Stories from the downturn: ex-newspaper journalists struggle to make a life online

If I had any money here is what I wouldn’t do: put it into a news website, and neither will many people in the US, where former newspaper journalists are struggling to find subscribers for their post print online ventures.

My feeling is that you might as well flush it down the toilet with a smile, which is what is happening in the US as redundant journalists on former daily newspapers pour their hopes, time and some cash into start-up news ventures. These are stories from the downturn and they will not all end well.

The Rocky Mountain News shut in February and former journalists there are already on their second effort to launch an online site to fill the gap left by the paper’s demise and find a life beyond the print graveyard. The paper was one of the first to go, owner EW Scripps decided to cut its loses and close for good. No half way house. No online only product. Simply the end. Done. Kaput.


That led some former RMN journalists to first launch the It set itself the lofty target of achieving 50,000 paying subscribers. It got about 3,000. Can there be any surprise? Paid content is the toughest of nuts to crack and local news (even stuff that is not really being covered elsewhere) is not going to cut it. Beyond a hardcore few and the civic minded, people won’t buy it. Not in numbers at least.

Up comes start-up number two. Some from the and others who had worked on the Rocky Mountain News then launched the Rocky Mountain Independent.

The Rocky Mountain Independent plans to have fulltime staff and more than a dozen freelancers who will be trying to compete with MediaNews Group’s flagship paper The Denver Post, which is tough as the has a good website. The RMI hopes to get ad revenue, which will be tough, and some members in the $2 to $4 a month range/$24 a year although most content will be free.


That ad revenue is going to be hard to come by. They also have to contend with people spending less time of US
newspaper websites,
which will hit these news start-up sites as much as the well
resourced and established newspaper websites. This makes it tough for even committed journalists like the RMI’s editor Steve Foster who puts it like this: “We’re people who want to stay in journalism, in Denver. There’s certainly an audience for it out there. We’ll see if we can make a living at it.”

You have to wish them luck. Away from Colorado and up in Seattle former journalists at Hearst’s defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer have launched the Seattle Post Globe.

It has, according to PaidContent, raised $12,000 via donations, but with only $1,000 a week coming in via donations they have about three weeks left.

Still, founder Kery Murakami hasn’t given up and wants to hire five full-time reporters, but even paying subsistence wages is going to cost a lot of bucks over the course of a month or a year and it still has to compete with local paper, the Seattle Times, which again has a well resourced website.

There are numerous other stories out there of similar ventures, but most are struggling. Earlier this year, former journalists at The East Valley Tribune outside Phoenix launched The Arizona Guardian, which is also looking for subscriptions.

These sites are emerging against a backdrop of free hyperlocal sites launching, which employ no or next to no journalists and draw content from the community like the non-profit journalism enterprise Or, which retained about 20 of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s 165 editorial staff, to produce some news, blogs and columns, coupled with reader blogs, community databases and photo galleries.

The New York Times is also experimenting with The Local, which will feature posts by New York Times journalists and community members.

Similar projects are well advanced in the UK where the regional press has been the driving force. Trinity Mirror has a growing network and focus on hyperlocal sites and has launched a few. More recently Associated Newspaper revealed plans to launch 50 local news sites for communities where people can write and upload their own content and discuss local issues.

If anyone is going to succeed it will be the newsgroups, which have the scale and resource to get these projects off the ground, mixed in with some not-for-profits, but sadly many of these ventures launched by former print reporters are unlikely to make it.



  • Lisa Devaney

    I think there is also a lot of room for new news reporting tools/resources through the mobile internet (like SMS news updates, or other applications that help you get news via your mobile phone) and former traditional journalists should also explore development of iPhone apps for news reporting. Something like an app for getting regional/local weather reports would be great. Revenue possibilities may be OK with ads, or with downloads of the tools and services.

  • David Gurney, Operations Director, Alchemetrics

    While traditional ad revenue will be harder to come by, the team behind the Rocky Mountain Independent do have a huge opportunity to create a valuable online publishing model with its readership at its heart. And because it’s beginning with something of a blank canvas, it can build a membership process without the confines of an existing and out-dated set up. At this early stage the most important element to consider is the collection of individual reader preferences using an online survey tool. This knowledge will then open up the ability to communicate and interact with readers based on both their channel preferences, and their news and content interests.

    Revenue will also be a major issue for a fledgling publisher, so collecting data on readers using a dynamic question server can help to build an accurate and valuable bank of knowledge which could be sold external (based again on customer permission) to generate additional revenue. Advertisers and partners could also be attracted using the depth of insight on readers to better target ads and offers. The opportunities are nearly limitless, but are based on the getting the right foundations and framework in place at this crucial early stage.

  • Gordon Macmillan

    I think what they’e doing at the Rocky Mountain Independent and elsewhere is interesting and they are publishing good content; but i don’t see the “huge opportunity to create a valuable online publishing model with its readership at its heart”.

    You said it yourself Daivd: Revenue will also be a major issue for a fledgling publisher.

    Likewise Lisa, i think you’re right there is room for new news reporting tools/resources through the mobile internet – but reporting is not a lot of use if you can’t pay for it.

    Hyperlocal seems like a model that will only work if free is applied at all levels.: Free content; provided for free.

  • David Gurney, Operations Director, Alchemetrics

    Gordon, I think the opportunity comes from the fact that the publisher is just starting out, and it has the opportunity to build a site and content which is based on an understanding of readers and what they are interested in. This approach means the content can be free and easily accessible, and finely tuned to meet the needs of readers and appeal to their own preferences. The revenue will come from being able to better target advertising, and in collecting and utilising insight on readers with third parties. It may be a slow process, but getting a clear foundation in place from this early stage has potential to reap significant rewards when the site is more established. This is how many larger publishers operate, engaging their audiences with content while looking to new ways of extracting revenue from their relationship with them.

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