Building a local news site from scratch

[If you’re reading this in late April 2008, I’ve managed to post something on time for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Yoni Greenbaum this time around.]

Lately, when failing revenues and/or an ill-fated JOA results in a newspaper closing up shop, there’s talk of “what if” they continued publishing online, but I have yet to see anyone actually pull it off.

And this is where the update will go when twelve of you tell me about papers that have shut down in print but stayed online. I’ve definitely seen signs of papers that have switched from daily to weekly and boosted their online presence, but what I’m after are examples of papers that have totally folded, but rebuilt themselves as an online-only news source in town.

Once you get past the ugly preliminary steps (think: layoffs, dismantling the press, moving into a far smaller space), the fun part (yes, yes, perfectly aware of how flip I’m being about the ugly part) starts:

What tools do you hand a few reporters and photographers (and readers) to start from scratch?

My short list:

  • Drupal, for built-in community, commenting, reader blogs, and profiles, plus integration with third-party services like Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and news aggregation.
  • Nokia N95 or similar phones for live video via Qik, live text coverage of local events, and calling in audio reports. Lots of this should flow live to the site, unedited.
  • Laptops with wireless cards to file stories from anywhere, anytime.

Also, a good pair of walking shoes, because your reporters are going to be out in the community all day long, walking their beat and getting to know the locals. This is not a job you can do from behind a desk. If you didn’t leave the newsroom today, think about talking to a source in person tomorrow.

What’s on your short list of must-haves for reporters starting a local news site from scratch?

25 Replies to “Building a local news site from scratch”

  1. Here are a few not-quite-but-almost examples:

    As reported on lostremote yesterday, the Orting News sprung up online after the Orting Gazette folded (town of 6000). It’s a volunteer affair, but a former editor of the Gazette is helping the new site:

    http://www.lostremote.com/2008/04/27/small-town-loses-paper-residents-rise-up-and-fill-gap-online/

    http://www.ortingnews.com/

    And the cap times in Madison has gone almost online-only. It just started to go there, and it’s part of a JOA:

    http://www.madison.com/tct/

  2. I would have to shy away from Drupal as a requirement. I would instead supplement 2-3 good developers for a custom CMS. Not only will this be infinitely more tailored to your new paper’s needs, but you will be able to develop the custom applications that are oh-so-necessary for an online-only paper.

    just my $0.02

  3. Training – training for laid-off print journalists to become new media masters. Plus I think that regular training will be an important part of the newsrooms of the future so staff can stay on top of emerging technologies.

  4. I’m already tired of bad mobile phone video and it’s still in it’s “new” state. *sigh* I have to agree with Justin Lilly though, start your website on the right food and sink some sort of investment into getting a custom system that you can control as your paper changes. It’s been a while since I had to hack up Drupal, and it can do it all, but the day will come when you can’t revert back from the path you started on.

  5. We have a local vlogger using the N95 and the quality is so good that I haven’t found any good reason why this wouldn’t be the camera of choice for reporters on the street.

    If you don’t go the Drupal route, the only other suggestion I would say is WordPress MU.

    The other suggestion would be to have a good audio recorder.

  6. So of course, the Madison thing happened, and here’s Jay Rosen’s take on the situation.

    But it’s not really what I have in mind. Shutting down the press and “continuing” online ain’t a re-invention, it’s desperation. It’s an assumption that you can just shoehorn one workflow into another.

    Maybe. Maybe they have thought this all through, but the impression I get from reading the coverage is that they think “continuing” is their only option.

    To me, soldiering on online after failing to maintain a daily in print is noble, but truly starting fresh online takes a bit more of a purge when it comes to staffing and a lot more re-invention.

    Move out of your big office space, find something with lower overhead, and 40 in the newsroom does not equal Nimble Web NORG.

  7. I totally agree with making the reporters leave their desks. Even for an online-only business, face-to-face relationships are important. I also think that “far smaller space” can be used to get the newsroom involved in the community. If I were the boss, I would make the office be a storefront on the main drag in town. Then I would encourage the community to come visit the newsroom and get involved in the site. I also think that having the office in a high traffic area will help all of the staff (not just the reporters) be out in the community instead of sitting at a desk all day and eating lunch in the buildings cafeteria or at their desks.

  8. WordPress is like putting a hack-me symbol on your newspaper site. You will get ripped apart if you don’t keep your install up-to-date, along with all your plugins.

  9. Excellent post that’s thinking ahead. One thing I’m curious about: If you were setting up an online news operation, would you expect to buy laptops, digital cameras and cellphones for everyone, and would that put you at a disadvantage compared with a small group of people who already have their own gear and just set up shop and get going?

  10. I’d second Justin’s note on not using Drupal, and I’m more in Jason’s camp per using WordPress. Drupal gets in the way, requires a lot of plugins to be decent, and is generally more opaque than wordpress. Heck, I even prefer Joomla over Drupal.

