For years, papers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have seen earnings decline as advertising has abandoned print for Web sites like Craigslist. Now, the Post-Gazette is trying to return the favor -- creating an online model of a form of journalism that more resembles an online message board than it does the morning paper.
The paper calls its new model the "Community Journalism Initiative"; the initiative's MO is spelled out in the paper's recently ratified contract with union employees. The initiative stems from "the need to develop additional sources of revenue with electronic and print products, and to expand Post-Gazette readership," the contract explains. The project will feature "paid or unpaid content from independent contractors, freelance journalists ... as well as institutions, government agencies and community organizations."
Across the country, observers say, newspapers are going "hyperlocal": competing with Google and Yahoo by focusing on events and advertisers in their own backyards.
"Traditional news organizations across the country are experimenting, trying to figure out what they can do in this space," says Jan Schaefer, executive director of the University of Maryland's J-Lab: Institute for Interactive Journalism.
One approach is "community journalism," an ill-defined term, but one which often allows community members to contribute stories on their own.
Until recently, Web sites focusing on community events were mainly started by individuals, many without journalism backgrounds.
"The people that currently produce these sites do so because they are caring and passionate about their communities," says Schaefer. "Will traditional news organizations ever be comfortable in that space? It's still too early to tell."
There is no set model for how to operate a community journalism Web site, says Schaefer. Some sites feature stories that are sourced out in traditional journalistic fashion; others, like the online reference Wikipedia, allow anyone to post submissions without editorial interference or fact-checking.
Which model will the Post-Gazette follow? Will submissions be vetted by editors? How will the paper transform from a top-down model, where editors and reporters decide what's newsworthy and appropriate, to a more grassroots approach?
So far, the paper is offering few specifics, other than editor David Shribman's promise that "We are committed to a vigorous, creative and aggressive Web site."
The P-G has "come to some notions and conclusions" about how it will provide information, he adds; discussions about whether to allow unfiltered submissions have been a big part of the planning.
Says Shribman: "These are issues that are very much alive in every editor's office."
And doubts are very much alive in the newsroom ... and outside it as well.
"I'm not sure what kind of content they're expecting," says Mike Bucsko, president of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild. Community journalism, he says, is not necessarily a substitute for the real thing.
"What kind of quality will you get from high school students, or from little Sally Smith reporting on her fourth-grade science project?"
The P-G contract guarantees that the Initiative won't affect the jobs of union staff -- or even affect the number of assignments given to freelancers in the print edition. Still, Bucsko has doubts about whether P-G management can pull it off.
"To be diplomatic, it's a fluid process," he says. "But at the same time ... we're not dealing with a bunch of visionaries. They're not inventing the wheel."
Schaefer says papers everywhere are still figuring out how to thrive online ... without compromising their core product.
The Post-Gazette, she adds, will have to do a lot of trial and error. "Some sites monitor everything that goes up, and others let everything go up and only take it down if it's objectionable," she says. "Unfortunately there is no clear-cut path."
In fact, even the Web sites that already practice citizen journalism take different approaches.
"Citizen journalism has been decried as amateur hour since the beginning," says Colleen Van Tassell, who launched PittsburghDish in 2005. "There's a misconception that all sites are written solely by the public with little or no oversight."
Van Tassel injects humor into her coverage, but she worked as a professional journalist until moving to Pittsburgh in 2005, and runs Dish like a newspaper. The site features a small volunteer staff of writers, photographers and graphic designers. Stories also come from community submissions, she says, but she or staff members confirm all submissions with at least two sources "and/or a public official."
Other sites, though, feature a more open-source model. ButlerToday.com, for example, allows users to "post anything you want on the site," says its creator, Web designer Cynthia Closkey. "If we get complaints that something is inappropriate, we will review it, and if necessary we will take it down. But that hasn't happened yet."
If that format sounds too wide-open for responsible journalism, Closkey says traditional journalism is often too narrowly focused. When she moved to Butler in 1999, she noticed that something was missing from her hometown newspaper, the Butler Eagle.
"They are an independent and well-respected newspaper, but --" Closkey pauses. "I felt like some of the things I was hearing about in the community weren't reflected in the pages of the Eagle. ... [Y]ou don't always get all sides of an issue."
One story Closkey cites is the ongoing debate over whether to relocate the Butler Memorial Hospital. According to a March 2005 story in the Post-Gazette, several studies said building a new facility was the best option. But the Eagle's publisher opposed that option, and offered $50,000 to pay for another study. The hospital eventually decided to renovate the current facility instead -- at roughly the same cost of building a new hospital.
"That's a story where I don't think all sides were represented equally by the Eagle," Closkey says.
Operating under the motto, "Your Town, Your News," ButlerToday.com's content is generated by Closkey or through online community submissions. The site currently has 75 subscribers; by comparison, the Eagle boasts a circulation of almost 29,000. Still, says Closkey, "What we're providing is an outlet for individuals and community groups to share news they don't feel they could get out any other way."
At bottom, it's all about money. As ad dollars move online, newspapers like the P-G are following them.
"In theory, these community pages will generate revenue from these mom-and-pop shops in the neighborhoods," says Bucsko. A pizza shop that couldn't afford an ad in the print edition -- and wouldn't care about reaching residents across town anyway -- might pay for a cheaper ad online, especially on a site focusing on the immediate neighborhood.
Still, Buckso says, "an ad you might get $50 for on the Internet, might be worth $5,000 in the print edition. I'm not sure how solid the revenue production will be."
Given that the Post-Gazette reported $12 million in losses for the first half of 2006, Internet revenue may well be a drop in the bucket. Still, to sites like Pittsburgh Dish, even $50 or $100 could mean a lot.
Van Tassell says the financial costs to run Pittsburgh Dish is around $100 a month for Web hosting, gas for her car, phone calls and food for reviews. With more money, however, she says she would hire additional staff and compensate some of the people who have been helping her for free. In addition to money, she then spends about 20 hours a week working on the site.
"Not that we have many ads now, but once the P-G starts a similar site, who are advertisers going to sign up with?" Van Tassell worries. "A news site aligned with the big newspaper in town or a small, albeit scrappy, group who meet in a bar?
When she first heard of the P-G's plans, Van Tassell says, "I felt Wal-Marted. Here I sit at my dining room table every morning trying to find a story ... and here comes Goliath with a full staff of reporters and photographers at their disposal."
The P-G's initiative "could merely be a selling tool," she says. "On the other hand, maybe their editors are seeing the value in writing stories that are more personal [and] community-spirited. That's what newspapers should do, right?"
Schaefer agrees. While "I don't think [online citizen journalism is] ever going to be a major tool for revenue generation, it's a great way for newspapers to build a different kind of relationship -- a two-way pipeline -- with their community."
And having the P-G get involved in community journalism, Closkey speculates, may even help sites like hers. "I think it will give all online community news sites both a sense of legitimacy with the public and some much-needed recognition," she says.
"The P-G getting involved lets other people know that this is out here and that seeking out and including community-generated news is important."