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The Rise of Indie Local News Sites

There is no question that independent local news startups are spreading like wild fire around the country.  J-Lab has been updating its database and has about 1,200 listed to date, with more to be uploaded.

And last week’s Block by Block summit drew more than 100 participants, significantly larger than in 2010. Many in the group voted to try to launch a trade association.

Just don’t call them “blogs.” One hardly heard that label last week. And, when you did, it was from site publishers walking back the term.

Indeed, the motivation for all this indie activity is simple:  Site founders believe they can build demand and support by covering local news that isn’t getting much coverage now, certainly not from traditional news organizations.  They beam at their community’s appreciation of their efforts.

And, it appears to me that the economy, while bad for mainstream journalists. is great for indie startups. With journalism jobs shrinking, many of these site founders are laid-off journalists who have elected to start their own news sites from whole cloth – and make a fraction of what they were paid before – rather than find some other kind of job they don’t much cotton to.

The silent heroes among these entrepreneurs are the working spouses who are the silent angel investors, providing the safety nets for their entrepreneurial others to get some traction.

Delivering good content does not seem to be the indies’ challenge. Indeed, only a handful last week reported that they used so-called “citizen journalists.”  Most are one- or two-person operations that hire freelancers for a pittance.  Some sleep with a police scanner. The pivotal tipping point for many startups can be their coverage of a weather calamity or accident that makes them the go-to place for community news.

Because these are high-touch efforts with a lot of community engagement, they take great pride in acting responsibly and ethically, even as they find themselves in untrodden territory.  Check out some of their dilemmas in our new Rules of the Road booklet.

But there is great fragility around sustainability. Most of the newbies are still out of their comfort zones selling advertising or nailing sponsorships.  And the thought of producing events leaves them further fatigued.

Still, they look upon the sites with great disdain, turning up their noses at the cookie-cutter template and at Patch editorial teams that are not always from the communities they cover.  Most indie local news publishers don’t think Patch will be around for the long term. The big question is whether the indies can survive long enough to outlast Patch.  They’d clearly like to.

The good news is that there are adolescents on the scene – sites that have now been around for six years or more.  And they are generous about sharing advice both at Block by Block and at J-Lab’s preconference Entrepreneuring 3.0 summit at the Online News Association earlier this month.  See the live stream here.

Still, some of the old-timers are beginning to recalibrate.  The high-quality has gone dark while it is “in transition.”  And a couple of the mature site publishers last week quietly spoke of possible alternative scenarios for their enterprises.

These are the beginnings of small businesses. They are creating jobs.  And they deserve the attention and support of the government (small business loans) and the business community (sponsorships and ads).   It won’t be too long before the only local news in many communities around the country will be coming from them.

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