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Aug. 1, 2016, 8 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The nonprofit Austin Monitor is trying to find the sweet spot for hyperlocal policy news

It’s exploring how to get more people to care about local government, while trying to make enough money to build on the types of coverage that get residents interested and involved.

Publisher Mike Kanin and editor-in-chief Elizabeth Pagano, the only two full-time employees at the hyperlocal Texas capital news site the Austin Monitor, come back to one word when describing the site: wonky.

“The calling card of the organization is that it provided all this great news for insiders. But it’s also just great news. We’re the ones at the planning commission at three in the morning, we’re the ones watching the city website for memos that are coming out on everything, you name it,” Kanin said. “We can get pretty wonky. But we want to continue to do as much of that as possible.”

The nonprofit Monitor offers three tiers of paid subscription (anyone can read five posts each month for free, or purchase some articles individually). All-access — which comes with unlimited access to all of the Monitor’s coverage, all of the archives, premium content, and annotated tipsheets of council agendas — isn’t cheap, at $97.43 per month for an individual subscription. (Bulk subscriptions for companies are $4,000.) The “civic enthusiast” tier opens access to all stories up to 90 days old (no archives) at $21.65 per month, for people who still want to follow along with city business relatively closely. The “keep me informed” tier allows 10 stories a month at $5.41.

austin-monitor-subscription-tiers

As of this month, the Monitor has 1,264 paid subscribers (143 Civic Enthusiasts, 136 Keep Me Informed readers). It offers a range of deep discounts to all-access subscriptions, including for nonprofits and volunteers on the city of Austin’s boards and commissions. Through a Monitor in the Classroom program, a partnership with Google Fiber, students in that program access its stories for free as well.

“The goal has been to drive the bar down to make it so that more regular folks can afford to read us,” Kanin said. “As Austin has grown, there are so many questions about how we got here, how we’re going to stay here, whether we should’ve gotten here in the first place. Our nose-to-the-ground reporting, that might otherwise be missed by a daily, is super important as we try to understand the position that our city finds itself in.”

The Monitor has been formally known as the Monitor since December 2013, though the site evolved from another publication that has covered the city since 1995, starting out as a print newsletter for local politics. Longtime reporter Jo Clifton bought the publication and took it online around 2000, implementing an “extremely high paywall” for “extremely high access,” almost unheard of at the time. In 2010, Clifton sold what was then known as In Fact Daily to the Austin American-Statesman, the Cox Media-owned local daily. Kanin was a contract writer for IFD at the time. It became clear, he said, the Statesman wasn’t sure what to do with IFD. Eventually (“And I think all of these moments start with, ‘I was drinking with a friend…'”), Kanin, through the vehicle of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, a nonprofit he’d founded with some friends, purchased IFD from the Statesman. The deal went through in October 2013. A fully revamped site under the new Austin Monitor name went live August 2014. Clifton still contributes regularly, but on her own time.

“We started out being really locally focused, and maybe not even caring much about attracting more readers. We were sort of stubbornly covering all of the stuff nobody else covered,” Pagano, who was a reporter at the publication when it was still In Fact Daily, said. (Pagano also wrote for the Austin Chronicle.) “We still do that to some extent, but over the past year or two, we’ve loosened up and started covering some bigger issues, while still staying hyperlocally focused on city hall. We try to be a little more inviting than we used to be, with still the same depth.”

Pagano manages around five to seven freelance contributing reporters at the moment. City hall coverage is indeed its bread and butter, but some additional coverage can be driven by reporters’ interests as well: “There are always a few basic areas our reporters cover. But if a reporter was very into, say, environmental issues, I’ll let them write about that,” she said.

Growing the Monitor’s audience is a new(ish) concern. Subscriptions generate a good amount of revenue, but far from enough to let it operate at the scale Kanin and Pagano envision. The site sees about 2,000 unique visitors a day; 5,000 or so with hotter issues (like the ride-sharing controversy). Both Kanin and Pagano would like to see the site get into features and analysis on a more regular basis.

“We can’t right now survive on only subscriptions. If the foundation and donor money dried up, we’d have to shrink back a little. We don’t want to do that. I think three years into it, we’re hitting our stride in a lot of ways,” Kanin said. “But the subscription model allows us to putt-putt along as we experiment with other things and figure out what coverage is going to work for everybody. We can do a lot more work in terms of sponsorships, and we’re getting there. I hear from some folks that foundation money for journalism is drying up, so maybe our timing isn’t the best, but even so, we can do a lot more there — just because we haven’t done much at all yet.” One recent grant: a Knight-funded INNovation award to build map showing exact locations of where its stories are taking place.

austin-chronicle-story-map

The Monitor is hosting an interactive budget game night in August — remember, wonky — to get attendees to create their own budget proposals and submit them to a panel of judges. With Open Austin, a volunteer code/civic hacking group, it’s also building an interactive platform to let people play around with the budget themselves. It’s started a joint venture on events with local nonprofit Glasshouse Policy, and will put on a series of events in the fall, culminating in a “City Summit” event in December (moving to Google Fiber’s offices this year, from University of Texas).

“We’re not The Texas Tribune, obviously. We don’t have a dedicated events staff. But I hope the partnership will let us make this into a much bigger event, and moving to Google Fiber will help raise the profile a little bit,” Kanin said. “We’re hoping the partnership can be a sort of individual events farm that provides community with a great service in terms of making the stuff that we cover and Glasshouse works on, a bit more accessible to the greater community, but also in the process generate a little bit of revenue.”

Content partnerships have helped it increase its reach. For a while, it was sharing some stories with The Texas Tribune, but the hyperlocal wonkiness of the Monitor didn’t end up being a fit for the state-focused Tribune. The Monitor has a tight partnership with local NPR affiliate KUT and shares some reporting resources, and it has teamed up with local PBS affiliate KLRU and KUT on a multi-platform series called Austin’s Eastern Frontier, which won a regional Murrow award.

“We hope this kind of stuff will get the semi-interested person, if not into wonk territory, to at least oh, this is going on in my city territory,” Kanin said. “From there, we think it’s a smaller leap to I want to get a bit more involved.”

POSTED     Aug. 1, 2016, 8 a.m.
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