At Chicago Summit, Local ‘Indies’ Get Down to Business

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Last week’s Block by Block Community News Summit 2011 was a combination mirror and crystal ball where independent local publishers saw both what they have accomplished and what they need to do to ensure that what they created with their credit cards, sweat and tears would be around years from now.

In short, the publishers are becoming more businesslike and less obsessed about corporate media hobgoblins, real or imagined. At the Summit, 22 of them announced they’ve formed a trade group for independent local online news publishers, and a different group announced the formation of the Chicago Independent Advertising Network.

The most attended Summit sessions were those dealing with developing revenue streams and building user engagement — the essentials of any durable business model — according to conference co-organizer Michele McLellan, a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow. Halloween is less than a month away, but the favorite hobgoblin of many “indie” publishers — AOL’s Patch — didn’t haunt the three-day Chicago conference as it certainly did during last year’s inaugural event.

“There was no mention of Patch or Groupon in the opening session — a big shift in dynamics from last year when there was widespread concern about Patch,” said Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian in Upstate New York and a past frequent and vociferous critic of Patch [Editor’s Note: Howard Owens disputes this point — see his comment below this post] who has toned down his own rhetoric against the AOL hyperlocal network. “There just isn’t much fear of Patch any longer. We all seem to think they’re going away soon.”

For its part, Patch was a no-show at the Summit.  Last year’s event drew two Patch reps, including Editor-in-Chief Brian Farnham. “Block by Block’s Summit is a great event,”  Farnham said to my post-event query. “We didn’t make it this year. Nothing to read into it. We just can’t get to everything.”

Indicative of the indies’ new businesslike, revenue-focused attitude was the Oct. 3 letter to the FCC that many indies have signed in support of the federal government shifting existing advertising from national to local media, including, natch, the indies’ sites. The letter, which got big promotion at the Summit, says, unabashedly, that ads placed in the indies’ sites would be “more beneficial” than ones in “legacy media” (i.e. newspapers and their sites).

The Summit’s breakouts on engagement were all-business too. They drilled down to the nitty-gritty of user traffic analytics, and why page-view metrics can be totally misleading. Susan Mernit, founder of Oakland Local, noted, as reported by (a site that trains its eye on local journalism and is operated by graduate students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern U.): “Watch the click path, which delineates the user’s path throughout your site, and at which gates users most often enter and exit. Meaning if Google is your top referrer and users who arrive through Google show a very high bounce rate, most of your traffic may be accidental.”

I asked attendee Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at the American Univrsity School of Communications, whether the indies were ready to grow from being basic sites (or blogs) to full-fledged civic networking platforms that could help communities meet challenges created by the new era of endless public budget slashing.

“They could be an important watchdog for how service cuts are affecting their communities,” Schaffer said. “Most of them, however, are still one- or two-person operations with a couple of freelancers. This is an area where local foundations could help support a reporter — at least for those sites that are nonprofits — to help ensure that voters and taxpayers understand the impact of decisions their elected officials are choosing to make or understand any rationale for tax increases.”

I asked Ben Ilfeld, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Press, who attended both this year’s and last year’s Summits to compare them. His answer: “What made this year so different was the business success that many of us are experiencing. I learned about so many different business models that folks were using to support their projects. I’m not sure if there is ‘a’ business model for independent local publishers. This is a really important point that seems to have been lost in the mainstream coverage of local and hyper-local ecosystems: Money is being made, just not in cookie-cutter business models.”

(In her take on the Summit, Schaffer makes the intriguing point that, for all their fragility, local/hyperlocal sites are starting up all over in the middle of the deep recession.)

In a recent study that the FCC commissioned, Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet by media academic Matthew Hindman, hyperlocals ended up as rounding errors compared to newspaper and TV sites with their wider, regional reach. But that doesn’t faze local and hyperlocal publishers, who see themselves as digital Mighty Mouses outwitting their bigger and aggressive corporate nemeses. As Mike Foucher, founder and publisher of Brown Line Media, a group of neighborhood news sites and one of the organizers of the nascent publishers’ trade group, said: “Our audience is made up of influencers and civic-minded people, and they are local.”

Very businesslike, I’d say.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

Photo credit: Howard Owens