Two hundred years ago, a revolution came to Connecticut—the industrial revolution. Now, a new revolution has arrived- the online journalism revolution. It sprouts web sites like Dan Levine’s new ctnewsjunkie.com. And like its predecessor, this revolution will forever transform American communities.Chris Nolan is a well-known Bay Area scribe and one of the first online journalism revolutionaries. She broke major stories on Silicon Valley banker Frank Quattrone, which eventually led to his conviction on obstruction of justice charges.In an extensive interview (by email, of course), she talks to ctnewsjunkie.com about why this movement started, where it might go, and how to pay the bills if you’re a guerrilla reporter.
Two hundred years ago, a revolution came to Connecticut—the industrial revolution. The farming economy didn’t work anymore. Through ingenuity, independence, innovation, Connecticut helped pioneer a new model that worked.In 2005, another revolution has come to Hartford. This revolution—the online journalism revolution— sprouts online journalism sites, not colossal textile mills. Sites like Dan Levine’s new ctnewsjunkie.com. Like its predecessor, this revolution will forever transform American communities.And like the last revolution, this one owes its emergence to the obsolescence of an old economic model and new ways of easily producing a new one. Creations like ctnewsjunkie.com, usually run by a single journalist, are sprouting up around the country. Some call the form “standalone” journalism, a term coined by San Francisco’s online pioneer Chris Nolan (http://www.chrisnolan.com). After two years, Nolan now draws up to 90,000 readers a month to her site. She has also emerged as a national voice on the rise of sites like these and the future of online journalism. She answered questions the other day for ctnewsjunkie.com on her experiences at the front lines of the digital media revolution and on her thoughts about where this is going next. You invented the term “stand-alone journalism.” More important, you’re one of the leading practitioners of it. What made you decide to hang out a shingle and move your reporting and writing to the web?Honestly? The decision by Big Media to ignore Northern California, tech and Silicon Valley. It was, it still is, really, impossible to sell anything—profiles, books, magazine pieces—about tech, which I had been covering through the Bubble. For the East Coast, that was over and done. So I decided to return to my roots, so to speak. Before moving to California, I was a political writer for a TV trade in Washington, D.C.The site started as a temporary assignment. I was asked by a local civic association to do some commentary on the SF Mayor’s race and they helped me get up and running and funded me for a short time. When SF Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to let same-sex couples marry, that put a new “umph” in the site traffic so I decided to stick with it and see what would happen. What got you started in journalism?Delivering press releases to the AP’s K Street office when I was in high school outside Washington, D.C. This is before fax machines and, of course, email. So stuff had to be sent by hand. I was the messenger for a non-profit run by Ralph Nader.In college I worked on the paper—the Columbia Daily Spectator—and I had an internship with a pretty well known (at the time) investigative journalist named Jerry Laundauer who was with the Wall Street Journal until his death (at his desk, of course). Then I banged around small local papers for a few years before going to D.C. to work as a trade magazine writer covering politics and tech (sound familiar?) A year ago you wrote that you were getting 25,000 regular visitors a month to your site, Politics from Left to Right (http://www.chrisnolan.com). You were starting to get advertising. And you put a “tip jar” on your site to collect donations. That was after a year in business. Now, after two years, where do you stand?We stand. This isn’t profitable by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s running. Some on my savings, some on credit cards, some on ad rev and good will—faith, really—from folks who like what I’m doing and want to support it. I’m now out trying to raise money—by selling stock in my company which owns the site—and turn this into a funded start-up. I’m about half-way to my goal and if we can get the money locked down, we could really expand and grow.How many people visit your site?Our new average is about three times what we did a year ago, about 75,000 to 90,000 unique visitors month. With just about double that in pages served each month, between 150K and 200K.Has “stand-alone” journalism become financially viable? How much money does it bring you a month? Very little, right this second, but I think the upside is very good. Those of us who are on the web now are very, very early.It’s been slow going and there have been lots of dead-ends along the way. There’s a skill to selling ads, as opposed to taking orders. And I’m afraid that most folks on the web want to take orders because they don’t know how to sell ads. Those of use with publishing or editorial experience have been running out sites hoping and praying that the advertising market would catch up. You’re starting to see that happen now.What story on your site has made the most impact so far? How? Gay marriage, of course. The feminist rants stuff about Kevin Drum (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com) and how there are “no” women on the web was a great traffic builder on and off the web, through links from Drum and others, including Instapundit Glenn Reynolds (http://www.instapundit.com).I think it got attention because it was something that needed to be said—that there are plenty of women, it’s just that there’s a long history, particularly on the Left, of ignoring what they say. Tracing that—for men and women—and being forceful about how we got where we are was something that resonated. Do you encounter any difficulty in your reporting in obtaining information that might be easier to obtain at a mainstream news outlet? Yes and no. One key to good reporting is persistence. When I was working on the stories I did about Frank Quattrone, I was working here in California for the NYPost. No