Travails in Texas: Hyperlocal Nonprofit News Site Searches for the Right Mix

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August 1, 2016; Nieman Lab

As legacy local newspapers continue their decades-long decline into oblivion, nonprofit news websites are proliferating and garnering the attention of observers across the country. Just recently, the Harvard-based Nieman Journalism Lab profiled the challenges facing the Austin Monitor, a hyperlocal Texas capital news site with just two employees.

“The calling card of the organization is that it provides all this great news for insiders. But it’s also just great news. We’re the ones at the planning commission at three in the morning, we’re the ones watching the city website for memos that are coming out on everything, you name it,” publisher Mike Kanin told Nieman.

The Monitor offers three tiers of paid subscriptions, ranging from “all-access,” which includes archives and detailed “tip sheets,” to a “keep me informed” tier that allows 10 stories a month. Currently, it has 1,264 paid subscribers and offers discounts to various nonprofits and civic volunteers, as well as free access to students.

The Monitor evolved from another publication that covered the Texas capital since 1995, starting out as a print newsletter for local politics. It went online around 2000 with a high paywall. In 2010, it was sold to Cox Media’s local daily, which in turn sold it to Kanin in 2013.

“We started out being really locally focused, and maybe not even caring much about attracting more readers. We were stubbornly covering all of the stuff nobody else covered,” editor-in-chief Elizabeth Pagano told Nieman, “We still do that to some extent, but over the past year or two, we’ve loosened up and started covering bigger issues, while still staying hyper-locally focused on city hall. We try to be a little more inviting than we used to be, with still the same depth.”

The site employs five to seven freelance contributing reporters. City hall is its “bread and butter,” but additional coverage reflects reporters’ interests as well. The new big challenge is growing the Monitor’s audience; while subscriptions generate substantial revenues, they’re not enough to fund its operations in the way Kanin and Pagano would like, such as expanding into features and analysis on a more regular basis.

Right now, the Monitor gets by on subscriptions and some foundation funding, but Kanin would like to generate more from sponsorships. He is also concerned with talk of foundation money for journalism drying up, although the site recently was awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation to map the locations where its stories are taking place.

The site generates additional revenues from such “wonky” activities as an interactive budget game night, where participants create their own budget proposals and submit them to a panel of judges. It also started a joint venture on events with local nonprofit Glasshouse Policy and will put on a series of events in the fall.

“We’re not the Texas Tribune [the successful nonprofit website that covers Texas politics, which generates considerable revenues from special events], obviously. We don’t have a dedicated events staff. But I hope the partnership will let us make this into a much bigger event, and moving to Google Fiber will help raise the profile a little bit,” Kanin said.

Content partnerships have also helped the Monitor increase readership—it has shared some stories with the Tribune and has partnered with the local NPR and PBS affiliates.

To date, the destination is not yet determined but the journey looks plenty familiar.—Larry Kaplan