In Batavia, a small city in upstate New York, and neighboring towns in Genesee County, residents turn to their hyperlocal news source named, naturally, The Batavian, to learn lots of the latest local news. Yes, the Batavian is both filling a need and paying its bills. Brooke speaks to The Batavian’s Publisher Howard Owens, who has been at the helm of website, which he runs with his wife, Billie, and some local stringers.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Batavia, a small town in upstate New York, and neighboring towns in Genesee County, residents turn to their hyper local news source named, naturally, The Batavian, to learn lots of the latest local news. Yes, The Batavian is both filling a need and paying its bills. For the last five years, Publisher Howard Owens has been at the helm of The Batavian, which he runs with his wife Billie and some local stringers.
HOWARD OWENS: One of my advertisers was in the Verizon store, across the street from one of our fire halls and she said the store was packed, it was holiday season. The doors to the fire hall open up, the trucks roll out, sirens blaring, lights going. And every person in that store was looking at your phone. And somebody goes, Howard hasn’t updated the site yet. And she’s like, jeez guys, give him a minute.
You know? We’ve trained people to constantly check the site to find out what that latest news is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We learned this week in the New York Times, David Carr's column, that although Tim Armstrong's Patch isn't dead, it's only barely breathing. Why do you think it hasn't succeeded?
HOWARD OWENS: When Patch started, it was a, a pretty good concept, one journalist, one editor in each community. I think it’s very hard when you have just a wage-earning employee to get them to roost the kind of content consistently over a 24-hour period that a local owner will do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a great motivator to actually run the publication, not just be paid by it, right?
HOWARD OWENS: Right. There’s multiple layers of advantages to local ownership, from those relationships with the advertisers to that investment that you’re gonna get up at 2:30 in the morning to go cover a fatal accident because it’s your business; it’s not just a job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the criticisms of the Patch experiment is that the content was pretty light.
HOWARD OWENS: And I always kind of cringed at that criticism, cause we do a lot of that too. We also do investigative pieces and in-depth features and sports coverage and hard-hitting meeting coverage, but you will find the most trivial stuff going on in Genesee County on The Batavian. And that’s really an important part of the mix, that sense of we’re giving them a, a broad picture of what’s going on in their community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your coverage area right now is 57,000 people, and reportedly you reach 40,000 of them per month. That’s huge. What does reaching 40,000 mean, that 40,000 click in?
HOWARD OWENS: Web metrics is very slippery. I mean, we definitely reach 50 to 60, maybe even 70 percent of the residents on a monthly basis here. On a daily basis, I’ve been able to figure out it’s maybe about 18 percent, which still, in my experience, you know, I’ve done a work with online newspapers, that’s substantially higher than a typical daily newspaper website.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are doing that the local newspapers aren't doing?
HOWARD OWENS: We have a very strong comment community. And then the other thing is breaking news. Now, the local newspaper competitor does try to compete with us on breaking news, but the local newspaper model across the country is editors telling you here’s what the top news is. So the fender bender on Main Street is never gonna be at the top of the page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I see.
HOWARD OWENS: Where, you know, we have people sitting in their office and they hear ambulances go down the street and they’re refreshing the page to find out what’s going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also refer to something called “cat crosses the street journalism?
HOWARD OWENS: Yeah, we had a reporter go out and somebody had written in chalk some song lyrics on the sidewalk, and he just took those pictures and posted them. A traditional journalist would go no way is there any news value there. But we got a ton of interest in those posts. People leaving comments helps feed that interest and, and reinforce that brand that we’re telling people what’s goin’ on right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned that you’ve done also investigative stories. You’ve, you cover town meetings. These are things that people who watch where the media are trending these days are terribly worried about. But those take a lot of manpower. What kind of investigative work can you actually do?
HOWARD OWENS: Well, by now there have been one or two stories that I’m like, that’s too big for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HOWARD OWENS: But, you know, if you’re motivated to get something and kind of keep your eye on the ball, you’re able to get those kinds of projects done, in between going out and covering the cat crossing the street.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one discussion that we’ve been having in the office is whether hyper local news is being freighted with the challenge of trying to save journalism, rather than just being regarded as a success, if it can support one or two people to fill in some of the gaps in the coverage that people want.
HOWARD OWENS: There’s a tendency to believe that a chain or a news organization should spring forth in full flower. If you go back to 1835 and looked at the penny press, these were papers that were not, by today’s journalism standards, well-staffed or producing what we would call high quality journalism. It’s going to take the same sort of time for local online media to grow. And, and I’m not even necessarily predicting that we will have the same kind of success, but there is a tendency to judge local online media today by old school standards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you believe in this.
HOWARD OWENS: Absolutely. I believe this can work. I believe it can work anywhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HOWARD OWENS: And I think if you just look at the site and see all the ads that we have, you see that that’s true. The fact that we can do that tells me anybody can do this. You have to have the vision. You have to be willing to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you can pay your bills?
HOWARD OWENS: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard, thank you very much.
HOWARD OWENS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard Owens is the publisher of The Batavian.