tell each story. Ask yourself if it’s totally necessary to have a reporter-narrated photo slideshow, an interactive map/graphic, streaming video AND a whole bunch of Flash. Don’t get starry-eyed over the possibilities, because it can ruin your budget and bog down the user. Think of quality over quantity.

Second, give the page design space to breathe. Everyone knows they can go to the major metro daily and see a zillion links. Use more thumbnails and quick, punchy text to lure readers deeper into the site’s landing pages. When they get to those pages, try using large photos to link to stories instead of/in combination with scannable headlines. Show them you are offering a different, deeper user experience.

Use an e-newsletter service to update your core base of subscribers. Make it more personable and conversational than the e-mail blasts from the metro papers. Bank your best stories and send them out every week or two instead of daily. Why? People are inundated with e-newsletters already, and you are offering stories that take longer to absorb. Give them at least a week to really surf the latest stuff.

And finally, it took me two years to get here, so be patient with the results. You’re exploring the new media frontier. Don’t give up. The covered wagons will follow in time.

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Jonathan Dube is the Director of Digital Media for CBC News, the President of the Online News Association and the publisher of CyberJournalist.net. An award-winning…
Jonathan Dube

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