Is local news dying? That's the conventional view, bolstered by rumors that AOL is on the verge of shutting down its local news arm, Patch. (AOL denies that Patch is being shut down.) But not everyone sees things that way.
One of the optimists is Dan Silverman, founder of Washington's popular Prince of Petworth blog (now rebranded as PoPville). Thanks to a mix of traditional news outlets and upstarts like his own blog, Silverman says, the D.C. area has a "glut" of local coverage. We talked about the future of local news by phone on Monday.
Obviously, AOL's Patch experiment hasn't gone that well. But your much smaller media outlet has thrived. What does it take to succeed in local news?
I'm very far from what people know as traditional journalism. I think it's very difficult to do local journalism and make a living at it. The content that you have has to appeal to enough people to make it worthwhile to advertisers to make money. If it's very local, say a new library meeting, not that many people are going to care about a new library meeting.
Sometimes you have people who've figured it out, and then you have people who do it not for money, and you do it because it's a passion. As opposed to sites like Patch or other sites run by big companies, I never even thought of making money when I started. They want to make money, which makes sense, because they're a business. You have two very different animals.
The reason why Patch had difficulties is because it's very hard to build community and community is really what keeps people coming back and reading in addition to the content. You can't just invest dollars in a Web site and, poof, the next day you have a community. It builds very slowly over time. It's very organic. It takes patience. You can't force it. If you're a business, it takes a lot of money before you can get there. If you're doing that times a thousand communities that's a lot of money.
When you started the Prince of Petworth blog, it was more of a hobby than a way to make a living, right?
Exactly. There was no artificial threshold. I don't know the business model of Patch or other sites, but I didn't have any threshold. I didn't say "by the end of the month I need to make a certain amount of money." Instead, I said "this is interesting, I'm having fun doing this." Which is a very different way to look at it.
I think it completely changes your coverage when money is at play because then you look at the world differently and say, "Is this going to get people excited enough that it's going to be able to pay the bills?" As opposed to for me personally, my threshold is, "Is it of interest to me?" When you're a business, you can't necessarily make it that easy.
How did you make the leap from doing Prince of Petworth as a hobby to making it a full-time job?
I started getting a lot of interest and people who wanted to advertise. I never solicited advertisers. It was all just e-mails coming to me: "How much does it cost to advertise? We're interested in advertising." There's a lot of interest, and I wasn't doing anything to seek this out. I said, "Maybe there's something worthwhile here."
I knew it was going to be a gamble. So when I quit my full-time job in 2009, I said to myself, I'll try it for a year. If I can make it, great. If not, I'll go back to my old job. It just so happened that I got very lucky. I worked hard, but there's also an element of luck. It has worked out for me.
A lot of it was timing. When I started in 2006, there wasn't a whole lot of local journalism, blogging, etc. Now I have seven years under my belt. Somebody who's brand new and just wants to start out, they have a very difficult hill to climb because not just me, but many other people, including The Washington Post, are covering the local area.
If you have someone brand new saying I want to cover local communities, there's a glut of coverage now. In 2006 when I started, there was nobody covering the way I did. Now there's a ton of people and the people that were are doing it better now. You can't come in and do the same thing that everybody else is doing and expect people to start reading you.
You say there's a glut of local coverage, but I think a lot of other people have the opposite impression, that local news coverage is disappearing. Why do you think people have such different perceptions?
The local coverage is totally different now. There are certain subjects where you do need in-depth, old-school coverage. That is certainly important for, you know, massive development projects like selling the Reeves Center, selling the FBI headquarters, complicated areas. Things that are not just simple.
But there are other things that are simple, which are easier to cover now because of technology changes: crime and quality of life, and real estate, restaurants, retail.
For example, technology makes it much easier for people to cover crime. There's a D.C. police department Twitter feed. Before you'd have a WaPo beat reporter who would listen to the police scanner and follow the fire trucks. That's not necessarily as important from the consumer's point of view. Say there was a stabbing last night. Yes, it's helpful for The Washington Post to get the information, but nowadays the department will issue a press release saying there was a shooting at this time with this many people involved, this was the victim, etc.
There's a certain amount of trust there. If you don't trust the police department, you're going to want a reporter following up and confirming the facts. I can see critics say that's a dangerous road to go, if you rely on the powers that be if someone abuses that power, you could get in trouble.
But from my perspective there's a good mix, less traditional reporters but still some. Primarily The Post; at the end of the day you can count on them. But you don't need 10 traditional reporters because you have The Post.
What about covering City Hall? That seems to be the local news function everyone points to as requiring a conventional reporter.
That is still important. You'll see three or four people that go: The Post, the local news television stations, WAMU. They go. They're still very important, and then you have some local people, bloggers and what not who go as well.
Greater Greater Washington will send people to meetings like that. It's not like nobody goes. But the information that comes out of those meetings is just one element to a Web site, to attracting an audience. I don't think you can attract an audience from just public meetings.