    A CMS should get out of the way. If you don’t build it custom, I would launch WP in a hosting environment like mediatemple or joyent, allowing for very quick deployments. Let your community happen via disqus or something else – see if there is one to begin with before you commit infrastructure to it.

    Agreed that Madison is more of a continuation than a reinvention. What about Pegasus News or Gothamist?

  11. I think Flickr and Twitter would be indispensable. Flickr’s new ability to publish short video clips is a big bonus too.

    I think if I were going for an online news magazine, WordPress would be my choice. If I were going for a news portal, Drupal is likely better suited. Rails or Django are both feasible options for a custom CMS, but I would never build something entirely from scratch without a framework: it just takes too much maintenance.

    Incidentally, Kevin Sites had a great setup for international backpack reporting.

  12. Ryan: I don’t disagree with your skepticism about Madison’s Capital Times. I tried to suggest they had a big challenge ahead of them. Cheers.

  13. Interesting how strong everyone feels about content management systems.

    At work, I move sites from one rather static file system for publishing stories from their paper to a dynamic CMS for publishing online news, so I’m well aware of the advantages of a good CMS.

    But I don’t see a need to argue over whether Drupal or WordPress or Joomla or any other flavor is the best way to get this job done.

    Here’s a bit of what I’m after, in terms of a CMS for an imaginary failing newspaper going online-only:

    • Community has to be built-in. This site is going to depend on locals to fill in the gaps, comment, and add some personality to the news.
    • Once the site is built, no developer is required. Seriously, the point here is to reduce overhead, so there wouldn’t be a full-time coder on staff. The pieces of the site should be as widgetized/modular as possible, so re-arranging the furniture is a copy/paste job, not an epic development task in a feature queue.
  14. “No Developer Required,” really? I mean heck, I’m certainly biased, but can you name a single “Nimble Web NORG” out there without a developer on staff?

  15. @Joe – The staff I’m picturing for this nimble NORG is smaller than my friends at major metros are picturing, I think. The parent company can run development, or maybe even better, the norg can use what’s out there already, without a bias against simple hosted blog software.

    Heck, Ning or the right WordPress.com theme can do anything they would need.

    Actually, Ning might even be a better choice than Drupal for what I’m picturing – definitely no developer required.

    Why re-invent the wheel over and over again?

    So to repeat my original point about a CMS for this purpose, if I were in the business of shutting down print editions and replacing them with “what’s next,” in terms of staffing and Web production, I would want the new online news site to have community baked into it. Reader blogs, profiles, and groups should be part of the site from day one.

    There are easy ways of doing this these days. I recommend using one.

  16. The contract with our TV station’s provider is about to end. While its rather cookie cutter — and not too sexy — I think putting together all the elements ourselves… Well, I think it’s tougher than you think …

  17. @kimmy – I’m well aware of how difficult it can be to make all the third-party apps, ad-serving, tracking tags, javascript, etc. fit together.

    My hypothesis is that if you’re willing to completely drop the idea that your Web site = your mainline broadcast product, then you can use a platform or service that takes care of a lot of the business for you.

    You need something that hosts video, serves ads, and allows readers to post video and leave video comments, among other content types.

    Sounds like WordPress + YouTube or Brightcove to me.

  18. Hey:

    I’m working on a book about social media and journalism and I love reading the site. Lots of great comments.

    We’re actually building a content management system that incorporates social media into its posting capabilities — and we’re getting ready to launch an online developer community around it.

    The CMS is *the* most important part of any online operation, and yet it’s oftentimes the most overlooked part of any company (at least from management).

    Fun to see other people talking about these systems.

    Thanks.

  19. I definitely let the heavy blogger guy do the heavy lifting on the new platform. What I find interesting … and sorry to be so simple amongst the experts… is that it’s difficult to build readership for a blog that is less than organic. Don’t know if we’re timid. Or tough to find. Or just too commercial.

  20. With all the talk about newspapers reinventing themselves online, I have to wonder:

    How about a brand new online newspaper that’s not just a continuation or reinvention of a traditional rag?

    Such an outfit would have minimal overhead, and everyone involved would do reporting out in the community. Like someone already said, the newsroom could be a downtown storefront.

    Now you’re looking for examples of an online news site built from scratch. but it would still carry the name of the existing print newspaper, would it not?

    I’m not talking about moving, laying people off and bringing in reporters with new skillsets. I’m talking about starting a whole new company from scratch.

    Is there demand for this? Could someone pull it off?

  21. We’re doing it. Our small town Alaska newspaper was bought up by a national corporation and went from a staff of six to one person writing from 200+ miles away.

    http://www.SewardCityNews.com is WordPress based with OpenAds for the side bar and Noah’s Classifieds. It’s not the greatest site and I don’t claim to have any true innovation with it but it’s struck a cord in our small community.

    The site doesn’t make much money but for the time I spend on it it’s allowed for some great opportunities for myself and others.

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