From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered Twitter, citizen journalism, alternative models for newspapers and other topics. This week I’ll look at the local watchdog news sites.

Background

Probably the biggest question in journalism circles these days is: What’s going to happen to hard-nosed local reporting as newspapers shrink and close?

The answer is happening in so many places online that it’s hard to count them all up. There are place-blogs, citizen journalism reports, video outfits, podcasts, and Twitter feeds galore. Each of them might do a smidgen of original reporting, but some of the most interesting local reporting comes from a crop of newish local websites that include newspaper refugees and usually some form of reader donation or non-profit model. Not surprisingly, the people who did all that hard-nosed reporting at newspapers might well be the people who continue to do the reporting — albeit in stripped-down, possibly virtual newsrooms, with less overhead costs and less pay.

As each metro newspaper downsizes and cuts staff, those reporters are considering their next moves. These sites offer a temporary safe haven for reporters, a chance to not only continue to do reporting, but to do it online in new ways. Rather than write sparingly for the print newspaper, they can now blog more frequently about more subjects and write longer pieces. They might take photos and video to go along with their text stories. And surely they will have more contact with the readership through online comments, forums and other community outreach efforts.

The problem is that many of these new sites simply repurpose the newspaper model: run the same types of newspaper stories you see in print without taking advantage of the web. Most could use better eye-catching designs online and tend to be very text-heavy. Plus, few of these sites are doing the kind of database and map mash-ups that are a hallmark of the new brand of online journalism that brings readers back.

What about their business models? Everyone complains that online revenues cannot replace the lost print revenues at newspapers. These sites are trying everything to survive: pay walls, reader donations, grants, millionaire sugar daddies, ads, crowdfunding, and more. And that’s what it will take. No one can say for sure which combination of revenues will sustain a local watchdog site, but they are at least taking the first step and trying something. (Already, INDenver Times has lost its initial financial backers and has dropped its plan for a pay wall on premium content.)

The following roundup is a guide to some of the better known local news sites run largely by traditional newspaper reporters, doing mainly original reporting. This list will surely grow over time as newspapers continue to trim staff and communities demand that their information needs are met. (You can have your say on your own community’s info needs for a Knight Commission report that’s seeking public input.)

Local Watchdog News Sites

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Arizona Guardian
Launch Date: January 2009
Staff Size: 4

Business Model: The Guardian recently put up a pay wall. They’re charging $150 per month for the full-service package, and $30 a month for a limited package. The four main journalists and the publisher are equal owners in the venture.

Biggest Story: Shortly after its launch, the site reported that:

Senate officials are denying access to lawmakers’ offices and even the Capitol press room to some media organizations that don’t have a lease with the Senate. And, despite a much-ballyhooed budget shortfall and extra space available in the press room, Senate officials refuse to issue any new leases, even short-term through the end of the upcoming legislative session. The ban on some reporters primarily affects the Arizona Guardian staff, which started operations at the Capitol on Monday. Arizona Capitol Times reporters, who also do not lease space from the Senate, are still allowed to roam the halls outside of lawmakers’ offices and but can’t use the desks in the press room.

Site Features: Bare-bones approach to state capital, government and politics reporting. Most famously, reporter Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize recently for his work at the East Valley Tribune, and both he and his editor there Patti Epler have co-founded the Guardian in the wake of layoffs. On the site, there’s also a calendar, Amazon bookshelf, feeds from local newspaper sites and a Twitter feed.

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Chi-Town Daily News
Launch Date: 2005
Staff Size: 4 reporters, 4 freelancers and 100 unpaid contributors

Business Model: 501©(3) public charity that depends on reader donations. The site also got a grant from the Knight Foundation and editor Geoff Dougherty has blogged about the site on Idea Lab.

Biggest Story: According to site founder Geoff Dougherty:

City officials recently decided to close four mental health clinics on Chicago’s South Side, and claimed the move was due to state budget cutbacks. The Daily News, using Freedom of Information requests, obtained hundreds of pages of correspondence between the city and state. It showed the closures came after the city had failed to bill the state for mental health services for more than six months. The city, against state advice, had installed a new computer system that was incapable of providing required billing information to the state. Hours after the Daily News published an article detailing the billing glitch, and the city’s misleading statements about the problem, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley put the closures on hold.

