by Jon Margolis
This is either a “How To” or “How Not To” account. Wait until you finish, then choose the option you think more accurate.
You all know what’s going on. Newspapers failing, shrinking, laying off, covering less news, while those of us who care about how the news is covered grow ever more aggravated.
It’s happening almost everywhere and certainly in Vermont. Last year, the combined Sunday edition of the jointly owned Rutland Herald/Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus folded its Sunday magazine, one of the only places in the state where one could read (and I occasionally wrote) in-depth public affairs journalism.
That prompted some talk about getting together to create an online journal that would cover news that wasn’t being covered, or that was being covered with mind-boggling superficiality.
But nobody got together, and the newspapers fired more reporters and started printing fewer pages, and then smaller pages (and raised the newsstand price. Pay more, get less. Such a deal). Even the television station with the biggest news staff decided it couldn’t afford all those journalists.
All of which enhanced the aggravation level, at least mine. And after the umpteenth person responded to my gripes by saying, “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” I decided I would.
Last November, I paid real American money to some nice folks nearby to design a Web site. My designers and I found a photo of an old-fashioned reporter’s fedora with a card reading “Press” in the hatband for the Web site’s logo. Its message, I hope, is that the site’s ethic is journalism as old-fashioned as the hat. It’s a news site, not an opinion-mongering blog.
On Dec 5, after far too little planning (and nothing close to what might be called a business plan), I launched Vermontnewsguy.com.
Check it out. Criticize it (and me). Send suggestions, praise, complaints.
It is, of course, immodest to the point of presumptuous to think you can cover the news all by yourself better than all the other reporters in a state, even a small one. But as I made clear in my opening post, there are lots of good reporters in Vermont. The problem here – and elsewhere – isn’t with the people. It’s with the system.
Nor is it just the layoffs. The news, in print and on the networks, has become bland. It’s journalism as stenography. You quote Smith saying the world is round and Jones claiming it’s flat, and if you’ve quoted them both accurately, you’ve done the job.
No, you haven’t. The old fashioned reporter’s ethic need not lead to blandness, or to extreme even-handedness that refuses to distinguish between verifiable fact and nonsense. As long as, when you expose the nonsense, you (a) back up the call with empirically testable evidence and (b) apply the same standards across the political spectrum.
I think I’ve done that. When a business flack said wealthy people were fleeing the state because of its relatively high top marginal income tax rate, I noted that the number of upper-income tax filers had been growing at a healthy clip. When a liberal activist bragged about poll results showing Vermonters would rather pay higher taxes than cut health care services for the poor, I noted that he had written the poll questions, with wording that encouraged such a response.
So old-fashioned journalism need not be dull. It need not mean writing wire-service style pyramid leads or abstaining from judgment, which is not the same as opinion. My posts are analytical, often breezy and funny (or so I hope), idiosyncratic. But it is the analysis and judgment of a disinterested observer, not a partisan or an ideologue.
So how is it going? Well, journalistically, I think, pretty well. I have done, as of Monday morning, 54 posts, one every weekday. I’ve broken a few stories. The spokesman for one state agency called me up and screamed in complaint over one of my posts. (Musta been a good story). Reporters for the state’s major newspapers and broadcast news outlets are reading the posts. On my first sojourn to the state Legislature in Montpelier, I discovered, to my surprise, that the legislative leaders had been reading the site and were eager to talk to me. Vermontnewsguy, it seems, is being taken seriously.
Better, it may have re-awakened that idea of some people getting together to plan something more expansive. Next week I am meeting with a very good editor and a couple of folks who have some money and know how to raise more, perhaps to finance a Vermont news Web site, which would be more than a one-man band. I have no problem about folding my site into something bigger. The purpose was news coverage, not self-glorification. And it isn’t as though I’m making any money.
Technologically, I’m less successful. It took me what seemed like forever to figure out how to insert pictures. Or how to get pictures without either paying huge gobs of money or risking some kind of lawsuit. I’m still trying to find sources of free photos. Googling for “free photos” seems only to get me to Web sites that want to sell photos. Not that I’m averse to paying a little bit, but surely there must be some way to download pictures gratis.
There have also been a few computer glitches. Twice, for some reason, the program did not do what I told it to do, and when I clicked on in the morning, the post for that day wasn’t up yet. Just this morning, the second half of my post was in a different font – bigger and blue – that I had written. Actually, it didn’t look bad, and my Web maven thinks he knows what happened; perhaps when I copied and pasted from another blog some html language snuck in without being noticed. I’m learning.
And financially? Don’t ask, mostly because in some ways I don’t really know. I decided to wait until the site had been up for three months before asking how many “hits” it was getting.
Probably not many.
I do have 56 subscribers, with one or two more almost every day. Subscribing is free, but it enables the subscriber to comment on the posts. Some do, though I regret to say that (with the exception of that state agency spokesman) I don’t seem to have enraged anyone. I’ll keep working on it.
One thing I have learned is that I am even worse at promotion than at the technology. This is not an assertion of moral superiority; it isn’t that I think promoting myself is beneath me. If I could do it better, I would.
Another area about which I am ignorant is grants. Foolishly (see above under: “nothing close to what might be called a business plan”) I didn’t even investigate the possibility before I started posting. Then I found out that there are small grants possible for startup news blogs.
But by then I was no longer a startup and was ineligible.
(Startups can receive up to $25,000 from J-Lab’s New Voices program, but the deadline for 2009 funding has passed.)
These mistakes are illustrative, perhaps not just for me. If one model of the journalistic future is the independent, individual (or small group), online “newspaper,” perhaps the next generation of journalists will have to learn some entrepreneurial skills: how to raise money, how to promote the site, how to get and stay organized.
I started with the presumption that I wouldn’t really make any money doing this, and if nothing else, here is one presumption that has turned out to be a brilliant prognostication. I would like to recoup my startup cost (roughly a grand) and maybe an extra few bucks for gasoline for the trips to Montpelier, where I try to go at least once a week while the Legislature is in session.
I’m sure I don’t yet have nearly enough readers to attract advertisers. There is a “donate” click on the site, and I have received about $600 so far, roughly half from people who knew me before I started, the other half from strangers who like the idea.
As far as you folks reading this column go, I’m not exactly discouraging donations (and would, indeed, be grateful), but neither am I encouraging them. The reason is simple. The site will stand or fall on how many Vermonters think it worthwhile. At some point, I have to know how many that is.
So there you have my first report on Vermontnewsguy.com. Expect occasional progress reports. Bulletins at once.
Oh, and one more thing. You know what I’m doing five days a week? I’ll tell you. In my little home office here on the phone or Internet or in the Capitol in Montpelier schmoozing with legislators, I’m covering and writing the news.
Help Jon experience all the joys of being a journalist by letting him know what you think.