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March 4, 2009, 2:27 p.m.

NYT wants to build and spread a platform for local journalism; sees business model in ‘placeblogosphere’

Jim Schachter, editor for digital initiatives at The New York Times, isn’t naïve about the business prospects of two blogs the newspaper launched this week for communities in Brooklyn and northeastern New Jersey. In fact, he told me yesterday that the sites will never make money.

“If every single person who lives in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange came to these sites every day and made one impression, that would be about 120,000 impressions a day,” Schachter said in a phone interview. “It is barely enough to create a ripple in a pond and not enough to be profitable.”

So, um, what’s going on here? It turns out the Times’ ambitions in this field are bigger — and, in another sense, smaller — than they might appear from the two sites that debuted on Monday with a full-time reporter at the helm of each. The long-term business model, Schachter said, could involve distributing a local-blogging platform to people in other communities who would start their own sites without any Times reporters or editors at all. They might pay the Times to license the platform or share revenue from a Times-run advertising network that’s under consideration.

But I’m putting the cart full of cash before the hyperlocal horse. Schachter admitted, “We don’t know if the placeblogosphere wants us or needs us.” He said the first two sites are seeking a viable model that could be spread beyond five neighborhoods in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The Times has committed one metro reporter to each blog — Andy Newman in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and Tina Kelley in Maplewood, Millburn, and South Orange — plus a full-time editor, Mary Ann Giordano, overseeing them both. They are reporting and writing posts for the sites while soliciting and editing submissions from members of the community. Early fare on the Brooklyn blog, which is also collaborating with Jeff Jarvis and his students at CUNY, has included questions for the local police captain, a park ranger’s musings about a hawk in Fort Greene Park, and a six-year-old’s artwork.

“One of the things that we can bring to this is doggedness,” said Schachter. “What trained journalists know how to do and can train others to do is to get the answers to questions.” On Tuesday morning, the two reporters were on Brian Lehrer’s radio show on WNYC to discuss their new sites, and a caller asked Kelley if she would be covering South Orange’s plan to cut arts funding at a meeting of the village board of trustees that evening. Kelley, who didn’t seem to be aware of the situation, asked for the meeting’s location and promised coverage. Sure enough, she previewed the issue in a post yesterday afternoon and wrote, “The Local will be there, paying close attention.” (Oh yeah, they’re calling these sites The Local, which might allude to the subway or might just conform to that peculiar Times style of naming blogs with definite articles: The Board, The Caucus, The Quad, The Lede, The Medium, The Moment, The Pour — you get The Point.) There was a long post about the meeting up on the site this morning.

After just two days, it’s easy to see how these first two local blogs could work, perhaps even thrive, journalistically — but not economically. “If you, for each site, have one full-time New York Times reporter and half of a editor,” Schachter acknowledged plainly, “I don’t think there is any way that this could ever pencil out as profitable.” What could work, he said, is some sort of platform — a content management system, multimedia tools, a guidebook, or all of the above — that others could use to start local blogs around the New York metro area or across the country. “There are some people who want to get into this world of community journalism who don’t want to be their own chief technology officer,” Schachter said. The Times, for example, could provide solutions for creating a local crime map or events calendar once they’ve been built for the first two sites.

To generate revenue, the Times will at first focus on local advertising and will soon enable a system for self-service ad sales on the Brooklyn and New Jersey sites. The business staff is also “trying to find a prominent national advertiser that would sponsor this early on just because it’s cool and some companies want to be associated with this sort of thing,” Schachter said. To attract national advertisers over the long term, however, the Times would have to generate traffic way beyond what they could reasonably expect from the first two sites. That’s where an ad network could figure in with other local bloggers using the Times’ platform.

Schachter said he would like to give the first two sites at least a year before judging their success, but he sounded eager to spread the model before then. “Sooner rather than later, we can hand off the early version of what we’ve learned,” he said. “To really learn if we have something here that will travel, we have to let go of it to somebody.” Plenty of issues remain unresolved. For instance, Schachter said, “We have to wrestle with questions like how closely or not do we oversee those people who are using our platform, our formula. Is there a level of oversight that allows you to do this under our umbrella and using the New York Times name and another level that allows your to use our tools but not our name?” There’s also a flipside to that question, which is not whether the Times would want to be associated with independent, local bloggers but whether those bloggers would want to be associated with the Times. In this arena, the newspaper’s august brand could be as much a liability as an advantage.

Of course, there are plenty of out-of-the-box blogging solutions that would compete with a hypothetical Times platform, and many of them are free. But an advertising network could sweeten the pot. Plus, the Times knows journalism, perhaps even hyperlocal journalism, and could use that advantage to create superior tools and guides. (Check out the comments on this post I wrote last month for some great discussion along these lines.)

It’s all a long shot, but Schachter described the impetus for this project in compelling terms for the struggling media company:

We have been thinking alternately hard and not so hard over the last several years about what we could be doing new and innovative in the New York market. There have been committees and task forces at one time or another, probably over 10 years. And over the course of that time, the print penetration in the New York metro area has declined. We’ve become a more national and internationally focused news organization. And certainly from a business perspective, we’ve become more of a nationally focused news organizations than we were 10 or 15 years ago. That has been a concern for a while.

POSTED     March 4, 2009, 2:27 p.m.
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