Jul 292012

The continents are drifting. The icebergs are melting. And as the Times-Picayune cuts its newsroom and its circulation schedule in half after 175 proud years, it feels as though we’re a little closer to the end of the world.

The circumstances of the newspaper’s founding are worth revisiting: In 1837, two entrepreneurial printers decided to found a new newspaper that was less expensive and more innovative than the dozen other newspapers already in circulation. Over the next century and a half, the competition merged and shrank, until the Newhouse family folded the States-Item into The Times-Picayune in 1980, eliminating the last printed local daily competitor.

But as attached to the morning newspaper ritual as so many people are, the hard truth is that it has been a long time since the paper was the most efficient means of delivering the news — or even the second- or third-most efficient. Radio made the delivery of news possible at any time of day or night, and television added a visual quality that still cannot be matched in any other medium. The rise of the Internet over the last 15 years has made news articles accessible all the time for the ever-increasing numbers of people who have a connection.

(It’s worth noting that, for all its inefficiency, the printed paper may still the most elegant way of displaying the news. Commemoration is what newspapers do best, with large photos and painstakingly crafted headlines. The best day for the industry in my 10 years as a reporter was the election of President Barack Obama, when lines formed outside newspaper offices in every city in the country to buy specially-printed editions. Likewise, I’ve never lived anywhere that had so many newspaper pages adorning the walls of businesses and homes as New Orleans. When the Saints win our hometown SuperBowl next year, I am confident we’ll all have another front page to show for it.)

Another local media monopoly is not impossible, but it may be another century or two before it happens. In the meantime, on three or four days a week, New Orleanians will learn to rely on sources other than a newspaper for their news. You can already see the change even in the major news of the last week or so — for the ongoing dismantling of the newspaper, surely you have tuned in to Kevin Allman’s turn-by-turn coverage at the Gambit’s website. When Jon Johnson resigned, the only outlet that had previously written about the gist of his wrongdoing prior to his appearance at the courthouse was The Lens. And for the wave of Uptown robberies and street crime, breaking news in the District B election, the activities of your local neighborhood association, or coverage of major recent developments at local schools like Lusher, Audubon, ISL and Lycee Francais that together serve more than 4,000 children — you are most likely already reading Uptown Messenger.

* * *

Uptown Messenger has come a long way from our quiet launch in the August of 2010. Late in that month, I covered the Second District anti-crime march through Broadmoor, and Julie Graybill of the Faubourg Marengo Neighborhood Association emailed a link to the story to her mailing list. The next day, I was thrilled to see that 100 people were suddenly reading the site. Triumph!

We’ve served 1.5 million pageviews since then. Last year, we entered a reporting partnership with WWL, broadening our reach and bridging the digital divide that previously kept our reporting online-only. We’ve also recently formed an alliance with our peers in other digital newsrooms in a still-evolving alliance to promote local, online journalism. This July — prompted in no small part, I’m sure, by the announcement that the news will all be digital four days a week come fall — we broke for the first time 40,000 unique visitors, most of whom are regular, local readers. We’re no TMZ, to be sure, but it’s not bad for a website with a full-time staff of one.

Our growth, naturally, has its costs. Even on the Internet, where we don’t print a single page, higher readership translates to significantly higher expenses. Earlier this year, we outgrew our first server, and moved to a new one. This month, as traffic boomed again, we had to upgrade once more, and many of you immediately noticed our downtime and wrote in to ask what was going on. Both our daily email and our live coverage modules are third-party software, and they each cost more money as we serve more readers.

For our first two years, these operational costs have been borne entirely by our advertisers, to all of whom we are tremendously grateful. Tracey’s and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, for example, have been with us nearly since we started. As Freret Street has taken off, its business owners have been wonderful in their support for us, and we feel as though we have grown with the corridor. We’ve also been thrilled to provide an affordable platform for many small startups and nonprofits to introduce their concepts and services to our readership.

