Is ‘The Road’ a Community News Model That Can Go the Distance?

bypass-map-croppedCommunity news still uses buckets of ink in the digital age. Except now they’re red. The deep downsizing of Patch, and, earlier, Daily Voice, the disappearance of  EveryBlock and the quick end to Cablevision’s Westchester County, N.Y., hyperlocal experiment – all these and other retrenchments and disappearing acts remind us there’s no proven model for community news in the digital space.

So, what to make of the ambitious “The Road” project that C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., presented last week on its website? Is this multimedia extravaganza a promising way for community sites to go in their Holy Grail-like quest for a news model that will engage users and attract advertisers — and make for a better community, to boot?

It certainly has, I think, a better chance than sites serving up blogs authored by hucksterish chiropractors and cosmetologists, one approach with which Patch has been experimenting in its search for a more efficient news model.

“The Road” went in a totally opposite direction. It was a detailed account of the pros and cons of a 27-year-old plan for a bypass to alleviate heavy congestion on Charlottesville’s main road. The package was exhaustive, but not, despite its wonkish policy implications, exhausting.

It  was in part inspired by the Pulitzer prize-winning “Snowfall” special that the New York Times did last spring on the death of five snowboarders in an avalanche they triggered during a limit-testing run in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.

In images and videos sprinkled among the text and maps, “The Road” takes the user right up to the white-washed fences of the gently rolling Piedmont landscape, some of which would be turned into concrete and asphalt for the 6.2-mile road. Sixteen reports and studies done over the years are summed up in one screenshot showing that the $244.6 million bypass would cut 3 minutes and 6 seconds from the present average trip of 12 minutes and 33 seconds, while the less-expensive alternative of grade-separated interchanges on the present congested road would trim an additional 16 seconds of travel time. Two major adversaries battle it out in a video debate that C-Ville Weekly Editor Giles Morris moderates from inside his Honda Fit as he leads the tour along the proposed route.

“The Road” consumed more than 300 hours of editorial and production time, but didn’t produce a single dollar of revenue. That was intentional because, for Morris and Publisher Frank Dubec, “The Road” was an experiment toward re-invention of the publication which, besides the website, includes a free print midweek publication.

Morris thinks the experiment worked. It has clocked 6,000 page views – a record for C-Ville cover stories; produced 61 comments, many of them detailed; drew more than 400 responses to the opinion survey that concluded “The Road”; and attracted wide attention in the local/hyperlocal news industry.

Morris said “The Road” will be C-Ville Weekly’s chief selling point as the publication rolls out a “radical repositioning” in 2014  This will involve more in-depth articles that will show “value to advertisers,” Morris said. The first goal of the strategy will be to “ramp up reader engagement to produce more “energy-producing buzz. If everyone is talking about C-Ville, that creates energy [that] has market value,” upending the “digital dimes for print dollars” paradigm that is creating most of the digital red ink. More energy, more buzz, and the result, Morris and Dubec are hoping, is “more revenue.”

For elaborate multimedia projects like “The Road,” C-Ville will seek underwriting sponsors, Morris said.

Metro Charlottesville is a crowded media market. Besides C-Ville and its sister digital and print weekly publication The Hook — which presents a general news menu with an alt-flavor — there are two major broadcast stations, the print and digital Daily Progress and the nonprofit pureplay Charlottesville Tomorrow. And while Charlottesville is nowhere among the top media markets in the U.S., it still produces about $30 million in total online sales, of which about. $10 million are local.  The consumer market includes 21,000 University of Virginia students from 47 states and 121 countries. The demographics of this “Jefferson country” provide a rationale for C-Ville’s repositioning around deeper, engagement-conscious content as the pathway to those local and possibly some national online ad dollars.

But I wonder if “The Road” experiment is too costly. Upwards of 300 hundred hours of work at, say, $25 an hour, would put a price tag of $7,500 on the package. (It’s true that C-Ville’s tech partner, Vibethink, didn’t charge for all its time, but what about future projects?) Even if costs can be cut in half from lessons learned in the experiment, will new multimedia specials be able to generate $4,000-plus in sponsorships to cover costs, even if those digital dimes get revalued higher?

And my second question is: does deeper content that produces “buzz” have to be built around projects as elaborate as “The Road?” With users spending, on average, about four minutes per day consuming local news, how many will allocate a half hour, or more, for one cover story, however graphically gorgeous it may be. And besides, “The Road,” as good as it is, was not mesmerizing. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which supports adding key overpasses to the present congested main road instead of spending much more money on the Bypass, has produced a video that makes most of the points of “The Road,” especially how the interchange alternative would do the job more effectively and cheaper, and in just three minutes.

“The Road” moves community news closer to that elusive model, and for that, C-Ville and its creative business-editorial-tech team of partners deserves credit and cheering on. But during the radical repositioning, I think there will have to be more tinkering with the moving parts – and fewer of them.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.