Robert Morris and Sabree Hill are trained professional journalists who cover Uptown — anything and everything Uptown, from violent crime and robberies to street festivals and the ongoing brouhaha over the proposed new Walgreens on Magazine Street. That item last month about the guy whose gold tooth stopped a bullet? Morris broke that first, in a story headlined "Bang-Proof Bling."
But Morris and Hill don't publish daily, or even weekly: They publish only when there's news, and they do so on their website, Uptown Messenger (www.uptownmessenger.com) — one of a growing number of neighborhood-focused websites designed to supplant, if not replace, the daily and weekly newspapers in major cities.
Push-button publishing is as old as blogging, zines and the mimeograph machine, but Uptown Messenger and sites like it — "hyperlocal journalism" or "micronews" — are a new paradigm: news websites with an intense geographic focus, often staffed by trained journalists and relying on traditional reporting techniques and photojournalism.
"Riverbend Business-Burglary Spree Abates, But Still No Arrest," read a recent headline on Uptown Messenger, topping a story about a robber who had broken into more than a dozen businesses around Maple and Oak streets. Morris reported the story (including quotes from officers of the New Orleans Police Department's 2nd District), and Hill supplied photos. The result? A well-sourced story perhaps of little interest to New Orleans at large, but of great interest to one particular neighborhood — and the sort of crime story that might have slipped past editors confronting ever-smaller page counts.
It's obviously a great public service, particularly in a world where a lot of unemployed journalists are contemplating going into business for themselves. Morris and Hill — the parents of twin 3-year-olds — fit that description. But is micronews a financially viable new model for journalism?
Back in Jurassic-journalism days (translation: before internet and CNN), newspapers were a one-stop print source for international, national and local news. Cable networks now cover the first two with more efficiency and immediacy than newspapers, while big-city dailies, weeklies and local TV stations cover the local stuff.
But none of them have the ability (or, these days, the staff) to pinpoint individual neighborhoods well. That's where hyperlocal news comes in — on the theory that a car prowl on your block, the opening of a new restaurant down the street, or a charity car wash at your nearby synagogue is both news you can use and news you're not going to get anywhere else.
That's what Morris and Hill strive to provide their readers. "School board meetings, things like that, aren't going to be of interest to everybody in the city," Hill says. "But for parents with children at that school, it's very important."
Recent stories on Uptown Messenger include an account of the city cleaning vacant lots Uptown, controversy over a corner store seeking an alcohol-sale permit and photo galleries of St. Charles Avenue Mardi Gras parades. On Mar. 17, the site printed a story of vital interest to Uptowners: a sharp spike in the number of rape cases reported to the police in the 2nd District, which covers much of Uptown.
"I think the core of what we want to do is just sort of public life — public safety is very important, particularly in New Orleans," Morris says.
"We don't have guidelines," Hill says. "We're able to publish as much as we want. What I love that we've been able to do is report on the emotional side of things — how a murder is affecting a family. Stuff like that."
For the first time in history, more Americans are getting their news from the Internet than from traditional newspapers. That was one of the findings issued last week in the "State of the Media," an annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "In a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public's changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user." In other words: micronews.
Then, of course, there's the collapse of the traditional newspaper industry.
Ann Arbor, Mich. — home to the University of Michigan — has a population on par with Orleans Parish, with about 350,000 people living in the Ann Arbor metro area. It's also the first American city of its size not to have a daily newspaper. In 2009, the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News was closed by its owner, Advance Publications (publisher of, among other papers, The Times-Picayune). Declining ad revenue was cited as the cause. In its place arose AnnArbor.com, a news website that prints a companion newspaper twice a week: a sort of macro-micronews site.
Micronews sites are flourishing around the country, says Jessica Durkin, who studies hyperlocal news operations as a Knight media policy fellow with the New America Foundation.
Durkin was a reporter for the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune until she was laid off in 2009. "I was one reporter covering five towns, which wasn't unusual," she says. "You can't be everywhere, and so much gets lost."
Durkin thought about setting up her own local news website, but the more she read other micronews websites from around the country, the more interested she became in the phenomenon itself. Her interest led to her own site, In Other News (www.inothernews.us), an online directory of micronews websites — what she says is "a website tracking a compilation of online, independent journalistic start-ups in the wake of legacy media layoffs and industry shrinkage." Durkin has found dozens of them across the country, many staffed by former journalists who left "legacy media" due to either layoffs or general disgust.
