New Orleans is rich news territory for start-up hyperlocal

“Someone on Twitter the other day posted a quote of some sort defining an entrepreneur as someone who works 16 hours a day for himself to avoid working 8 hours a day for someone else. That’s kind of it in a nutshell – there’s just so much to do.

Robert Morris, Uptown Messenger publisher, news director

Publishers, does this sound familiar? 😉 Uptown Messenger‘s Robert Morris had this and much more to offer when we “chatted” last week about the thrills and the pitfalls of running his neighborhood hyperlocal in New Orleans.

Our interview was virtual and the following Q & A is edited for length and clarity, but you can find the entire transcript here.

 

 

 

How long have you been publishing Uptown Messenger? What prompted you to start?

We launched in September of last year. We had been planning it for about a year prior to that. It’s kind of a long story, I guess. I had a great job — investigative reporter, followed by editorial page editor — at a great newspaper, The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. I loved my coworkers.

But in 2009 newspapers in general weren’t a fun environment to work in, no matter how great your editor was. And I had ideas about how to do things differently I wanted to try, and I just felt like the newspaper as a whole was really caught up with two crucially important tasks: putting out a paper every day, and trying to avoid more layoffs. And that sucked all of everyone’s energy away from experimentation.

What made you choose New Orleans as the place to launch this site?

That was probably the easiest part. We [Robert and his partner, Sabree Hill] met at a newspaper about 60 miles down in the swamps from here, The Courier in Houma, Louisiana. Sabree was a photographer and I was a reporter, both hired immediately after Katrina and Rita. We both had friends in New Orleans, spent a lot of time here, and as soon as we moved to Myrtle Beach, we immediately started taking vacations back here and ultimately trying to figure out how we could work here.

It’s a great environment for news. Some journalists with sites similar in size to mine say the biggest crime they cover all year is a home burglary. I typically report on armed robberies that would go otherwise essentially unreported every week or so.

There’s this tremendous narrative in New Orleans about how, ever since the floods, the people who live here have really banded together, become extremely involved. There was a surge in the number of neighborhood associations. And you have this influx of people, mostly young people, who might have volunteered here when they were in college with Habitat or something, fell in love with the place and are moving back. And then you have the schools – there are almost no “traditional” public schools here any more. The entire system is in a sort of receivership through the state or being turned over to independent charters. I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be reporting.

Tell me about the other news and information sources available In New Orleans. How do you feel Uptown Messenger fits in to the news ecosystem?

In New Orleans, we have the Times-Picayune, four TV stations (one of which we’re now partnering with) and a fairly strong public radio network. There’s a fairly new nonprofit investigative outfit [Robert is referring to The Lens] that focuses on citywide policy. There’s a pretty interesting network of blogs, but most are so strongly opinionated that they see themselves as doing something different than straight news – though I’m sure a fair number of people get their news from them.  From the purely neighborhood angle, there hasn’t been much else.

There’s just this whole level of news that’s important to people that’s not really being covered. Neighborhood-level, quality-of-life, that sort of thing. That’s the role we’re trying to fill. We attend almost all the major neighborhood association meetings each month, and they’re in there talking about things people really care about, so we report it, and no one else really has. Same with the crime. If a robbery happens on your block, you want more information than just a one-line blotter item or sentence in a weekend roundup. You want to know what the victim was doing when he or she was attacked, what details are known about the attacker, whether an arrest has been made and where the investigation is…

There’s just this whole level of news that’s important to people that’s not really being covered. Neighborhood-level, quality-of-life, that sort of thing. That’s the role we’re trying to fill. We attend almost all the major neighborhood association meetings each month, and they’re in there talking about things people really care about, so we report it, and no one else really has.        — Robert Morris, Uptown Messenger

How are you funding the site and how do you plan to fund it in the future?