one respects the Post—or at least no one says they do—on the East Coast and no one’s heard of it in Northern California. So I had to keep at it to get the story. Eventually, I wrote a piece that led to his indictment on obstruction of justice.Now, don’t get me wrong. It helps—it helps a lot—to have some Big Media affiliation but more and more that’s not true. Individual sites are growing and getting audience and people with things to say care about places where they can reach lots of readers. More importantly, folks are often willing to talk if you are polite, straight-forward and treat them honestly. That’s much harder than it sounds—particularly if they’re really, really pissed off—but it can be done.The Future How many “stand-alone journalism” sites do you estimate there are across the country?How many do you think we need? Seriously. I wouldn’t want to guess.Why is this phenomenon occurring?Lousy reporting, particularly in regional newspapers and on TV. Regular Joes and Joseys can get their breaking news (he said, she went, they did) on the web. They can form their own news judgments and, more and more, the judgments they form are at odds with that they see on TV or in the paper. So they’re turning to outlets on the web to tell them if their thinking is misguided, dead-on or silly.Do you see these sites moving from largely commentary to producing original reporting? Do you think these sites can do the local news reporting that Big Media has largely abandoned in gobbling up local radio stations and daily and weekly newspapers? Absolutely. And I think they can sell what they do to those larger outlets. The need is there. It’s just not being met.Any good examples of such sites? (Name some favorites.)On the right, look at what Redstate is doing on the FEC (http://www.redstate.org/section/FEC). That’s reporting mixed with commentary.On the left, look at Josh Marshall’s TalkingPointsMemo (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com) and what he’s doing with his readers. It’s a forum but they’re also trafficking in information.Marc Cooper (http://www.marccooper.com) does a little bit of reporting and commentary on his site. He mixes his areas of expertise (Latin and South American politics, LA, the Left) with insights about breaking news. It seems like these sites are a mixture of a couple of different experiments: The “stand-alone journalism” you identify of a reporter setting herself up in business; “citizen participation,” where a site depends largely on everyday citizens to e-mail articles and photos; “hyperlocal” sites that focus on just one city or town; blogs; communal bulletin boards where citizens debate local issues; and massive linking to source information (airport weather conditions, local births and deaths, articles in other media, city council agendas, etc.). Which of these do you find most interesting or most promising? Which of them, in your opinion, are the essential ingredients of the emerging new journalism? They’re all interesting. They’re all promising and I think, over time, they’ll meld together. As readers use RSS more and more, they’re going to break down sites into feeds and pick and choose what they want and where they get it. That’s going to be a gradual process but it’s going to be one that’s irreversible. Look at Google’s Fusion (http://labs.google.com) and MyYahoo (http://e.my.yahoo.com) for examples.I think it’s a real mistake to assume that everyone’s going to use blogging software the same way. That’s led to all the Big Media blanket condemnation of “blogging.” That’s why I avoid the use of the term. It focuses too much on what technology you’re using, not on what you’re saying. I’ll bet in a year, only a few people call what they do “blogging.” The rest will talk about what they say, not what software they’re using.How long will it take before every city has a fleet of local reporters again covering local stories, thanks to stand-alone journalism? Or is that a pipe dream? I think it’s a pipe dream, to be very, very blunt. Citizen journalism is kind of an unformed concept right now. It seems to mean relying on local folks to cover local news: Parents writing up the PTA meeting or the soccer game, that sort of thing. There’s a place for that. But I’m not sure it gets past that. I’d love to hear more from Dan Gillmor about this. Looking at Bayosphere (http://bayosphere.com)—“of, by and for the Bay Area”—he seems to want to take small, discrete pieces of coverage and concentrate his readers’ resources and interests. That’s great. But I worry—as I do in the PTA parent’s example—about the range and reach of such and undertaking. Don’t you end up with the same folks talking to themselves all the time? Is that of interest to anyone else? How do you open it up to others?Do you see yourself producing “Politics from Left to Right” in 10 years? If so, will it have a team of writer/reporters, or primarily just you? Well, I’ve got three other writers besides me right now. They’re all behind the “magic curtain” but should be going public near the end of the summer. This is just me right now but that’s going to come to an end as soon as I can make it happen. There are lots of people far more interesting than me with a whole lot more to say on a wide range of issues. If I’m lucky, a few good ones will join me. For me, this is about voices, about new ideas. That’s the void Big Media isn’t filling and it’s one that needs to be met. That why I really do think that in 10 years, this will be a viable and profitable business serving different and new voices to a wide variety of sites (portals and aggregators) as well as individual on the web. We’re going to fill the gap that’s created every time a talented reporter or writer leaves a Big Media newsroom.Anything else I should have asked? (Does it feel weird to be interviewed via e-mail?) You could ask for basic bio details: Where do I live (San Francisco)? How old am I (over 40)? How long have I been a reporter (20 years, not counting time in school)? How is it that someone who has such lousy, sad, horrible spelling has survived in this business? (Dunno the answer to that; luck and stubbornness, I think.)And no, it doesn’t feel weird to be interviewed via email. I do it all the time (although more and more I use IM these days).