Sunday, March 16, 2014

Experiments in Journalism

Joe Zlomek
Yesterday, a source of local news closed its doors after a six-year experiment.

Joe Zlomek, a former publisher of The Mercury and an on-line innovator, published his first story in the on-line-only Sanatoga Post in September of 2008.

He announced its closure four days ago.

It was not the failure of his business model that forced the closure so much as the draw of his "other job" as an educational courseware -- work I suspect was more profitable than his oversight of the Post and its related publications -- that brought him to his decision, he wrote.

As I said when he made the announcement, I will miss him, as much for his introspection and thoughtfulness about the calling we share as for his companionship at municipal meetings whose length and monotony could test the tenacity of a 100-year-old Galapagos tortoise.

I am also a fan of his writing style, which has a very light and conversational tone to it, just right, I thought, for the kind of hyper-local neighbor-telling-you-the-news-over-the-fence product he was offering.

Further, he was very generous about his attribution, always making sure to link to a Mercury story when he was citing it and, I hope, we returned the compliment in kind.

I considered The Sanatoga Post to be a better version of the national experiment known as PATCH, which enjoyed a relatively brief tenure here in the Pottstown area and has since been gutted of local editorial staff by the corporate interests which now control it.

(Even the casual observer will notice its headlines these days are chiefly regional weather stories.)

I was always puzzled by the idea that a national chain thought it could be both national and "hyper-local" at the same time; an oxymoron on a level with "jumbo shrimp."

It always seemed more of a fervent wish than a likelihood, but who am I to say? I am not a corporate giant wielding millions of investor dollars.

Although the well-intentioned people who worked at PATCH tried hard to focus on local events, the national boilerplate format within which they were required to work left little room to try to meet the different needs of different communities in anything but the same way as everywhere else.

The Sanatoga Post was different in that it was run by a local professional who already knew the community he was covering inside and out.

But the idea of being hyper-local, of just covering one town and its school district, was had certain similarities to PATCH's model and I was curious to see if it could work.

It certainly seemed to.

Joe was steadfast in his coverage and rarely missed a municipal meeting which, despite their often boring character, nevertheless continue to represent the heart and soul of American journalism, in my humble opinion.

As I have said in this space before, I do not believe the founders preserved the rights of a free press so we could cover car wrecks, as evidently fascinating as they are to readers, but to keep an eye on government -- at all levels.

Of course covering those car wrecks and other crimes and spectacular happenings drives readership -- as much as some might be loathe to admit about themselves -- and readership drives the one thing which makes American journalism the creature it is today -- money.

In a capitalist economy, money is the single best way to be independent.

In other words, it pays the bills so we can also afford the cost of the much-less-sexy job of keeping an eye on our governments.

Obviously, a government watchdog cannot be paid by the government. And a newspaper (or news source) which runs on the goodwill and occasional donations of its readers is soon a former newspaper.

(I continue to believe there is a non-profit model out there somewhere which can work, and which is finding some success with sites such as ProPublica, but the world doesn't seem quite ready for that yet.)

In the meantime, newspapers continue to need money to do their job and they are increasingly struggling to make it.

No longer the "go-to" place for information, they are losing advertising dollars at an alarming rate.

(Those of you who read our two-day "Changing Times" series in The Mercury have heard all of this before.)

Paradoxically, it's the once mighty leviathans of journalism, the larger city metros, with more overhead and more areas and niches to cover, that are suffering the most, although we local dailies are not far behind in the suffering department. (Don't ask me the last time I got a raise.)

Still, we do have one advantage at local papers. Local is our niche and we still do it better than any big city metro.

And fortunately, The Mercury is owned by a company that believes it has to innovate to survive and is aggressively pursuing any strategy that shows promise of being economically sustainable.

So far, not too many of them do but we haven't given up yet.

All of which brings us back to Joe and The Sanatoga Post.

I was deeply interested in whether his experiment could survive and bridge the gap between traditional newspaper readers, who still want to read their news on a piece of paper they hold in their hand but whose numbers dwindle with every passing day, and the next generation of readers who seek out information about everything in their world on an electronic device.

I have been crass enough in the past to hint around to Joe that I would love to know if he was making profit, or, more important, could make a living, doing what he did on his site, but he played his cards close to the vest and I could hardly blame him for that.

Nevertheless, I think he showed it can be done if you do it right.

So I thank him for taking on such a formidable undertaking.

But I will miss him here in the Southeast Pennsylvania media laboratory, we need all the qualified researchers we can get.

And I will miss him at those meetings.

(Have I mentioned that they can be kind of long?)

* * *

P.S. So yesterday I discovered that Joe and I define "discontinue" differently. In point of fact what he is discontinuing is "daily" publication and coverage of government.

In this post, he reported that instead he is going to transform the site.

The site will now offer and expanded calendar, which he said is the site's most popular feature, as well as more people-oriented features.

I welcome this news as anything which keeps people engaged with their community has to be a good thing.

However, he is sticking with his guns about not attending night meetings.

So no reprieve for yours truly.

Really, those meetings can get truly epic....

1 comment:

  1. Miss you at such meetings, I will. Miss the meetings themselves? I will not.

    Evan, I'm honored by your kind words today; thank you. Yes, The Post will change because I must. I hope, however, that its new format will keep it lively, interesting and newsy. And - I'll say this because I know the journalistic warrior in you will both appreciate and scoff at it - I hope to still beat the pants off you from time to time!

    Keep up your incredibly good work, Evan; people in our town deserve and recognize its quality. Best regards always,

    Joe Zlomek, Managing Editor, The Sanatoga Post