In the news business, however, there are generally two major streams of revenue — advertising paid by local businesses, and “circulation” revenue paid by readers — and the time has come for us to ask Uptown Messenger readers directly to help this enterprise grow. We have added a page to sign up for digital subscriptions, either on a monthly basis — which would be the most helpful in terms of ensuring our sustainability — or as a one-time payment, if you are more comfortable with that. Though I’ve offered some suggested levels, I’ve set no price — I’ve left that up to what you are feel is fair and affordable.

(Many journalists and industry observers are attempting to force this circulation revenue higher through creating mandatory paywalls, but we believe that at the local scale, a voluntary approach can be just as effective. Besides, the barriers to getting the news online are high enough as it is — let’s not make it any less accessible than it already is.)

What will you get for a subscription? We won’t start bringing you a Saturday paper, unfortunately, and we haven’t yet started printing T-shirts or mugs. In the immediate future, we have two goals. First, we hope be more aggressive in upgrades to the site itself. The site is based on the same technology that existed two years ago when we launched, and the age of the code is starting to show.

More importantly, we want to expand our coverage. As an individual reporter, I simply cannot cover more stories than those beats that you’ve already come to depend on us for. Even on a day of a dozen posts, I go to bed thinking of all of those that didn’t get written. New Orleans has plenty of writing talent to go around, however, and we look forward very soon to hiring freelancers who can expand our coverage of more schools, business, the arts and events — the elements that make quality of life in Uptown New Orleans so terrific. In short, what you’ll get is more Uptown news.

We’re not the only news organization that will come to you with this request, now or in the future. The Lens, for example, has operated off of donations for the entirety of its existence, and a new nonprofit venture will soon be seeking to do the same. These, too, are worthy causes — New Orleans simply needs more journalists on the streets. But if you’d like to see our approach to local news remain a part of the new landscape, please consider adding our site to the journalism that you support in the city.

And, as always, thank you for reading.

Contact Robert Morris, publisher of UptownMessenger.com, at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.

  • Uptown Larry

    Love your site — I think a lot more people would go to it if they knew about it – I stumbled over it. Keep on keepin’ on!

  • Andy Brott

    Robert Morris-
    “When a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it”- it may not make a sound, but thanks to you we can listen as it snaps, crackles, and pops.
    Once again- New Orleans is the first to face issues others will hopefully not face, and how we deal with this crisis greatly impacts the rest.
    You have my full $upport- for as much as we need- (side bar to other writers/commentators/bloggers if you want to be a journalist please follow)-
    You also MUST get paid + deal with the realities of our stupidities:
    We are blessed you work so hard on our behalf.
    Best from Freret,
    Andy Brott

  • karin giger

    great hyper local news service, well produced. thanks. i’ll mail my check for six months as had trouble accessing pay pal from your link.

  • Jeannette Hardy

    So glad to have the chance to back you, Robert. Build and expand. We’re rooting for you.

  • Congrats on all of your success and I wish you and Sabree many, many more! I’ll keep my eyes open for when you start printing those t-shirts and mugs!

  • Julie Graybill

    Feel honored to have the opportunity to support you and Sabree’s great efforts! Sending a check today. Keep up the good work, Robert!

  • anon

    When you advertise, it would be more helpful to have it randomized. Or if you can’t do that, rotate the advertisements faster. One spot change per hour if you can program that in. The reason why is because say if you have an advertiser that starts with you and have to wait two week before they get to the top of your list. You could have a news item that attracts most of the attention and the #1 spot becomes a small side item. By rotating far more frequently, the advertisers won’t be affected by the left column news items as much. Right now, it’s a crap shoot on what news items OR how many news items an advertiser is competing against when their ads reaches the top of the page.

    • UptownMessenger

      Anon – I agree completely, and we actually began working on that just last week. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • UptownMessenger

    Thanks again to everyone who’s supported us. It is really great to have such terrific readers.