That describes both Morris and Hill. He worked at various papers around the country, doing a variety of editorial jobs, before landing at the Houma Courier after Hurricane Katrina. Hill, whose background is photojournalism, arrived at the Houma paper around the same time. But both felt drawn to New Orleans, and they hatched a plan for a website that would cover just one neighborhood as rigorously as they'd covered anything else. Uptown Messenger debuted in November 2009.
Like Gambit and many other newspapers, Morris and Hill adhere to the ethics standards set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, but neither is a member of the Louisiana Press Association or New Orleans Press Club. "We'd rather pour the money back into the site," Morris says.
Hill also sells ads for Uptown Messenger, which is a no-no in the traditional newspaper world but a fact of life at most hyperlocals. Hill says the ads she sells serve a community-service purpose as well as a financial one; when she had tried in the past to market her own wedding-photography business with banner ads on traditional newspaper websites, she found it cost-prohibitive. On Uptown Messenger, it costs a business $100 to have an ad featured for a month.
Durkin says it's not an ideal situation to have journalists selling ads, but nothing in journalism is as clear-cut as it used to be. "There are discussions among the publishers (of these sites)," she says. "But most of these people either come from a journalism background and respect journalism ethics or understand the need to keep it separate.
"What's the alternative? No reporting at all?" she asks rhetorically. "They're adding to the information ecosystem, which is vital."
Not surprisingly, some bigger swimmers are testing the micronews waters. The online Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington, now has four local editions (Chicago, New York, Denver and Los Angeles), setups with a local contact and a string of mostly unpaid freelancers and bloggers. In 2009, AOL spent millions to acquire Patch, a two-year-old network of more than 600 hyperlocal news sites in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Last month, AOL spent more than $300 million to acquire the Huffington Post, and the combined companies are expected to expand their hyperlocal operations aggressively over the next year.
There have been failures, some of them high-profile. The San Diego (Calif.) News Network (SDNN) (www.sdnn.com) launched in March 2009 with a roster of 50 reporters, editors and stringers. It entered the market boasting news partnerships with local community papers as well as a TV station, and quickly opened satellite offices to cover neighboring Orange and Riverside counties. One year later, the Orange County office laid off its entire staff and SDNN announced it was searching for a buyer. By July 2010 — 16 months after its splashy launch — SDNN was defunct.
And earlier this month, AnnArbor.com, considered a pioneering model for online city journalism, laid off 14 people — nearly half its newsroom.
Morris and Hill say their small size keeps them nimble and their costs low. (Morris also has taken a part-time job at Tulane University and has recused himself from covering the university.) There's already a good number of advertisers on Uptown Messenger, including Uptown restaurants, real estate agents, artisans and a church, nestled next to a thorough community calendar listing meetings from both City Council and a cookbook club.
Durkin says these are good signs for Uptown Messenger's long-term viability. "The most successful (hyperlocals) share three characteristics," she says. "Not trying to compete against traditional media, a focus on a narrow geographical area — they become the eyes and ears within their boundaries — and extreme dedication. People who do this partway, it's not going to take off."
Morris and Hill say they're in it for the long haul, and have registered a second domain called NOLA Messenger (www.nolamessenger.com). If their Uptown model works, it's not hard to imagine a geographically focused Messenger for other neighborhoods in the city. Right now, though, Morris says, they'd rather concentrate on expanding Uptown Messenger by continuing to follow previously reported stories and perhaps explore some investigative reporting.
And, of course, they want more readers. Currently Morris and Hill offer a daily email digest for subscribers, and they're active on Facebook and Twitter. The social media playing field is an equal one, whether you're The New York Times or a neighborhood website — and a look at Uptown Messenger's Twitter feed shows their news tweets are being read in nearly every TV newsroom in town, as well as by Gambit, The Times-Picayune and other local publications.
But how can a couple of independent reporters compete against a juggernaut like AOL's Patch? Very well, according to Durkin.
"It's cookie-cutter," she says of Patch and the Huffington Post city sites. "It's a big weakness of traditional media as well. What's very refreshing is that these startup sites have their own personality, down to the design of the page."
In other words: Arianna and Patch, watch out.