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Prof. Kennedy’s new book examines a new business model for news delivery

Professor Dan Kennedy’s recently released book, “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” analyzes a new business model for community journalism — a successful Web-based newspaper, the New Haven Independent.

The Independent was founded in 2005 by Paul Bass, a longtime New Haven journalist. The website supports itself through foundation grants, individual donors and corporate sponsors. Besides its staff of veteran journalists, the site welcomes comments from readers.

Kennedy will talk about his book on Oct. 9 12 p.m., 421 Snell Library.

Q. Why were you interested in publishing a book about the New Haven Independent?

Kennedy.  When I started doing my research in the spring of 2009, I actually considered something much broader — a survey of many different types of online journalism projects both in the United States and abroad. At one point, during a trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan, I even interviewed the Central Asia editor of Global Voices Online, a site that curates citizen media. At that point I figured the New Haven Independent might be the subject of one chapter, or maybe just part of a chapter.

That fall, though, I realized that by going deep and telling the story of the Independent in some detail, I could write a better and more meaningful book. For one thing, the site was ambitious journalistically in a way that most of the projects I had looked at were not. For another, New Haven is a wonderful, fascinating city — and it’s close enough to Boston that I was able to schedule numerous reporting trips. Finally, I’ve been passionate about community journalism going back to the 1980s, when I was a reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, Mass.

“The Wired City” is not solely about the New Haven Independent. I also look at some other local and regional sites that are doing good work, including CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror, both of which cover state politics and public policy, and The Batavian, Baristanet and Voice of San Diego, community sites based in western New York, northern New Jersey and southern California respectively. But New Haven is the touchstone.

Q. When did you begin research for your book?

Kennedy. As I said, I began researching “The Wired City” in the spring of 2009, and I visited New Haven a number of times in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In a sense, though, my research began during my years as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, where I worked from 1991 through 2005. It was then that I learned how to report on the media and to think about the importance of journalism in a democratic society.

Toward the end of my time at the Phoenix, and later as a media writer for CommonWealth magazine and The Guardian, the traditional news business began falling apart, and new forms of digital journalism were beginning to take their place. Those were all experiences I was able to draw on in researching my book.

Q. How did the management of the Independent feel about your project?

Kennedy.  The Independent is a small operation comprising four full-time journalists and some freelancers. I had the full cooperation of Paul Bass. I found him to be incredibly open, as he readily shared documents and financial information with me. He views the Independent as something of an experiment, and he wants others to be able to learn from what he and his staff are doing.

I also accompanied Bass and his reporters on stories, which really gave me a good sense of how the Independent operates and how it is seen in the community.

Q. As we know, circulation and advertising revenue is down for most traditional community newspapers. Can you comment on the success of the Independent as a model for the future of the business of reporting community news?

Kennedy. As a nonprofit news organization, the Independent is largely funded through foundation grants and donations. That model is working in New Haven and in a handful of other places. But it could well be that not every community can support nonprofit news. The IRS has also slowed down its approval of nonprofit status for news organizations.

Innovative for-profit news sites such as The Batavian, Baristanet and CT News Junkie demonstrate that nonprofit is not the only road to the future. As the Internet analyst Clay Shirky has said, we need a variety of models as we move into to the post-newspaper era — for-profit, nonprofit and voluntary efforts.

Q. Do you think online news sites can sustain themselves on grants and donations alone or are there future plans to include advertising?

Kennedy. The New Haven Independent already carries some advertising in the form of sponsorships from local colleges, medical institutions, businesses and the like. For-profit sites carry a lot of advertising. For instance, The Batavian is supported by more than 100 local advertisers, from funeral homes and tattoo parlors to restaurants, drug stores and real-estate offices.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, likes to say that advertising is a form of content every bit as interesting to readers as news stories. In looking at The Batavian’s ads, you really get a sense of what sort of community the site covers. And, of course, the advertisers pay for the journalism.

The real question is whether any of these sites will every try charging readers online subscription fees. Despite some halting attempts at charging voluntary fees, the publishers of all of these sites say they are committed to free access. And, so far, at least, they’ve been able to make a go of it.

Q. I know that the Independent eliminated reader comments. I read a piece by you at the Nieman Journalism lab in which you explained what happened. Why do you think they wanted to do this and what changed their minds?

Kennedy. The Independent takes comments seriously. At their best, the comments provide a civil environment in which to discuss the news, building a sense of civic engagement. Although the Independent allows anonymous comments, Paul Bass has always insisted on screening all comments before they’re posted to make sure they’re not libelous, racist or just wildly offensive.

Unfortunately, following a contentious mayoral election in 2011, the comments got more and more vitriolic — and in early 2012, the Independent got overwhelmed, and accidentally approved some hateful comments. Bass shut down the comments for a few weeks and did a rethink. He turned them back on only after instituting some new policies, including a requirement that commenters register under the real name — although they could still post anonymously.

By contrast, Howard Owens requires commenters to use their real names at The Batavian. Personally, I lean toward a real-names policy, which I’ve instituted at my own blog, Media Nation. I can understand why Bass allows anonymity, though. Otherwise, police officers, teachers and other community stakeholders might be afraid of retribution.

Q. How do you think your book will contribute to the advancement of new ways to deliver community news?

Kennedy. More than anything, I hope “The Wired City” will give readers a sense of optimism about the future of local journalism. There is no single solution to the ongoing decline of the newspaper business, but the New Haven Independent shows that one type of project in one city is working well. And the other projects I write about show that the Independent’s model is not the only one that is succeeding.

I close with a brief look at yet another model — cooperatively owned news sites, along the lines of food co-ops and credit unions. Tom Stites, the founder of the Banyan Project, is hoping to seed news co-ops in underserved communities across the country. People would become members by contributing money, labor or both. Banyan’s first pilot, to be called Haverhill Matters, is scheduled to launch later this year in Haverhill, Mass. I’m following the launch, and I hope news co-ops emerge as a yet another useful idea.

It’s sometimes said that society doesn’t need newspapers — it needs journalism. I hope that what readers take away from “The Wired City” is that local journalism is alive and well, even if, increasingly, it looks very different from how it looked a generation ago.