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What It Is

The Arizona Guardian and Heat City are two examples of web-only news sites started by recently unemployed journalists.

The Arizona Guardian is run by four Phoenix-based journalists who were recently laid off from the East Valley Tribune. The Guardian covers legislative issues and other aspects of the state capitol.

Heat City is run by Nick Martin, another journalist laid off by the Tribune. The website covers criminal justice and media issues, but the centerpiece of its coverage is the trial of accused serial killer Dale Hausner.

Why It’s Innovative

These five journalists decided to keep doing their jobs even after being laid off.

Rather than turning to other newspapers, they began planning their online news sites when layoffs were announced in October. Both sites launched right after the layoffs were completed in early January.

At a time when newspapers are in trouble and the website is still, at many news organizations, an afterthought, these reporters took the brave new step and struck out online only — on their own. If they succeed, they could be examples for scores of other journalists who have been laid off recently.

Who’s Behind It

The Arizona Guardian’s editorial staff consists of four veteran journalists: Patti Epler, Paul Giblin, Mary K. Reinhart and Dennis Welch.

“All four are award-winning journalists who most recently worked at the East Valley Tribune, covering government, politics and campaigns and conducting in-depth investigations,” according to the About section of their site.

When the layoffs were announced, Epler and Reinhart started looking for alternatives to the PR escape route. They initially wanted to start a website on health care, but were stymied by the prospect of setting up their own site, managing advertisements, and filing as a non-profit to receive grants. They submitted an application for the Knight News Challenge, but did not receive the grant.

Meanwhile, Giblin and Welch were also looking for opportunities. Eventually, Reinhart and Welch got in touch with Bob Grossfeld, a media man with political experience and president of The Media Guys, Inc, a company that provides communications solutions.

Grossfeld, who owns one-fifth of Arizona Guardian, L.L.C. along with the editorial staff, takes care of the technology and business end, while the journalists focus on the journalism.

Epler said that “with newspapers laying off staff and cutting coverage areas, Arizona’s budget problems, and educational programs in trouble, the public needs to know what’s going on, and the Arizona Guardian is able to do that in a unique way.”

In the last few weeks, the editorial staff has learned to embed photos and links, and Reinhart “is especially good at finding photos for public use,” said Epler.

The Guardian has recently put up a pay wall. They’re charging $150 a month for the full-service package, and $30 a month for a limited package.

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Nick Martin

Heat City, on the other hand, is run and maintained entirely by Nick Martin.

After over a year covering state and courts at the East Valley Tribune, Martin started thinking about creating Heat City when the layoffs were announced. At age 26, Martin is what the uninitiated like to call a “digital native.” He built Heat City in just five days.

“There were a lot of stories I didn’t get to tell at a major news organization because of limits in technology or bureaucratic structure. I wanted to keep telling stories online and see where that went,” he said.

At the center of Heat City is Martin’s coverage of accused serial killer Dale Hausner’s trial. While at the Tribune, Martin was consistently blogging from trial; his posts were followed by around 5,000 regular readers. He is now continuing this work on his own.

Martin also looks at stories not being covered by other outlets. “They can write about the car crashes and City Hall happenings, [but] for the most part I’m not going to write about that,” he said, “They don’t have a live-blogger at the courthouse any more.”

He also writes about media news, something that many news organizations seem hesitant to cover.

“I can write about things I’m interested in and was blown off on by editors because they didn’t see any news value,” Martin said.

Martin considers Heat City to be an experiment, not a business venture. But it’s still a full-time job. Martin hopes “to turn Heat City into a project where other journos can post for the site as well.”

He is currently taking donations on his site, but is considering filing for non-profit status.

“The donations aren’t tax-deductible, and I think that makes people less willing to donate,” he said, “The site doesn’t have a business model, but I’ve gotten $310 in donations over about two weeks.”

Challenges

Of course, striking out without the backing provided by a major news organization comes with some bumps in the road.

At the daily paper, journalists had web, IT, marketing and advertising departments. “If we wanted video or multimedia we just assigned a videographer or the graphics guy to do it. Now we are doing that all ourselves,” said Epler.

Martin said his restrictions are financial — no more gas or parking reimbursements. He has to find different ways to do the job.

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Dennis Welch talking with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard

“It’s a real challenge to post new content seven days a week as a one man band. If there were two people it would be much easier. Some days I have eight or nine stories and other days I struggle to post one, especially on weekends,” Martin said.

