Bit by bit, “Block by Block,” small online news publishers find their way

Block by Block graphic

I discovered last week that I’m not alone – there are dozens of entrepreneurs across the United States who are charting a new course in the universe of online journalism.

I knew that, of course, but sometimes, hunkered over my laptop in workaholic mode as chief bottle washer at, the enterprise can seem isolating. It’s a hyperbolic comparison, I realize, but sometimes the experience can feel like pioneering. On a daily basis, I’m exploring new territories (a good day) or floating like an astronaut in outer space (a bad day). Like a lot of other introverted newsroom types who have zero business experience, I’m learning to conquer my fear of the unknown.

When I started last September with the help of our fiscal sponsor, Paul Bass of the Online Journalism Project, a small group of dedicated volunteers, and donations from the Haymarket People’s Fund and the Vermont Community Foundation, it was shot in the dark. I had no idea whether an online news organization dedicated to statewide coverage of politics and public policy issues in Vermont would attract readers, let alone financial support from business sponsors, donors and funders.

A year later, I can attest that is on to something. Our coverage of the Statehouse, politics and public policy issues has been recognized by other media outlets; we have a core group of volunteers who help to write and edit stories and develop the Web site; we have attracted a following of 11,500 unique readers a month; we have received sponsorship support from several small nonprofits and Cabot Creamery; and we have been awarded several more grants, including support from the Harris and Frances Block Foundation and an award from J-Lab for Tipster, our special interactive platform, which is now in the development phase.

As moves into its second year of operation, we are trying to figure out how to make enough money to support a bonafide news operation.

So far, I’ve learned the hard way, through piecemeal experimentation, just like my 80 compatriots who attended the Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago on Sept. 27 and 28.

That’s because there is no playbook for creating a financially viable news Web site, and the old guide to profitable newspapering might as well be thrown out. The media industry has been turned upside down, and no one really knows what kind of business model will sustain journalism now that the traditional advertising model has fallen apart.

Read the Block by Block survey of community media outlets.

At Block by Block, publishers from around the country started to formulate what could become the introduction to that missing how-to guide. Most of the publishers in attendance operate “hyperlocal” sites that cover a neighborhood, suburb or town, or that fill a niche in the larger media landscape. Michele McLellan, a journalist and fellow at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, who hosted the summit with Jay Rosen, the author of PressThink, brought new media entrepreneurs together in an attempt to sort out what’s working and what isn’t -- in the real world.

For a day and a half, we talked about how we do what we do. Ironically, perhaps, we didn’t discuss the art of news reporting all that much – largely because that’s our area of expertise. Instead, the laser-like focus of our big meet-up at Loyola University was revenue generation, marketing, community engagement and collaboration.

The summit was a face-to-face version of crowdsourcing. There weren’t any big-time outside speakers – we were, in the aggregate, the main affair. The event was organized around a very loose, unconference-style format, in which we were encouraged to trade tips and suggestions based on our successes and to tell cautionary tales about our failures. Here is a short list of main “learnings”: How to let readers have more of a say in what stories are reported; why it’s essential to apply standards of transparency to our Web sites; how to get over our phobias about asking businesses, donors and readers for money; how to build community engagement around news and information.

Michele McLellan

Many of the participants, particularly the large number of those in the crowd who run one-man bands, a.k.a. sole proprietorships, admitted that they felt overworked, underpaid, understaffed and burned out. Some confessed to barely sleeping. Many said they monitor police blotters, forums, twitter feed and e-mails every waking moment.

So what motivates people to go to all this trouble? Speaking for myself, it’s hard to say. Vision? Insanity? Dedication to journalistic values? Sheer bullheadedness? Fire in the belly? A perverse need to ask public officials impertinent questions? In my case, each descriptive pops up in turn.

On the whole, there is no question that new media entrepreneurs care deeply about enhancing community life and the role of journalism in American democracy. The journalists in the room were compared with starving artists. Their work was deemed a “labor of love.” No one, however, including the many academics and foundation representatives present, seemed to think the volunteerism-based paradigm would support the bulwark of journalism in our democracy over the long term.

The burning question was: How can news Web sites make money?

Ironically, affirmation that independent Web publishers have the potential to draw enough financial support through advertising or sponsorships was sitting right there in the conference room. Representatives from, the new AOL nationwide hyperlocal initiative (coming soon to a hometown near you), and Yahoo were on hand to observe the proceedings, which caused some consternation among “indigenous bloggers” (the most interesting descriptive of local publishers I heard over the course of the summit). Though it was difficult to see how either major corporation could
see dollar signs where we saw long hours and passionate community commitment. But in a way, their presence reinforced the notion that our labor, however noble and lovingly bestowed, isn’t enough. We need to eat, too.

I came away from Block by Block with an understanding that the road ahead isn’t going to be a paved highway, but it’s no longer a goat path in the wilderness. Others, braver and more astute than I, have bushwhacked the trail.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2.8 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 32. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.


Follow Anne on Twitter @GallowayVTD

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