We’re primarily, solely actually, funding it through advertising right now. Our partnership with the TV station includes a small retainer as well. While I’ve had the part-time job, I’ve been hesitant to ask for donations for support. As I transition out of that, we probably will do that for a while, to fill in the gap. I think, based on conversations with community members, we would probably get a fairly good response – at least we did when we first asked.

Talk about this partnership. Did they approach you or the other way around? How do you feel it’s working out?

Well, we’ve been “approached” by other media almost since we got started. None of it really panned out, for whatever reasons – I was always open to it, but the conversations really seemed more like just feeling us out. But about six weeks ago, WWL-TV invited me in and had like half a dozen news executives in the room, and made a really serious pitch.

We sort of exchange our general coverage plans through the week. When we have something they’re interested in, they’ll either assign a reporter, or use our report as the basis for a short item an anchor will read. Either way, they credit us on air as helping develop the story. They also link to a number of our articles in various ways.

We’re happy with it, and just this week got a great example of why. I was at a neighborhood meeting Tuesday where a resident was complaining about an old house owned by the school system that had been vacant for a decade or more and was completely overgrown, and no one could figure out why the school board wouldn’t just get rid of this eyesore and take the money. So we wrote an article based on her complaints.

The next day, WWL assigned a reporter to the story, and they talked to a school official about it, who gave this and that explanation. Then, Thursday, this massive work crew descends on the house and basically unburies it from all the swamp foilage that had literally overtaken it. The neighbors are ecstatic. The house is still blighted and needs to be dealt with more substantially, but one guy told me doesn’t remember the grass there ever having been cut before.

What have been the greatest challenges in running the site and how have you dealt with them?

Well, someone on Twitter the other day posted a quote of some sort defining an entrepreneur as someone who works 16 hours a day for himself to avoid working 8 hours a day for someone else. That’s kind of it in a nutshell – there’s just so much to do. Right now, in addition to this window, I have a calendar program that we’re considering installing, a better email notification service that we’re thinking of experimenting with, and forum software that we want to test. I’ve got at least two articles reported that I just haven’t written, and there’s a pretty good sized festival tomorrow that I need to preview. I’ve got two major advertisers whose contracts end this month that I need to spend some time with. Tomorrow morning is a big forum on school facilities that we need to cover – you get the idea.

So basically, a constant time crunch?

Yes. It’s this constant decision about which task is the most urgent. But back to the quote, I will say that it’s sort of a happy problem. The stories I need to write are ones that I’m interested in. I like new software, and I happen to really like both of these advertisers. So, these are all tasks that I enjoy.

What have you learned about how to work through these issues and what advice would you give other publishers like yourself?

The best advice I saw, if you’re seriously considering doing something like this, is not to waste forever trying to get it perfect. If you really think you have journalism to add to the community, just start writing it as soon as possible. You’ll figure out all these other things, find people who have good advice, etc. I really felt like the best part of our process was deciding on a start date of last September and sticking to it.

What role do community members play in how you choose what to cover? Do you have contributors writing for you ever who are not trained journalists?

Obviously, we listen to what they say – when people ask us to be at something to cover it, we really do our best to (with the limitation that we’re only two people and there’s a ton going on). I’d like to get community members more involved, maybe in some sort of formal advisory board. I really love the people who live here and really trust their judgment, so I’d love to have more of it. We have three contributors right now who are all doing different kinds of writing. One is a lawyer, one is a real-estate agent and art-gallery owner and the third is a fashion blogger. They’re great.

What are your long-term goals for the site?

The main goal is to become self-sufficient completely. We’re close. But in the longer-term, I’d really like to be able to expand to be able to cover some issues more in depth. Investigative journalism, something I spent a fair part of my newspaper career doing, is something that I’ve basically had to let go for the time being. Not unexpectedly – if we can get the workload under control, and I think we will, then I can begin doing more of that.

Learn more about Uptown Messenger here or follow them on Twitter or Facebook. In the meantime, please share any insights or reactions in the comments below..

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