Although the Guardian journalists do some of their own marketing, they have Grossfeld for backup. Martin, launching on his own, relies on his social network — both online and off — to get the word out about Heat City.

All run-up work on the sites and content had to be done on the journalist’s own time and completed right before the launch.

Moreover, without the prestige afforded by a recognized news outlet, these entrepreneurial journalists have found some sources reluctant to cooperate.

“When you don’t have an established news organization behind you it’s tougher to get recognition when reporting,” said Martin, “People drag their feet on public records, and there was one incident when I was trying to get court records, the clerks were going to charge $25 just to look at records unless I could prove a relationship with a local media organization.”

Reporters at the Guardian also reported similar difficulties. Epler told me this story about their first day on the job:

On Jan. 5, four of us came to the State Capitol and expected to be visiting press in the press room. We had already been told we couldn’t get a lease because the Senate wants to kick the press out of the press room and didn’t want to take on any new leases. We were told we could use empty desks, but at the end of the day the sergeant-at-arms said we couldn’t be in the press room, we could be in a hallway but not in the press room because we didn’t have a lease. Also without a lease we couldn’t wander the halls and talk to legislators and staff. We had to go through a First Amendment coalition, because we shouldn’t have to pay for access to our government. We’re now unofficially squatting in the press room again.

The Media in Phoenix

These online ventures are beginning as Phoenix faces a journalism crisis.

There have traditionally been two major papers covering the Phoenix area: The East Valley Tribune and The Arizona Republic. The Tribune used to cover the east half of the Valley, while The Republic covered all of the Valley plus some other areas in the state.

In October of 2008, the East Valley Tribune announced layoffs of almost half of their staff, reduced printing to four days a week and reduced their coverage to four areas of East Valley: Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek. Three of those areas are on a Forbes list of America’s 10 Most Boring Cities.

So the Phoenix area is left with a single daily newspaper, the Republic. But the Republic is facing its own struggles: layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes, hiring freezes, suburban bureaus closing. Even the website is losing readers, according to Compete.com.

At the same time that newspapers are scaling back their coverage, there’s still plenty of important news going on in the legislature — but just fewer reporters to cover it. Worse, state politicians are seeking to limit the local press’s ability to report on what happens inside the legislature.

Martin and Reinhart both said that the press corps at the Capitol are being told they will be kicked out of the press offices as of Summer 2009, supposedly because legislature needs the office space being occupied by journalists. They’ve been offered other spots in the complex, which do not have access to phone lines or Wi-Fi/broadband. Journalists are being told they are not going to have the access they used to have.

“The reason there is room for us in the press room is that people are pulling out Capitol reporting staff,” Reinhart said. “It’s at least half what it was 10 years ago.”

“It seems like every month there is some new attack on the press, trying to minimize the effectiveness of news organizations,” said Martin.

3 Questions

How do you feel about your job change?

Epler: I’m really excited about being able to continue to do important work. I really like this, I’m excited to be down here, after being an editor for the last 11 years, getting back to being a reporter which I did for 20+ years. To be out amongst the people and writing, I’m totally glad that we found a way to do this.

It’s exciting to be our own boss. If we want to do a story, we do it and if we don’t, we don’t. We don’t have to deal with the judgment of someone else; on the other hand, if we make a mistake it’s our own fault.

What’s the biggest change?

Reinhart: Editorial workflow is a big change. When one of us writes a story, we post it in the content management system and one of the others edits and publishes it. We try to get 4-6 articles up every morning so there will be new content.

Epler: As reporters for a paper you submit a story and walk away; now it’s all on us, working 24/7.

What has the response from the community been like?

Reinhart: People see the reduction in coverage on the Capitol, so the response has been hugely positive. People like the look of the site, have been impressed with features and speed, and are happy to see a new journalism effort start as opposed to shutting down.

Specs

The Arizona Guardian is built on Joomla, an open-source content management system (CMS).

Martin is using Movable Type to run Heat City. He uses Discus for comment management and Feedburner for RSS. His other tools are a camera, pen, notepad, cell phone, wireless broadband Internet card, laptop and car.

Call for more spotlights

Please let me know of any innovative projects you are working on or have seen lately. It doesn’t have to be from a major newspaper, it just has to be an innovative blend of journalism and technology. Please e-mail me at mtaylor[at]megantaylor[dot]org to submit a Spotlight recommendation.

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