I bitch a lot. I know. My recent post entitled, "'We can't find a web editor?' Bullshit" was a rant about how behind college media is and how I would quit the school publication and start my own gig if I was still in college. But I don't like people who bitch and don't execute. So I'm going to execute.
For those of you who don't know, I left Publish2 in December. Since then, I've been interviewing at big media organizations across the United States. But every interview feels like a battle. I'm trying to convince people of my ideas and my enthusiasm, but am always countered with the question: "But, we're a newspaper -- how do you pull that off when our culture is so naturally resistant to innovation?" Well, at least they're finally admitting it. That's the first step to recovery.
When I graduated college in December 2009, I didn't want to work at a newspaper because I didn't want to be stifled. Lately, I've jumped off my high and mighty tower and decided that if newspapers are going to get anywhere, they need to hire more people like me who can help revolutionize from within (take Greg Linch, for example, hoppin' on over to the Washington Post after leaving P2. Young brainz permeating big media). But now I'm in a new state of mind: If I want to be a part of the media revolution and help news along its winding journey, I can do that from outside of a traditional newsroom. In fact, I can start my own newsroom.
So here's the buried lede. I am very seriously considering going back to my hometown of Porterville, California to create a news startup. I've bitched enough about, "Oh, I'd do it this way" or, "Oh, you should do it that way." Time to put my money where my mouth is.
Porterville is perfect for this experiment.
I grew up there. Born and raised. I have 21 years worth of knowledge about the local government, education system, crime, religion, culture... everything. I'm not going to dump myself into a foreign city because the market seems right. I'm going to go to a market I know inside and out.
There is no real local media. The one news outlet in Porterville is the Porterville Recorder, which has decreased in size over the past few years, and has a shaky future since its parent company, Freedom Communications, seeks to sell some or all of its properties. Even if the Recorder does continue to exist, its reporting is shoddy. Take a look at some of today's homepage headlines:
- Gang Summit addresses problem areas
- Lindsay teen dies in crash
- Oncoming storms will add to lake storage
- Police arrest teen in Tulare murder case
- Main Street fire intentionally set
- Brews flow for good cause
- Amber alert issued for abducted Porterville child
Notice something? These are all reaction pieces. Perhaps because of lacking resources, the Recorder primarily responds to police reports and press releases.
Because of the dynamics of the small community, reporters are walking on eggshells (or so it would seem) when it comes to investigative reporting. Today The Recorder ran the first investigative piece I've seen in a while about the overstretched resources of the local emergency room. A few problems with this "investigative" series:
- Today's headline for the series is: "Meeting the community's needs." Boy, does that sound like good PR.
- The reporting has no real value. The first four grafs boringly outline the history of the emergency room, and there's no nut graf to be found anywhere, seriously. I don't even know what the point of the piece is.
- Finally, the eighth graf hints at getting to the real problem that should be addressed through this reporting: "But when patients are on gurneys, waiting to be admitted, the wait for a treatment area lengthens — because patients are being observed." But that issue is quickly overlooked as the story jumps back into facts about the ER. What the?
- The first piece of the series references concerns brought up by local residents on the Facebook page -- none of which are further investigated in the piece. Instead, the article looks at the challenges faced by the staff of the ER, which leads to those problems. It's almost as though the paper is defending the emergency room. Almost as though there are allegiances to be upheld. What about the stories of the people who are turned away from the ER? Where are their voices? It is NOT COOL to only quote spokespeople from the organization being criticized.
I sat down for lunch Thursday with Bill MacFayden, the founder of Santa Barbara's Noozhawk -- a local news site competing against traditional media. He gave me tons of sound advice about starting up a project like this. Notably:
Start with a niche. He noticed coverage of local education in Santa Barbara was lacking, so he dominated that niche when he started three years ago and that was how he initially built up his reader base. His approach reminds me of Jay Rosen's 100 percent solution: Cover 100 percent of something, anything, but cover it fully. That's still his most popular coverage topic on the site. I'm going to have to do quite a bit of research before I get started, but I already know taboo topics like gangs and teenage pregnancy are huge, huge issues in the valley, yet get no play in the local media (unless prompted by a press release).
Do your research. This isn't something I can just jump into. I need to learn about the broadband saturation (since this is online-only), talk to advertisers to find out what kinds of needs I can fill for them, and talk to local community members to find out what coverage is lacking, where they go to find top news, etc.
This is the perfect time for me to try something crazy like starting my own newsorg. I'm 21 years old. I don't have a mortgage or a family. Rent in Porterville is dirt cheap. I can build my own site (WordPress to start with, probably, until I can hire real devs someday). The opportunity is huge within the market I want to target. I can do it better than my competition. And I'm ready to rock it.
A few principles I will stand by during my creation of this project, if I do in fact follow through with it:
- I will never over-work myself or my employees. I know that the hiring of employees is still a long ways off, but I need to get this down from the get-go. I know that burnout leads to pissed off people who secretly despise every conference call and meeting. I plan to pour my heart into this and expect anyone who works with me to pour their hearts into it, but I will never, ever force people to work holidays or 28 days straight. Everyone will get two days a week off, even if it means rotating off-days so that there are always people on call. People can take vacations when needed. No one will be burned out. I will treat them with love and feed them vegan food and give them lots of hugs.
- I want to mentor students. When I was in high school, I had a burning ambition to be part of the Porterville Recorder as an intern, even if it meant copy editing without pay. They refused me. I want to pull students in, even if they suck, and help them get better. I am thinking a joint effort with my high school's Grizzly Gazette will be a good revenue opportunity for both parties.
- I am all about collaboration. I understand competition is healthy and important, but if the Recorder ever wants to do a joint project, or we want to rope in the Visalia Times-Delta, Tulare Advanced-Register, Bakersfield Californian, and Fresno Bee -- I'm 100 percent in favor of sharing information and sources to create high-quality, useful content and applications.
- I will never walk on eggshells. If there is a story to be told, I will get to the heart of it.
- I will represent the voices of all people to the best of my ability.
- I will document the shit out of this. Every decision. Every project. Every new step will have a blog post or a video or a Google doc. I want this to be a huge learning opportunity for everyone who follows me. I want you all to feel like you're starting this up with me. I am not doing it solo. I want your support and your love and your virtual arms holding me in the middle of the night when I don't know what I'm doing or where the money will come from to pay my writers.
So, here goes nothin'. Who's ready to invest in me?