NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- We're seeing the newspaper business collapse in slow motion, but what will replace it? That's the question behind a wave of start-ups trying to find a new model for local journalism.
The New York Times dipped its toe in the water with the launch of two local blogs it calls The Local: one covering the Brooklyn communities of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and another covering the New Jersey suburbs of Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange. Each site has a dedicated Times reporter, but they share an editor and take contributions from bloggers and journalism students.
"What we are doing here is seeing if we can contribute usefully to a form that has been growing but struggling for some time," said New York Times Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman. "How do you bring good community journalism to towns and communities that could use it?"
Patch, a start-up backed by Google's president of U.S. sales, Tim Armstrong, has launched a local site in the same New Jersey communities as the Times and plans at least a dozen more launches before the end of 2009. Like the Times, Patch is assigning one journalist to each community and will link to other news sources and take contributions from bloggers.
There's nothing new about the idea, which dates back to the mid-'90s and has had at least one recent well-funded failure, Backfence, and a few isolated examples of small, sustainable businesses, such as Gothamist, Baristanet and Brownstoner.
Few options left
But with papers such as the Rocky Mountain News going under, the owner of both Philadelphia papers going bankrupt, and the San Francisco Chronicle and other major dailies teetering, what once looked like a good idea is starting to look like the only idea for reinventing the model for local news.
CEO Jon Brod said Patch is targeting communities around the country in the 20,000 to 50,000 population range. "We intend to be a very profitable business by keeping our costs incredibly low," he said.
Yet even the most successful, self-sustaining local websites and blogs find it hard to build advertising-based businesses. Brownstoner founder Jonathan Butler laid off his only employee in December when real-estate advertising fell by half.
Baristanet, run by former New York Times New Jersey columnist Debra Galant, is one of the best-known local blogs in the New York area but supports only one full-time employee, Ms. Galant, bringing in "six figures" in ad revenue last year.
None of these efforts sees itself as a replacement for a large daily or even a small community paper. One start-up thinking bigger is San Diego News Network, populated with former Union-Tribune journalists and backed by entrepreneurs Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, who expect nothing less than to take on the local daily when their news site launches March 18. They raised "more than a million" for the news site, which will have a much smaller cost structure than the Union-Tribune thanks to wire news services such as the AP and only 10 employed professional journalists. It will also link to bloggers and hire some freelance contributors.
No doubt we'll see more big ideas soon. Steven Brill, the onetime journalism entrepreneur and founder of Court TV, American Lawyer and Brill's Content, resigned as CEO of his non-journalism start-up, Verified Identity Pass, last week to, as he said, "turn toward the ideas I've been tinkering with related to the business challenges facing quality journalism."