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RESEARCH

Community Sites

“What’s been gratifying is the interplay between people who have been here forever and the newcomers. They’re showing each other the works, working out class issues.”
—Lisa Williams
H2otown

Many solo entrepreneurs say they are well on their way to achieving their goals of creating forums for community conversations and new forms of information-sharing among people who don’t normally cross paths. They take credit for disseminating unfiltered news and information and prodding local media to improve.

Success can be a two-edged sword, observed Doug Bratland, chairman of the board of Northfield Citizens Online. “Some people think we’re a business like a newspaper, and we’re getting complaints about things we didn’t cover.” Still, he said, “People are finding out about things going on in town from people who they normally don’t interact with.”

H2otown‘s Lisa Williams admits to targeting residents who were not born in Watertown, people who had “no on-ramp” in the community. “That’s who I was going after, but immediately I got a ton of old-timers and civics nerds. What’s been gratifying is the interplay between people who have been here forever and the newcomers. They’re showing each other the works, working out class issues. And sometimes there’s a lot of resentment.”

Citizen sites have made significant inroads in supplementing local news or supplying news coverage where none existed. Before The Forum launched in Deerfield, New Hampshire, for instance, no one else covered local elections or announced filing dates to run for local offices. “There was a very large increase in the number of people who signed up to run,” said Forum managing editor Maureen Mann. In the spring 2005 elections, eight of 22 municipal offices had no candidates; the following year - seven months after The Forum launched - all but two offices had a contest and turnout rose to 33% of voters from 20% the previous year.

Increasingly citizen sites are becoming known and trusted community venues. WestportNow “is the talk of the town. It’s taken on a life of its own where people are very protective about it…[Success was] when people out of the blue responded to an event that was only publicized on WestportNow. Ninety or 100 people showed up and the sponsor was amazed,” remarked founder Gordon Joseloff.

A big part of this perceived success, however, is not only getting citizens to pay attention to them, but getting local media outlets to pay attention as well.

“The weekly here was not posting breaking news to its web site two years ago,” said Coastsider editor Barry Parr. “They’re doing it now.”

“We have bloggers doing their own investigations, stuff that later gets picked up by mainstream media,” said Greensboro101‘s Roch Smith. “Maybe doing what we do will eventually be considered mainstream.”

Still, citizen media sites are thinking about a business model, acting on a business model, or developing systems for philanthropic, subscription or advertising revenue.

Solo operators including Coastsider‘s Barry Parr and H2otown‘s Lisa Williams say they have achieved profitability primarily because they’re not paying themselves real salaries and because other costs of running the sites are low. They are pondering how and whether to turn these sites into businesses that can pay salaries to advertising and editorial staffs.

For many, that means expanding to other communities to get a critical mass of advertisers and possibly launching a print edition. “It’s really hard to envision profitability of any significance without opening up additional markets,” said Greensboro101‘s Roch Smith. “That opens up other opportunities [to sell to] regional or national advertisers.”

As important is getting more readers to click-through from their sites’ front pages to longer stories inside. “Because that’s where the ad space is,” declared WestportNow‘s Joseloff. “We’re going to run out of ad space on the front page.” Indeed, there is finite space for tile ads or even rotating ads on a home page - no matter how fast you rotate them.

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