Your Guide to Local Watchdog News Sites
by Mark Glaser
Probably the biggest question in journalism circles these days is: What's going to happen to hard-nosed local reporting as newspapers shrink and close?
The answer is happening in so many places online that it's hard to count them all up. There are place-blogs, citizen journalism reports, video outfits, podcasts, and Twitter feeds galore. Each of them might do a smidgen of original reporting, but some of the most interesting local reporting comes from a crop of newish local websites that include newspaper refugees and usually some form of reader donation or non-profit model. Not surprisingly, the people who did all that hard-nosed reporting at newspapers might well be the people who continue to do the reporting -- albeit in stripped-down, possibly virtual newsrooms, with less overhead costs and less pay.
As each metro newspaper downsizes and cuts staff, those reporters are considering their next moves. These sites offer a temporary safe haven for reporters, a chance to not only continue to do reporting, but to do it online in new ways. Rather than write sparingly for the print newspaper, they can now blog more frequently about more subjects and write longer pieces. They might take photos and video to go along with their text stories. And surely they will have more contact with the readership through online comments, forums and other community outreach efforts.
The problem is that many of these new sites simply repurpose the newspaper model: run the same types of newspaper stories you see in print without taking advantage of the web. Most could use better eye-catching designs online and tend to be very text-heavy. Plus, few of these sites are doing the kind of database and map mash-ups that are a hallmark of the new brand of online journalism that brings readers back.
What about their business models? Everyone complains that online revenues cannot replace the lost print revenues at newspapers. These sites are trying everything to survive: pay walls, reader donations, grants, millionaire sugar daddies, ads, crowdfunding, and more. And that's what it will take. No one can say for sure which combination of revenues will sustain a local watchdog site, but they are at least taking the first step and trying something. (Already, INDenver Times has lost its initial financial backers and has dropped its plan for a pay wall on premium content.)
The following roundup is a guide to some of the better known local news sites run largely by traditional newspaper reporters, doing mainly original reporting. This list will surely grow over time as newspapers continue to trim staff and communities demand that their information needs are met.
To Read the Annotated/Hyperlinked Guide