Thursday, May 28, 2009

Discovered - Howard Owens and TheBatavian.com

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I really wanted to go to a summit on the future of journalism held at Centennial College today, but thought I couldn't go because it was invitation only. Then I remembered that I "work" at the CBC. So I asked my boss if I could cover it. He said yes, I got a press pass, and I spent a perfectly lovely day listening to various important online news folks talk about what the heck we're going to do with this crazy interweb thing and the fact it doesn't make us any money.

A lot of interesting things came out of it. I'm doing a feature on it for CBC.ca and will spend most of tomorrow writing about those interesting things, so I'll just link to that later instead of going into it now. What I want to write about now is Howard Owens of TheBatavian.com.

The reason I want to tell you about him is because instead of spending his time blogging about how Google killed the newspaper star, he came up with a solution. As of June, he will be making a living solely off his website, which publishes local news for a town of about 60,000 people in New York state. Here he is:

That's right: It's possible. It can be done. Put the noose back in the drawer and break out the champagne, J-kids: There's a chance we're not going to starve to death.

He was helped along by a few major things. First, he started out with a $5000 a month advertising budget from GateHouse Media, where he worked when he came up with the business model for the site. Second, he knew how to be his own web developer. Third, he has no kids and his wife helps him run the site.

Still, though, I think it's possible to replicate his basic model without an outside advertising budget, html knowledge, or a wife. This is the model: Find a town with a local newspaper that doesn't have a website, or has a really bad one. Preferably have existing ties to said town. Aim to cover the news better and faster than the local newspaper. Make promoting the community and local businesses your mission.

I find one of his strategies for making money particularly brilliant. When he approaches a local business about buying an advertising spot on the site and they say no, he asks if they'll give him a couple hundred bucks in gift certificates instead. Then he writes a post selling the gift certificates for half price. Boom - Business gets customers into their store and trying their stuff, and he gets the money from the sales.

Some people at the conference session were uncomfortable with this concept and thought it mixed advertising and content too much. I agree with his response - People aren't stupid. They know the gift certificate sale isn't a news story. It's an ad.

I also like his philosophy on the principle of journalistic objectivity. Owens is a libertarian. He is on a mission to promote local businesses and bring down chains. He says this is "overtly political." But he also reports The News, in a traditional sense. And this works online, and it works in his local context. And I think it's neat.

So anyway, rejoice away.

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