Site Features: Photo gallery, blog farm, events calendar, and podcasts. Plus, there’s a Google Map app showing stories covered by neighborhood that you can customize to your location. Chi-Town Daily News has a focus on no-frills coverage of municipal government and politics.

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Crosscut (Seattle)
Launch Date: April 2, 2007
Staff Size:: Currently 5, plus 40 freelance writers

Business Model: Non-profit model, supported by advertising, membership donations, and grants.

Biggest Story: In 2007, the site broke the news that e-tailing giant Amazon was planning to move to huge new development in Seattle.

Site features: Clicker is a curated aggregation of news stories across Northwest. News coverage as traditionally practiced by mainstream media outlets coexists with advocacy journalism and opinion. Crosscut is a general-interest news site, with coverage ranging over politics, business, arts and lifestyle, and the world of ideas. It does thoughtful and fresh analysis of the important issues of the day, not routine breaking news.

“Crosscut finds and highlights the best local journalism and the best local commentary, whether it’s the work of the biggest metropolitan daily newspaper or a part-time blogger,” said site founder David Brewster. “We link to whoever’s got the best stuff, focusing on good journalism not ideological consistency. Other media sites aren’t likely to steer you to a competitor’s version of news, even if it’s better.”

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GrossePointeToday.com (Michigan)
Launch Date: March 2009
Staff: 20 displaced, retired and otherwise available professional journalists write and edit content from citizen contributors and online journalism students at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Business Plan: Non-profit. The site plans to get a 30% commission on all advertising sold by a 35-year-old, highly successful community directory called “The Little Blue Book.” The site also won a $25,000 grant from the J-Lab’s New Voices, which will be seeding similar projects around the U.S.

Site Features: Focus on local and community journalism, with profiles and “Where are they now?” style features on local people in the Grosse Pointe, Mich., area.

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Heat City (Phoenix)
Launch Date: January 5, 2009
Staff: Nick Martin

Business Model: Donations.

Biggest Story: According to Heat City founder Nick Martin:

Earlier this year, Heat City broke a story that a local mayor was being criminally investigated on suspicion of trying to poison his wife. There are indications that other local media knew about the investigation but chose not to write about it for fear of diving into the muck. The mayor eventually lost his re-election bid, and local newspapers finally caught up with Heat City on the reporting.

Site Features: Since its launch, the site has largely focused on the trial of serial killer Dale Hausner, who was convicted last month of six murders and sentenced to death. The so-called Serial Shooter trial section of the site marks the most comprehensive reporting about the trial, including an annotated map. Heat City also has featured numerous stories about the tribulations of local media during current economic hardships.

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INDenver Times (Denver)
Launch Date: March 16, 2009
Staff: At the present time, INDT is being staffed by 30 journalists and editors from the Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s oldest daily newspaper which closed its doors on February 27 of this year. Other journalists are INDT contributors.

Business Model: Unclear presently. There was a plan for a paid wall for a premium tier of content (including “insight, perspective, live blogging and commenting”), but that plan has been put on hold as they only reached 3,000 paid subscribers toward their goal of 50,000. Plus, the initial financial backers of the site dropped out because of the large staff size.

Biggest Story: According to INDT spokesman Casey Nikoloric:

We have broken a number of stories and run exclusives on others. We have brought a unique voice to many more…David Milstead ran an exclusive story about a number of Colorado banks with high levels of problem assets. Mary Chandler was first and exclusive with a story about preservation of Denver’s Civic Center and plans to restore historic areas in the civic core of Denver.

Site Features: Mainly breaking news, opinion that you would see on a typical newspaper site. There’s an “INsider Channel” that is for paid subscribers only, and includes live chats with staffers every weekday. Future plans were for a customized home page, mobile apps and daily news alerts, but everything is in jeopardy until financial backers are found.

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MinnPost
Launch Date: November 2007
Staff Size: About 15 staff or contract reporters, and numerous freelancers.

