Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a computer can put his or her ideas on a world platform. This has created new citizen power never felt by individuals nor the communities in which they live. For the first time, writers are truly paying attention to what citizens want to read, rejuvenating news in local communities who feel a lack of local coverage from traditional sources. Debbie Galant, a Montclair, New Jersey Local, saw a desire for news in her community that made her decide to try her hand at online reporting. Hoping to fill the local news void in their community Galant and co-founder Liz George started a local news site, Baristanet.com.
Focusing not on the big picture but on the little stories that affect daily life in their Montclair, New Jersey community, both Galant and George use local influence to keep their site full of interesting news and fun tid-bits. Galant took some time out of her Barista-centric day to talk to Editors Weblog about the site and her local audience.
Galant, a freelance writer since 1985 and former New Jersey columnist for the New York Times, uses her writing background to help tailor the sites news for its audience. The Times column she wrote for five years helped Galant achieve a mix of humor with news that is the backbone of Baristnet’s stories today. After finishing her first book and dabbling in blogging, Galant got back into news writing by creating a local site. Using the URL birthday present from her husband, Galant began proving Montclair’s finest with free news by herself. But after a year hired a staff which today totals five people including her business partner Liz George.
The local news with a touch of humor
Now Baristanet works together to update the community on the daily news frequently adding a lighthearted twist. Galant likes to think of Barista as “local weekly paper meets the Daily Show.” The site achieves this vibe by mixing real news and interesting commentary that peak reader’s interests.
Consisting of news pieces and some “for fun” articles the locally powered site gives readers the kind of news they’re looking for. “It’s the kind of info you’d want to get at a good dinner party, maybe not every boring detail but what the latest wrinkle is and how it will affect daily life.” Though stories may range from super market traffic jams to buildings burning down, all aspects of the site relate back to the daily lives of everyone in the Barista community.
There are also other community touches offered including a map of local coffee joints with the best blends and even better Baristas. Links like these give the site mass-local appeal that has made Baristanet a fixture in its community.
Becoming a fixture
After its launch and first year of publication Baristanet was readily gaining community recognition. More locals began posting comments on the site, giving news tips, and asking to post classifieds or other site advertising. But the popularity didn’t come without some pitfalls and resistance.
The area local paper, the Montclair Times, has had mixed opinions about Galant’s initiative. The Times’ editor-in-chief seems to have developed a dislike for the site even going as far as putting pressure on police sources not to talk to the Baristanet crew saying they weren’t a real newspaper. But not all employees see Galant and her crew as a threat. Other Time’s staff members have sent stories from the paper to Baristanet so it can link back and help the weekly’s site increase traffic. According to Galant this often happens because the Times hasn’t fully developed and taken advantage of their website.
Keeping the site full of eye-catching stories doesn’t just keep locals reading but other surrounding areas as well. Some of the area’s savvy residents include New York Times writers, which sometimes contact the Barista ladies about site stories for the national daily.
Starting as just a blog on TypePad, Baristanet now has its own server, which does offer up possibilities for Baristanet to cover other communities. But, expansion wise, Galant isn’t sure how the unique Barista comentary would translate to other areas. “When we think about the possibilities of expansion – we would cherry pick certain towns in NJ that have this vibe.”
Though expansion is still an open question, it is certain that the current Barista site is a community fixture. Traffic wise the site gets 5,000 visits a day, sometimes going as high as 10,000 visitors on a big news day, and averages 12-13 thousand page views per day.
The target audience of Montclair suburbanites is an intellectual group who“live right think left.” Most Barista users check the site numerous times throughout the day at work to keep up on local events. As expected, traffic often cuts in half on weekends.
But its not only current Montclair residents that read up on the New Jersey happenings. Lots of college students use the site to keep in touch with home after moving away and increasingly more former community members are logging on to see what is happing in their once hometown.
Though there is a fair share of citizen involvement, Baristanet is not a user-generated content site. Hoping to keep the comical edge and interesting content, Galant has chosen not to open her site to local writers. Though she receives tips, pictures, and comments ranging from a car chase through town to pictures of escaped turkeys frolicking across back yards, Galant is careful not to open the site’s postings to community members for fear of diluting Barista content. Keeping only interesting stories gives the news an edge but local feed back is the key to Baristanet’s success.
Turning a profit
Starting with just a few thousand dollars mainly going for promotional t-shirts and mugs the site has grown to now pull in profit. Through all local advertising and classified ads, Barista has pulled in a surprisingly large client base without too much solicatatioin. After trying various business models, Galant and George decided to split the editorial and advertising duties between the two of them. Galant is in charge of advertising and George works with most of the writing on the site.
The community success of Baristanet through not only community traffic but also advertising and a highly efficient business model reflects the new age of news reporting. The site with hints of citizen journalism shows its connection to the community by listening to user tips and comments while appealing to their savvy news sense. Taking news into her own hands Galant and her staff have effectively taken the blandness out of local news by appealing to the target local audience.