Will community news sites keep growing?

A few of my newspaper editor friends have tweaked me recently about the reporting I’ve done on community news Web sites. All had the same question: Given these sites’ mostly tiny size (audience, news content, revenue), haven’t I been hyping their impact a bit?

It’s a fair question. So is a related one that also comes up. Aren’t many of these sites likely to fail because, despite valiant efforts by their creators, they’ll be unable to generate sustainable advertising revenue?

Since coming to USC Annenberg last fall, I’ve reported extensively on the rise of community Web sites, in posts at OJR like THIS and, more recently, THIS. I’ve been impressed with the smarts and commitment of people like Joel Kramer at MinnPost and Margie Freivogel at St. Louis Beacon, and many others across the country who are rapidly joining the online parade.

Will they ultimately succeed, and live up to the Page 1 national billing they’ve been getting in the last couple of months? The obvious answer is that neither I nor anyone really knows. But I’ll guess anyway.

Yes, the casualty rate will probably be high. At the moment, the revenue is too small and the hours too brutal to think otherwise. But I also believe newspaper editors are wrong to believe this trend is going away. I’m betting there will be continued proliferation of local news and information sites, not just the city-wide sites like Voice of San Diego and Baristanet, but smaller niches that focus on the arts, on science, on local schools, on sports, on neighborhoods, and much more. If there’s a premise behind my reporting, it’s that we’ve only begun to see the growth of operations such as this.

Why do I think so? It’s because I see accounts like the recent one on The Dagger Press, a nearly two-year-old site that covers news in Harford County in suburban Baltimore. A Baltimore Sun story noted that the five staffers who work there write for free, and that the news site took in all of $100 in advertising last year. Why do they do it? “It’s like an itch,” co-founder Brian Goodman told the Sun. “You can’t get the ink out of blood.” The Dagger Press isn’t alone. Two more sites, investigativevoice.com and baltimorebrew.com, have recently launched in Baltimore.

You could see the evidence as well in Denver and Seattle, when newspaper journalists leapt into the Web-only world when their dailies, the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, were folded. You could see it in Quincy, Ill., where former TV newsman Bob Gough started up QuincyNews in a town of 40,000 and began making it pay in less than a year. And you could see it in Batavia, N.Y., where a former executive of GateHouse Media, Howard Owens, recently moved his family to cast their lot with The Batavian, a Web site serving the even smaller community of 15,500.

I wish I could tell my students at USC Annenberg that these startups would all produce wages and benefits akin to those paid to newspaper reporters over the last 20 years. Most won’t, though already we’re seeing some sites pay (barely) livable wages. What they will offer is multitudinous opportunities to do journalism that makes a difference — which is why I believe community news sites will continue to blossom. Newspapers themselves are likely to be part of this revolution. This week’s decision by the Ann Arbor News to shut down its traditional newspaper operations and re-emerge as a Web-dominated newsroom is likely to be repeated in one form or another.

Will these mostly mom-and-pop community news sites effectively fill the void left by newspapers’ decline, or demise? Not anytime soon is probably the answer. But this isn’t the right question. In many ways they’ll be better than the newspaper, providing more neighborhood or special-interest information than the local daily could ever muster.

And I think they’re only going to get more plentiful. I keep hearing the voice of Tracy Record, the ferocious co-owner of West Seattle Blog, who dismissed talk that she and husband Patrick Sand would burn out from their 24/7 work schedule.

“You have to look at it like any small business,” said Record. “You kill yourself trying to get it off the ground. Stop whining about that. We have been dismissed by people saying, ‘You’re going to burn out.’ No, we’re not.”