Accelerating sustainable news organizations that serve local communities

Accelerating sustainable news organizations that serve local communities

Posted on July 09, 2013 by Janet Coats

In the work of our New Media Journalism Initiative, no partner has been more important in shaping our thinking and direction than Michele McLellan.

Michele has been our partner almost from the beginning in our work to support learning and networking for community news entrepreneurs. Most recently, Michele has been working with TPF support on turning her research into a very useful database to help further connection among those publishers.

I asked her to share how that project has evolved, and she wrote this in response:

In a field of dynamic experimentation, connections are critical. Among news entrepreneurs, learning what others are learning – the good, the bad and the ugly – can catalyze and accelerate progress toward sustainable news organizations that can serve local communities.

Three years ago, when I first published Michele’s List of promising news sites as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, best practices for community news startups often were not readily apparent, much less shared. Many local news entrepreneurs toiled in isolation and were dismissed by many more traditional journalists.

What a difference three years makes. Services for news entrepreneurs have increased  - The Patterson Foundation in particular has focused on building learning networks  – and the publishers have begun to organize themselves through associations such as LION Publishers and the Investigative News Network.

With support from The Patterson Foundation and RJI, I helped organized the Block by Block Community News Summit – an annual conference and a loose network of smaller, bootstrapped local news publishers - for three years. I’m happy to see LION taking over that role this year.

At the same time, I want to continue my research into the emerging local news ecosystem and continue to help publishers share important learning. That’s why I’ve continued to update Michele’s List, and, again with support from The Patterson Foundation, have been able to have it rebuilt as a searchable database at

Here’s how it works:

  • I review sites against a simple set of criteria. The idea is to identify sites that are working on all three legs of the sustainability stool – content, engagement and revenue.
  • If a site meets my criteria, I add a short description to Michele’s List and create a profile page for the site. I invite the publisher to fill out a survey that covers mission, geographic scope, topics covered, web analytics, revenue and other key issues.
  • Many of the survey responses publish to the site profile page. Others are confidential – I will aggregate them and publish results in a couple of months.

The key to the list is the filters.

They enable users to drill down and identify where other publishers have specific expertise. The idea is that a publisher can find others who are trying similar things or succeeding at something.

For example, the survey doesn’t merely ask about revenue sources. It asks for primary, secondary and incidental revenue sources. So a user could search out sites that are making more than $150,000 a year with advertising accounting for 50 percent or more of that revenue.

Users can search out sites that have other primary revenue sources, such as events and sponsorships. They can identify sites that are focused on similar beat topics or getting most of their content from professionals or from volunteers, that are paying their contributors (or not). They can filter by tax status and by content management system. They can filter by multiple variables.

Kenny Katzgrau and John Crepezzi of Broadstreet Ads built the database on Ruby on Rails. Their insights into the news entrepreneur community helped inform the development.

I asked Kenny for his thoughts on the value of connecting news entrepreneurs:

“Being able to connect with other publishers that have been through that same process can be incredibly helpful. Answers to relatively simple questions like, "how did you find a developer and what did you pay them?" "What do you look for in a new theme or design?" or "Why did you choose Wordpress?" can go a long way in helping a publisher stay on the right path.

“But there are many other questions that publishers need answered too. The filtering functionality on Michele's List is incredibly useful for that. You can find publications that are similar to what you have or are planning to launch, read about them, and potentially reach out.

“If you planned to launch a non-profit, for example, what better way is there to find other non-profits that have been down that road before? The filtering functionality is easy to use and pretty extensive. If I wanted to get a list of publishers in my state using Wordpress, who take contributions from community members, and hit some revenue level, I can. Once I do that, I can read into each result and learn a lot more.”

The level of detail is unique and I think key to the usefulness of the database. Other lists, such as those published by the Columbia Journalism Review or J-Lab, provide useful descriptions and list a few key features of dozens of local online news start ups. But I felt the publishers needed more details to connect effectively in limited time frames.

I plan to continue to update Michele’s List – adding sites and asking publishers to create site profiles. This is one tool for building capacity in the emerging field of local online news. I hope it will be a useful one.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.