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Is there such a thing as a sustainable local news web site?

In my opinion - definitely!

The crisis has hit all the media outlets – both the traditional and the new media – almost without exception, but its most serious effect has been felt by the local media. While the news are abundant about earthquakes and their consequences in Kraljevo, Japan and Libya, floods in the USA, the financial crisis in Greece or the traffic collapse in Belgrade, citizens living in poor municipalities in Serbia have no news platforms available to them – no newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, web sites. Deprived of any journalistic products or effort, these citizens cannot even be informed about local price raises when their Municipal Assemblies decide to raise the cost of communal services.

Since human messengers have been retired long ago, we arrive to the conclusion that in the age of widespread availability of various news channels, the citizens of this country can easily access information about the launch of the Space Shuttle, but almost nothing about their existential issues. The paradox is painfully obvious.

The local media – what is it?

Since journalism at the local level is a difficult job that is intellectually demanding and immensely stressful and, perhaps even more importantly, since it is financially unsatisfying even in the places where it still exists, this situation is not surprising. Good journalists are striving to move to other media outlets or, even more often, to different work positions, while understaffed editorial offices offer their readers/listeners/visitors substandard and boring content. These processes result in closures of many weakened and gradually ruined media outlets.

We will not analyze the causes of this systemic failure of the local media: it has been evident for a long time. In many municipalities in Serbia, people cannot even remember the time when local journalists were around. The major media outlets do not offer local information, except when it relates to disasters and accidents. Positive news are increasingly a rarity that is considered less interesting i.e. profitable.

After this short and introductory diagnosis of the ailment, let us continue in a more practical manner.

Waiting and inactivity cannot lead to any desirable results. Let us assume that there still are people who are willing to launch a media business with an honest and professional attitude. I am convinced that such people exist. Perhaps you are one of them?

Such "adventurers" are most welcome to read the rest of this article. I will try to share my experiences acquired during the recent years, since the day when I became the editor in chief of a then new local newspaper in Kovin, "Kovin Ekspres", as well as the editor in chief of a news web site that is (surprisingly!) still available at the address Readers may be willing to find out more about the business model, or even to start their own project.

A few proposals

Let us set a few things straight: launching of a traditional local media outlet (a weekly or monthly magazine, radio station, TV station...) requires significant investment in this economic environment, especially considering the uncertain results of any such business activity. This is why we will analyze the launch of a local news web site that can go online in an hour! Potential investors would want to know whether such a web site can survive for more than a month. This article offers advice and recommendations in support of the theory that web sites can survive for even longer than what a simple enthusiasm would allow. (But, be careful: not even all cafes necessarily survive.)

First and foremost, all of you middle-aged journalists who perceive themselves to be the victims of transition, pay attention! You are in a favorable position! You are already well connected, you know everyone in your neighborhood, and you know who may be interested to advertise on your web site. Take advantage of your resources! At the same time, if there are strong local companies in your neighborhood, suggest them to transform their web sites - which are probably unattractive and difficult to access – into news web sites!

Most companies usually allocate some money for their own promotion – you can suggest them to spend it on a dynamic web site that would be updated with latest news every day. There is no way they can lose. Good structure of the web site, good links, and your journalistic efforts would attract much more visitors – which is good for both you and them.

Without overstuffed editorial offices and new employments! Ensure that spokespersons of relevant local organisations (cultural centers, schools, health centers, sport clubs, various associations...) come to you and offer information that you would turn into news! Practice investigative journalism in the field only when it is absolutely necessary and in cases that require the direct involvement of a journalist. This does not mean that your web site should be only a PR outlet, on the contrary. Develop it to become a reputable media outlet that everyone would want to be a part of.

Regularly follow the public contests of governmental media departments (if you are located in Vojvodina, certainly include the provincial government as well). At least once a year they allocate significant amounts of money, and media outlets from underdeveloped regions are usually at the top of their lists. Of course, you should register your web site to be able to apply for subsidies!

Try to negotiate with the local self-government possible payments for reporting on the activities of the Assembly, the municipal administration and all "legal persons" founded by your municipality. Since municipalities are not allowed to establish media outlets but are legally required to provide information on their activities to citizens, they can satisfy this requirement through your web site! Of course, any agreement should include a provision that guarantees your journalistic independence. I know that this is not easy and that it sounds almost naive and impossible – but it can be achieved!

This job will not make you rich, but you already know that. With a lot of effort and some luck, you will remain what you have always been – a journalist. Even more, a media owner.

No one can guarantee you success. But which business activity can offer you such guarantees?

Dragan Radovic

About the authors

MC Newsletter, May 20, 2011

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