Business Model: Tax-exempt 501©(3) non-profit. Advertising and sponsorships. Foundation support. More than 1,400 membership donations. Micro-donations for the site’s most popular blog Braublog. Launched with partial funding from the Knight Foundation.

Biggest Story: According to MinnPost editor and CEO, Joel Kramer:

The story I’m most proud of is: Attorneys and other subordinates in the state attorney general’s office described working for former attorney general Mike Hatch and current AG Lori Swanson as hellish, featuring verbal abuse and pressure to do things they believed were unethical. The story is here.

Site Features: Basic breaking news along with what they call “posts,” which are informal conversations with readers that will be built around original reporting and not just opinions. There are also reporter blogs by David Brauer, Eric Black and others that include reporting and more frequent posting. There are also videos and a Twitter feed.

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New Haven Independent (Connecticut)
Launch Date: September 6, 2005
Staff: 5 full-time, 2 half-time, several more on contract, plus freelancers.

Business Model: According to the About page, “This site relies on three sources of revenue: grants from foundations to support specific areas of reporting, such as health care, similar to the way that National Public Radio obtains charitable grants to support independent reporting; general ongoing sponsorship grants from institutions; and donations from readers.”

Biggest Story: According to editor Paul Bass:

The biggest stories have been: Rampant favoritism and illegality in the city’s towing system, leading to systemic reform; the pilfering of an estate, which led to money being returned…Mostly though our site is driven by breaking daily local news stories that spark wide-ranging, diverse community debates.

Site features: A great interactive crime map; in-depth reader debates on stories; a reader typo-catching competition. There’s also a self-serve community calendar. The site also utilizes the SeeClickFix service, where people write in about problems, it’s mapped and then official responses are tracked.

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New West
Launch Date: 2005
Staff Size: 5 full-time, 4 part-time staffers, plus various freelancers and contract editors and contributors.

Business Model: According to the site FAQ by founder/editor Jonathan Weber: “Online advertising is the core of the model, yes. However we also have several other revenue lines, including a small indoor advertising business, a custom-publishing business, and a conference & events business. Multiple revenue streams are a lovely thing. It remains difficult to make money on online advertising alone unless and until you have boatloads of traffic, and it is especially difficult to achieve that with a local site.”

Biggest Story: New West won an Online Journalism Award for the multi-part story, Sex, Money and Meth Addiction: Inside the World of the Dasen Girls, focusing on local businessman Dick Dasen’s arrest on prostitution charges. (You can read more about the award and the site in its early years here.) Also, there’s been a series on resort bankruptcies, including Boom & Bankruptcy: The Story of the Yellowstone Club by Jonathan Weber.

Site Features: News features and opinion pieces, with an overall regional site, as well as smaller local sites covering Missoula, Mont.; Bozeman, Mont.; Boise; and Sun Valley, Idaho. There are also special events pages, and an Unfiltered blog.

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The Public Press (San Francisco)
Launch Date: July 2007 (relaunched February 2009)
Staff Size: One paid editor and about 25 volunteers.

Business Model: According to editor Michael Stoll:

In the first phase, we’re funded by individual donations and foundation grants. In the long term we are building a membership model along the lines of public broadcasters. We intend to remain advertising-free after the launch of our print edition, earning most of our revenue from membership subscriptions and paper sales.

Biggest Story: The mounting concern in public policy circles that the $3 billion California made available for stem-cell research could be made obsolete by the Obama administration’s reversal on federal funding, as well as scientific advances.

Site Features: In-depth stories on public policy and social trends; a news tracker, following significant stories across the Bay Area and the Media Reformer Blog, documenting advances in new media storytelling forms and business models.

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Spot.us
Launch Date: November 10, 2008
Staff: David Cohn and Kara Andrade.

Business model: Has seed funding from the Knight Foundation, and founder David Cohn writes about the site on Idea Lab. Cohn plans to ask for reader donations to sustain the site every time someone donates toward a story being produced.

Biggest story: According to founder Cohn:

The biggest story will be an investigation into problems at the Oakland police department — coming out soon. Of currently published stories, the most important was a look at the Return of the Hooverville which we published six weeks before the NY Times and three weeks before Oprah brought it to national attention.

