Oakland Local is one of many non-profit community news websites currently springing up across the globe as the need for quality local news coverage becomes more obvious. The recession has seen the local news industry suffer staggering financial blows and several news organisations, small and large, have had to heavily cut back on resources or close altogether.
The situation has caused many to express concerns about the dangers of not having a local media watchdog to keep those in power in check: "It makes me worry about all of those public authorities and courts which will in future operate without any kind of systematic public scrutiny. I don't think our legislators have begun to wake up to this imminent problem as we face the collapse of the infrastructure of local news in the press and broadcasting," Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has said.
Amidst these fears, people are starting to become more focused on the ways in which they can ensure the public service journalism provides survives, at least if the profitability of the industry does not, and one model proposed to do this is that of the non-profit.
Oakland Local was officially launched on Monday as an independent, non-profit site attempting to provide this public service and fill the local news gap in Oakland.
Founder, Susan Mernit told the Editors Weblog: "The concept of Oakland Local is that amazing work is being done in our city on critical issues that is currently not seen by a wide enough range of people. One goal of Oakland Local is to surface the work being done so that organizations and individuals can connect to share information and work together for the common good."
Oakland Local runs on a five-person team consisting of an editor, publisher and three part-time, paid journalists. Twenty per cent of all content is made up by original reporting by staff journalists, 50 per cent is aggregated from other community news partners and the rest is made up by local bloggers and citizen contributions.
Focusing on topics from environmental justice, food distribution and transportation, to development & housing and gender & identity, Oakland Local tries to 'give a broader voice to the work being done by Oakland's non-profit and activist groups, and to offer a greater depth of reporting storytelling and coverage of issues of interest to Oakland'.
So the moral intentions seem to be in the right place for the non-profit status, but then Oakland Local still has to find the funds to pay five journalists' wages. Unlike larger non-profit organisations- such as ProPublica, which can eventually sell indepth investigative pieces to papers such as the New York Times- the local investigative stories carried out by Oakland Local, while no less relevant, are unlikely to bought by any larger publication. Which leaves the question: if it can't sell it's content, how will it support itself financially?
Twenty-five thousand dollars was granted by J-Lab's New Voices as initial seed money, and given the publication has no current plans to expand further than it's website, that should be enough to begin with. As for what comes next, Oakland Local is attemting to draw advertisers to it's site. Despite the potential conflict with the non-profit status- many similar publications such as the soon-to-be-launched Texas Tribune have decided to keep their distance and avoid offering advertising althogether- Mernit emphasises that for Oakland Local: "Showing we can sustain ourselves is essential."
But advertisers won't buy in unless people will actually see their ads, so how is Oakland Local going about promoting itself?
In addition to the news website, Oakland Local plans to establish a mobile service encouraging users to interact via cell phones and different social networking sites. Mernit has emphasised that social networks are very important to the success of Oakland Local, and it's aim to get people talking about reigonal issues: 'We seek to create a unique local forum for sharing information, building community, speaking truth to power and working together for positive social change. We are committed to diverse voices, reader engagement, deep issue coverage and local commentary,' states their mission statement. Of course if these networks also drive traffic to their main website, advertisers are likely to take note and support the organisation financially.
All these aspects will be key to the success of Oakland Local as non-profit organisation, and should it succeed, it could be a model for other local organisations to follow. None-the-less, the importance of maintaining a local news source is now clear, and the threat to its existence has seen many seek out alternatives that could ensure its preservation.
Source: Oakland Local