Stronger Bklyner Helps Keep ‘News Desert’ at Bay in NYC’s Biggest Borough

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At least one highly regarded expert on local news, Steve Waldman, has expressed concern that Brooklyn is in danger of “becoming a news desert” as publications serving the resurgent community go out of business or retrench (as the tabloid Daily News did last month when its editorial staff was cut in half). But Liena Zagare, a 10-year veteran of independent publishing in Brooklyn, is determined to help keep the news flowing in New York City’s biggest borough.

Here are three sample articles from Zagare’s Bklyner site that show, in all their diversity, that Brooklyn is still an oasis for compelling and important news: 1) “Disabled People Lived in Squalor for Years in Dickensian Adult Home in Ditmas Park,” 2) the “public visioning” to reclaim and renew North Gowanus and 3) “Island Pops Serves Up Caribbean Ice Cream and Community in Crown Heights.”

In this Q&A, Zagare tells how Bklyner came back from the abyss this year and why, after flipping her business model to rely on her readers for revenue, she’s confident the digital pure-play she founded and edits will stay strong and help maintain Brooklyn as the news oasis it’s been for more than 175 years.

Bklyner editorial team includes Editor Liena Zagare, second from right, and, from left, reporters Paul Stremple, Pamela Wong, and Zainab Iqbal.

Let’s begin with where Bklyner is today compared to December 2017, when you were approaching your end-of-the-year deadline to persuade your readers to pay for their news, but weren’t that confident about the outcome.

It was quite a month. At that time, I really didn’t think we would come as close as we have in reaching our goal of 3,000 subscribers—I really did not think we’d get 500. But I owed it to my staff and readers and to myself to give it all we had, and if we had to go, it would not be for lack of trying. Today, our situation is looking up. We are not on the edge of the abyss anymore, and I’m incredibly hopeful. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget our situation in December.

With your 2,423 subscriptions, at $60 per year for each, what are you able to do editorially that makes you so hopeful about Bklyner’s future?

We now have a staff that includes two full-time reporters and three part-time, one editor as well as some regular freelancers. By mid-August, we expect to convert one part-time reporter position to full time, and as our subscriptions grow, we will keep adding more reporters. All it takes is about 1,000 subscribers to fund a reporter.

Brooklyn has 3 million people who live in more than 80 neighborhoods. With the resources you have, how do you prioritize what Bklyner will cover day to day?

We try to use our resources where we’d have the greatest impact. There are so few reporters out there that if we know someone like the New York Daily News is covering an event, we’ll skip it and focus on something else instead—something only we’d report that would be equally important.

We do cover the big issues. Housing and development is one, transportation is another, [as well as] schools and public space. Forty percent of Brooklyn residents are first-generation immigrants. We want to add to the community conversation and not just repeat what’s being said.

Are there communities to which you pay more attention?

We go where the news takes us, but if I had to tally up the number of stories, Park Slope, Gowanus, Downtown, Cobble Hill, most of the waterfront as well as Flatbush take up a large share. There is a significant overlap between areas of high urban development and the communities where we have more subscribers, but we try our best to cover all the important stories.

Since our model currently does not envision a paywall, our members fund access and news coverage for all our readers in Brooklyn.

How about public safety? How do you handle that in your coverage?

In a borough of almost 3 million it may be the safest year on record, and there will still be quite a bit of crime and accidents. We try to consolidate police and crime stories into one post per day. While crime stories do drive a lot of traffic, and everyone wants to know if something happened in their neighborhood, reporting each event on its own would overwhelm the news feed and make it feel like there’s crime and murder everywhere, and that doesn’t give you a balanced perspective. Where the story is indicative of a bigger issue that the city is or should be working to address, we’ll pull it out—like pedestrian or bike accidents, or when there seems to be an increase in gang activities in a certain area.

You’re planning on working with New York City-based, which uses artificial intelligence to collect various neighborhood information, such as school-quality issues, new residential and commercial development, and new amenities. How do you see this service augmenting the quality local journalism you’re already trying to provide?

They are incredibly good at drilling through large amounts of data—something this city generates a lot of, and something we do not have the capacity at this time to do in-house. So we are plotting out some stories we can work together on. I also love Property Shark to report on real estate and development; the two companies have complementary services.

You’ve said that Facebook and other social media have, for all practical purposes, captured the neighborhood advertising market because they have extensive profiles of users that can target readers down to the ZIP Code level. What about regional and national advertisers—any success in landing them?

For larger institutions and companies, we offer a well-defined and engaged audience that they can reach for a reasonable rate.

Unlike most subscription sites, Bklyner does not have a paywall. Can you convince enough of your non-paying readers to buy a $5-a-month subscription when they don’t hit a paywall no matter how many free clicks they make to your site?

Our model does not have either a hard or metered paywall and relies on people believing that quality news is important enough to pay for so that there is more of it for all. That said, there does need to be some way of nudging folks to pay up. We are about to launch a metered messaging system whereby rather than hitting a paywall you’d get a series of message along the lines of: “You’ve read five stories this week; you clearly care. While we believe news should be free, it is not free to report. Won’t you please subscribe so we can bring you more of XYZ?” We are still finalizing the messaging, but the idea is to encourage readers to put their money where their beliefs are and turn regular readers into paying subscribers.

You’re working with News Revenue Hub, which helps its clients “build a structure around membership using the nonprofit model.” But you’re a for-profit company. Can you use their nonprofit model to improve your rate of reader conversions to subscriptions?

I don’t believe there is any magic to subscriptions, even though it still feels magical to see them coming in. It is painstaking labor delivering quality content and asking and encouraging readers to make the conversion, and to be successful you need a well-defined plan and consistent execution. That is where NRH is helping us in guiding us, drawing on their experience working with not-for-profit organizations and mission-driven messaging. Like many news outlets, we are better at telling everyone else’s story than our own, and it helps to have an outsider tell your story and grow your base of supporters.

What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to what you’ve been doing with Bklyner since you adopted your voluntary subscription model?

The other day I had one of those mornings where I was heading to the office having been up late working on a story and probably looked like a squeezed lemon, when this lovely young woman stopped me in the street, outside a local coffee shop, complimented me on my dress, told me she’s a subscriber and that we should keep up the good work. I was so shocked all I managed to say was “Thank you!” And she was gone. I have no idea who she was, but she made my day. It’s that kind of personal connection and feeling like they are part of it and funding this project for the greater good that I think makes it worthwhile. Like a reader saying in Facebook comments on a recent investigative piece we published, Róisín Ro: “Great reporting by Bklyner. Proud that my family supports this local journalism for $60/year. Worth it.”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.