Site Features: The site allows journalists to create a story pitch that is then funded in $25 increments by the public. If it reaches full funding, the story then gets produced and is published on Spot.us and any other media outlet that wants to carry it. If a media outlet wants exclusive rights to a story, they can pay back all the funders and run it exclusively. The site so far covers only the San Francisco Bay Area.

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SF Appeal (San Francisco)
Launch Date: March 6, 2009.
Staff Size: 14 contributors, 1 photographer, 1 videographer, 5 interns.

Business Model: Initially funded by founder, Eve Batey; ad-supported.

Biggest Story: According to Batey:

Our biggest story we broke as about the San Francisco Chronicle union hoping an outside investor will purchase the paper. We were the first to cover the detail that every Muni-based call to 311 cost Muni $1.96.

Site Features: Focus on news and opinion about culture and entertainment, as well as business, technology and real estate. Use of large photos, as well as some videos and links to outside news sources.

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St. Louis Beacon
Launch Date: Spring 2008
Staff Size: 17.

Business Model: Non-profit, online-only regional news site. Primary support currently comes from St. Louis-area donors. Other current revenue sources include foundations and advertising.

Biggest Story: According to editor Margaret Freivogel:

We’re especially proud of our mortgage crisis project and related economic coverage, which explored St. Louis’ situation in the larger context and explained the roots of the crisis by looking at individuals’ experiences.

Site Features: Varied news on topics such as politics, the economy, health and science, as well as lifestyle and the arts. There’s also links to outside news sources for national and international topics of interest to locals. There’s a Voices section with blogs, cartoons and reader commentaries. The site is partnered with local public TV station, KETC, and uses American Public Media’s Public Insight Network to recruit more sources for stories.

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The Tyee (Vancouver, BC)
Launch Date: November 2003.
Staff Size: 10.

Business Model: Advertising, reader donations and foundation funding. In 2006, the site raised $36,000 in reader donations to set up fellowships for investigative reporters. The site recently raised $23,500 in donations from readers who were invited to help direct areas of election issues coverage, an experiment that made news across Canada and elsewhere.

Biggest Stories: According to Tyee editor David Beers:

The Tyee launched the 100-Mile Diet, which had become a global local eating phenomenon. The site regularly breaks high profile news stories for British Columbia, including an expose of inadequate dykes along the Fraser River that led to a major reconstruction, and a political scandal around illegal donations to a political party, which became the top story of the 2005 provincial election.

Site Features: The site focuses on political news, solutions and investigative reporting, with some arts and entertainment. There are numerous regular columns as well as BC Blogs and a political blog called The Hook. Many stories include audio that are available as podcasts.

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Voice of San Diego
Launch Date: February 9, 2005
Staff Size: Launched with 4, currently 11. Will add a reporter this summer to total 12.

Business Model: Hybrid that combines the non-profit fundraising model employed by public broadcasting (grants and donations, but no government funding) and online advertising.

Biggest Story: According to editor Andrew Donohue:

An investigation into the city of San Diego’s public redevelopment agencies uncovered a rogue system of forgotten government, underscored by a lucrative, clandestine bonus system and conflicts of interests between developers and top officials. The stories have spurred widespread reforms, forced resignations and firings, resulted in federal grand jury investigations and recently won the IRE Award for investigative reporting online.

The Voice of San Diego has also had many other similar successes. For example, an expose showed that the police chief had been grossly understating the city’s most important crime statistics on television and in front of the City Council for years, and earlier this month the site exposed a multi-million real estate scam.

Site Features: A mix of in-depth, full-length news stories and individual news and opinion blogs kept by staff and contributors. There’s also Cafe San Diego, a blog with community input, as well as multimedia in Voice Noise though not as many recent videos.

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn to help us build this Guide. Do you read or run a similar local watchdog site with mostly original reporting? What about local sites based in other countries? Send along your own Guide entries in the comments and we’ll add them to the list with a credit to you.

Additional research and reporting for this Guide by Mike Rosen-Molina.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian.