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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up the Tubes

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Been a little remiss with the blogging, I admit: The "Best of" issue always makes me want to throw myself off a bridge. But I've been meaning to write a post like this for a little while now, and finally have an excuse.

I've always thought that one of the best, and most overlooked, blogs in town is the Tube City Almanac, authored by Jason Togyer.  Togyer is a former reporter, having worked at the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review and other publications. So maybe it's no surprise that, probably more than any other blog in town, the Almanac seems poised to go beyond relying on, or even merely supplementing, mainstream media.

And now it's about to take another step in that direction: Seeking 501(c)(3) status and -- brace yourself -- actually paying people for writing online news.

A few words about the Almanac for those who aren't familiar. As its name suggests, the site focuses on McKeesport, the other city in Allegheny County. Sometimes, it reports alongside the traditional press on matters like the municipal budget or the ongoing saga of a councilor nicknamed "Sluggo." Sometimes it breaks stories -- reporting well ahead of anyone else the possibility that Dish network would abandon McKeesport. Sometimes Togyer just does community news ... rah-rah stuff that doesn't get bloggers' juices flowing, but that connects a media outlet to its community. And sometimes, he just hosts a forum for that community to voice its own doubts and misgivings.

Togyer tells me he launched the site in part because "the Pittsburgh media really doesn't care about McKeesport unless we're shooting each other." There are exceptions, of course: Togyer has kinds words for the Mon Valley beat reporters at both the Trib and the Post-Gazette. But extra voices never hurt. Togyer's goal is to provide "newsmagazine-type coverage" of his community -- occasionally breaking stories, but more often shedding a different light on them. Which is why he's looking for help now.

The amount you can expect to earn as an Almanac contributor "is going to be pathetic," Togyer tells me. He estimates payments will be around $25 or $50, "and closer to the $25 end of the range ...  This is an opportunity for someone who is a student looking to put some clips together, or for someone who has retired." Still, he says, "as a writer, it's insulting to me to say, 'You should be glad just to get the exposure.' I'm a member of the National Writers Union, and quite frankly, I'd be going against the union if I didn't pay something." 

Togyer will be, to the best of my knowledge, the first local blogger to do so. Next year, he'll try to raise money not just from online ads, but from Paypal contributions and the occasional fundraiser. Initially, he's seeking about $1,000: Togyer says he has about 2,100 "semi-regular readers -- so if they each gave me 50 cents, we'd be there." He plans to take no salary of his own: "This is a part-time hobby-type gig for me," he says. "Is it sustainable as a model if I didn't have a day job? No. And that's the problem."

It's one problem, anyway. Togyer says that "other than a few e-mails saying, 'Oh, cool,' nobody has actually responded" to his online invitation. The offer has only been up for a week, of course. But I've been a little surprised that no one else -- even another blogger -- seems to have taken notice of what he's up to.

I'm just guessing here, but perhaps part of the reason is that bloggers are just as parochial as the MSM when it comes to places outside city limits. It's the curse of the hyperlocal: Sites like the Almanac, or Blog-Lebo (where, incidentally, local blogger Michael Madison has called it quits) just don't draw much attention outside the community they serve.

That worries me a little. As Togyer says, "If I can do a site like this in McKeesport, there's no reason somebody couldn't do one like it in Kitanning." But in a county of 130 different municipalities, that's counting on an awful lot of folks willing to write about borough council meetings. Lately, in fact, I've been thinking that one argument for consolidating local governments is that it would keep all the politicians all in one place. Imagine how much easier it would be -- even for the MSM -- to keep an eye on things with a streamlined government. Think how much money our cash-strapped newspapers could save in staffing if we had a one-stop-shop for political chicanery. 

But of course, that's the least of the challenges facing the news biz. I have an article coming out tomorrow in the print edition -- online Thursday -- about the dark clouds gathering around the Post-Gazette's upcoming labor talks. There are a lot of worrisome signs in the days ahead. Togyer's move is a rare bit of hope, and he can count on a bit more than 50 cents from me.

After all, someday I might be writing for him.  

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