The Arlington Mercury, a two-year-old local news Web site, shut down this month after four months of unsuccessful efforts to raise money, editor and founder Steve Thurston said Friday.
The site, one of a handful of local news organizations that cover Arlington County, was done in by a 22-month wait to get nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service, which delayed its plans to apply for grants and seek other sources of money that could have kept the fledgling enterprise alive, Thurston said.
“It’s probably not going to come back anytime soon,” said Thurston, a full-time Montgomery College teacher who worked on the site for free. His staff was also unpaid, except for Metro fare and an occasional coffee. “I needed a lot more money than any one donor could provide.”
He and his board had based their business plan on becoming a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization. But his application for that status, he said, was caught up in the delays created when the IRS audited or delayed paperwork1 for nonprofit groups, particularly those that criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution, an inspector general’s report said this year.
Unlike the tea party groups that first raised the alarm about IRS delays, the Arlington Mercury was not a political organization. But the delay in getting certified as a nonprofit prevented it from taking the necessary steps to get on firm financial footing.
During its two years of publication, the Web site examined the impact of a curious local zoning phenomenon known as “pipestem lots” in which a developer can build a house in what seems to be the back yards of multiple homes, with only a small driveway entrance from the street.
“We wrote longer stories about where the policy meets the pavement,” Thurston said. “We got into crazy detail about the streetcar. We covered local projects that don’t look like much until you start poking at it.”
The site competed with several Patch.com sites, the local Arlnow.com news site and The Washington Post. It eschewed news releases and anonymous postings, sticking with traditional standards of journalism. But in a news environment where even low-cost, community-based web-focused journalism is struggling to survive, the Mercury’s $150 per month expenses proved too much.