Recession? Local news sites are hanging tough

By David Westphall Posted: 2009-02-26 in OJR.COM:
davidwestphalMary Morgan couldn’t have picked a more difficult time (the middle of a recession) and place (Michigan and double-digit unemployment) to start a new community Web site. So why is she smiling?

It’s because Ann Arbor Chronicle is coming up on its six-month anniversary, it’s meeting financial targets, and Morgan and husband/business partner Dave Askins are able to pay household bills out of revenue from the site. “When I was a business reporter, I used to laugh at firms that marked each anniversary,” said Morgan, who acts as publisher. “Now I know how they feel.”

With a deep and potentially long recession set in, I wanted to circle back with Morgan and some of the other for-profit news site owners I talked with last fall, and see how their mostly new operations were faring. The question has taken on more urgency in recent weeks. As economic conditions have worsened and newspapers have shown accelerating signs of stress, the health of these online-only news sources seems suddenly more critical.

The anecdotal answer from my small sample group is this: So far they’re hanging tough. Business hasn’t fallen much, if at all, and most are instituting expansion plans. If they’re a barometer, community news sites have some resiliency to them.

“We have seen some impact from the economy in terms of advertisers cutting spending or even going out of business,” said Jonathan Weber, who’s been running New West since 2005. “On the other hand, this kind of dislocation forces people to revisit how they are spending money, and rethink their marketing strategies overall, and that is actually very good for us.”

The group also answers affirmatively another fundamental question for what seems to be a growing number of people thinking about starting up a community news sites: Can you do this and make a living?

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