In this era of change and upheaval in the news and information industry, who would want to start up an online news presence out of thin air?—especially, a not-for-profit online publication. What are they thinking?
“They” are successful Internet enabler and software creator Trilogy, and they’re thinking, why not.
The Austin Post official goes online July 1, 2009, but the “Alpha” version of the site is up now at www.austinpost.org.
What does Austin Post offer that you may not find on the other commercial media sites in town? Think of it as a hyper-local Huffington Post relying on unpaid, local contributors/writers/bloggers for content. “Find the best blogs. Pull them together. Put them into a familiar context. Could you create something that would be a viable alternative to the Austin American-Statesman,” mused Scott Brighton, Trilogy president? Brighton said he and his colleagues have been watching what’s happening with the newspaper industry. “When the newspaper [Austin A/S] went up for sale, we sniffed around,” Brighton says.
They looked at the existing models and decided to create something new to Austin out of whole cloth. “Not because we think it's a good business,” says Brighton. “We're trying to create a model.” There are similar sites elsewhere, but one big thing that sets Austin Post apart is that it underwritten by Trilogy Employee Foundation, a nonprofit venture.
“We are breaking a few traditions of journalism,” says Austin Post editor in chief, Lyssa Myska Allen. She promises only very little, “light” editing of the copy. “People are the writers, and the people are the editors.” “We’re not there yet,” agrees Brighton. “Ultimately, there will be community engagement around them [the articles]. You will get a conversation. Articles that get voted down, will go to the back. We're betting that the process of what a traditional editor might do, will be done by the readers themselves.”
Just because Austin Post is nonprofit does not mean that there will be no ads or subscriptions. “Any money we make we're going to plow back into it,” Brighton says.
Will readers pay for content? Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News earlier this year wrote a pessimistic editorial with a gloomy outlook for the online news business. “Unfortunately, most of our new customers want our services for free,” Rivard writes.
“As my son, Nick, a regular reader of the New York Times online, once told me, “Dad, my generation doesn't pay for its media.”
The editor’s son does pay for his media, like many others. I’m betting that he downloads music from iTunes. That is paid-for content. The editor’s son didn’t pay for Twitter, but somebody bought the phone he is using for texting his tweets, if he tweets. Maybe the cell phone includes proprietary items at a cost, like the Apple phone apps and games. And it will cost to go online using the phone. The cost is determined by the contract or by the amount of media used. If the editor’s son isn’t paying for it, the editor is.
Further, yesterday (June 24, 2009), venerable “Editor and Publisher” magazine reported that the Journalism Online initiative wants to help content providers with a wide set of tools. “Its platform allows for an array of options allowing publishers to charge in numerous ways including: micropayments, sampling, …” and others.
Allen is familiar with the concept of paying for content. She came to Trilogy from Austin-based stratfor.com, a geopolitical and economic intelligence site. She says subscribers pay $349 per year for “intel and analysis.”
The content must be compelling for people to pay for it. Allen and Brighton know that. One thing that may be missing is the run-of-the-mill news of the day found on sites like statesman.com. For instance, today’s page contained nothing about the Longhorns loss of the national championship at the College World Series. “We are reliant on the writers to write. If nobody covers it, it won't be there,” Allen says.
The Austin Post has been recruiting writers since March with a goal of having about 100. “Once we get enough writers involved, the daily stories will be covered,” Allen says. It is a work in progress. “One of the reasons we're in alpha now is that we want to get it out there and get feedback and learn,” Brighton says. “We want to make the site great. That's where our energy is going. The site will change. If we create a great product, then maybe we'll hire “reporters”.
One of the well-known names in the Austin blogosphere is BurntOrangeReport.com which focuses on Texas politics. BurntOrangeReport.com is signing on with Austin Post, and so is NewsMcNabb.com. This journalism/media criticism blog will continue, but I will also contribute regular content to the Austin Post.
© Jim McNabb, 2009