The NewsShed Project

How do you sustain local news in the places that need it most?

In many of the small towns in the rural Catskill mountains, just three hours north of New York City, there is no local news.  Local weekly newspapers have folded. Reporters have been laid off.  The big regional dailies, TV stations, and radio stations cover the big cities on the edges of the region, but only occasionally venture into the mountains for a story.

We think of these towns as “news deserts.” And they’re the focus of the Watershed Post’s NewsShed project — our attempt to build a sustainable model for free, advertising-supported local journalism in rural, economically depressed communities.

Our goal is to give each small rural town in the Catskills mountains of New York its own town page – a digital hub of news and local information online — and support it with advertising revenue from local businesses. In 2011, we are launching two pilot town pages in the towns of Shandaken and Olive in Ulster County, New York. Both towns have recently lost their local newspaper, and both have passionate populations that are hungry for local news.

This blog is a place for us to talk about how we’re doing, and to brainstorm about how we can make this project work. Join the conversation, and help us create a new model for community journalism.

We’ve won a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, using funding contributed by the Ford Foundation, to support this project. To read more about us on the IWMF site, click here and here.  To hear a nutshell description of the NewsShed Project, see the video below, shot by the excellent Willow Williamson at the IMWF’s international conference:

NewsShed Nuts and Bolts

With both the Watershed Post and the NewsShed Project, we’re experimenting with several new ways of funding and running community news.

  • A simple, affordable self-service advertising product for small businesses. Local advertising dollars are the Holy Grail of digital publishing, and nobody, including behemoths like Google and AOL’s Patch, has figured out exactly what small business owners need. We’re trying out a sort of reverse-subscription model, where, for a monthly subscription fee, local businesses can post news and multimedia content to an advertising channel on our site.
  • A mission of teaching digital literacy and civic engagement. Most local businesses aren’t in the habit of buying online advertising or using the internet to market themselves. We think that selling online ads to small businesses is as much about being an ambassador for the internet as it is about delivering a product that works. To that end, education and teaching are a huge part of what we do.
  • Cover the “news deserts.” Since we’ve launched the Watershed Post, we’ve been amazed both by how much news there is in places where there are no newspapers, and by how eager people are to have their local news covered.
  • Lean and bootstrappy. We believe that a combination of low-cost, self-service advertising, the low overhead inherent in running an online-only operation, and the hunger for local news will make an advertising-funded town page financially feasible.

How it will work

The heart of a town page will be original reporting and smart, locally-relevant aggregation written by town correspondents (both paid and volunteer), and augmented by content from our existing regional site, The Watershed Post. Each town page will also include a comprehensive local business directory, a post-your-own events calendar, a discussion forum, classifieds, trade-and-barter listings, and targeted digital advertising channels for local businesses.

We plan to launch experimental NewsShed pilot sites in two Ulster County towns, Shandaken and Olive, that have just lost their local newspapers. The residents of both towns are hungry for local news, and are eager to use an online news hub to share information.

Each town page will be funded by ad sales. We will sell both traditional display ads and the self-service advertising product we have developed. We plan on reaching a yearly recurring revenue of $15,000 for both town pages by the end of the first year. Our revenue target for an individual business advertising on our site is $300 annually.

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