In 2005, veteran reporter Paul Bass launched the New Haven Independent as a one-man outfit. Half a decade later, the Connecticut publication boasts nine full-time reporters, runs 20 stories every day, and has a partnership that sees its stories appear in the Spanish-language publication La Voz. Bass and his crew are not only filling the hard news void left when a number of the city’s publications folded, but they are forcing the remaining news organizations to ramp up their coverage to compete.
The Independent is fully funded through 2012 and continues to expand its revenue streams. Street Fight spoke with Bass recently about the future of the business model, how non-profit local publishers work, and why he thinks Patch was a mistake.
Why did you initially set up the Independent a non-profit?
It felt like that’s where the money was — but also I like the model in terms of your mission, the way you raise your money. You steer away from places that want to go ideologically one way or the other, but institutions and big donors feel it’s in their best interest to have stories covered especially when you have the public involved. That’s a better way to raise your money than when I was at an alt-weekly where we did advertorial-type stories. Here, we have to do good reporting. We started reporting on school reform and then there were foundations that wanted school reform covered. So that’s how we found ways to pay the bills by doing work we believed in.
I like the model, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Over the past six years, all the sites that are starting that actually pay people salaries and benefits are the non-profits, but I think going forward it’s going to be a mix.
If you were going to start again, would you still go the non-profit route?
Definitely. The crisis was really in small- and medium-sized city news reporting. That’s just disappeared. When I started reporting in New Haven over 30 years ago, there were two daily print papers, six radio newsrooms, and an alt-weekly. By the time I started the Independent, the two dallies had merged and they had one-third the number of reporters. All six radio newsrooms were gone. The alt-weekly doesn’t have any local reporters. Now that we started, the print daily does a lot more reporting in New Haven. We just grew. People felt there was a need for this thing.
How does your partnership with La Voz work?
Once a week, our stories appear translated into Spanish in La Voz. Yesterday, we broke a story about an FBI investigating City Hall — that goes into Spanish the next day in La Voz. We’re hoping to expand that. We’d love to get a grant to have a really bilingual new media newsroom where we have stories translated the next day into both languages. We’d have daily story meetings and have a mobile site that’s joint. We haven’t been able to score a grant like that, but we’ll keep trying.
I think Patch was wrong to try to be a million places that don’t have anything in common. It just makes them all crappy. I think it’s a mistake to go by number of eyeballs. I think there is going to be smart, targeted ads that are going to work on certain scales.
In an interview a few years ago, you said that “of an approximate $120,000 annual budget, around 75 percent is coming from foundation grants for specific kinds of reporting; 23 percent from ongoing general sponsorships from local institutions; and 2 percent from voluntary contributions.” Is that still accurate?
We’ve moved a little bit from that. Our goal is to get down to 25 percent foundation. We’re not there. We’re closer to 50 percent. We have some small other revenue streams. We don’t have a ton. We have a press-plus thing, some legal notices and some institution sponsorships like New Haven Hospital. We’re working on it. We have all our money for 2012. But you never know what the long range is going to be.
Do you think there’s a business model that works that doesn’t rely on non-profit?
I think you can have a network of smart cities based on demographic. I think Patch was wrong to try to be a million places that don’t have anything in common. It just makes them all crappy. I think it’s a mistake to go by number of eyeballs. I think there is going to be smart, targeted ads that are going to work on certain scales. One idea I’ve been wondering about is if there’s a hybrid for-profit, not-for-profit network that could be set up with 10 or 20 sites like the Independent that are very engaged with their readership around issues that are shared by cities that have diverse populations and people who care about things like bicycles, density, transportation.
On our site, celebrities don’t get the clicks or the comments, but if you say “Should bikes be on this road?” or “Should buildings be eight stories or four?” everybody is on top of it. There is that kind of vibe in a lot of cities: Portland, Austin, Burlington, parts of D.C., the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, Colorado Springs. If you had a network of places like that and had them all talking to each other in a common room where the common stories were, could that be enough to sell commerce? If you had two million really heavily engaged users, would there be a market for Google-type advertising that was more refined?
If you were going to start the Independent again today, would you change anything, especially with all the new technology available?
I think the technology matters, but it’s overrated. I think the thing we did before and I would keep the same is to focus almost all the money on reporting and physically being outside doing real reporting every day. I think it’s the return to the roots of the journalism, rather than the technology that’s been important to our success. The way to build local reporting is not to focus on the two search terms of the day and write a story about them. It’s to show up in person in the local community and report relentlessly.
Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.