CJ lessons from La Man of La Mission

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If you dream of profitable community journalism then treat yourself to Mike Orren’s first-person article in Online Journalism Review. As the co-founder (with Gary Cohen) of Pegasus News, Orren offers useful insights gleaned from trying to cover Dallas with an online media blanket that’s 142 neighborhoods wide but — as critic Tom Grubisich comments — is often press-release thin.

A related column by MarketWatch.com media follower Frank Barnako adds to our understanding of Orren the brand of personalized media that Pegasus News is attempting to deliver.

Orren begins his first person piece by saying that Pegasus spent about two years gearing up for launch because once it started reaching out for viewers, it didn’t want them to conclude there was nothing to find there. He writes:

“Launch as fast as you possibly can, but not until you can deliver something you believe is unique and irreplaceable. We think our adherence to this difficult tenet is a primary reason that we’re generating more than 100,000 unique visitors and more than a million pageviews per month at this early stage.”

What do viewers want? Orren says 75 percent of Pegasus’ traffic is generated by listings: “interactive calendar listings, band profiles, restaurant listings, political campaign contributions, drink specials and the like.”

Local advertisers, he says, “are hard to reach but easily impressed,” once someone takes the time to show them the cost-effectiveness of online advertising.

The comment by Tom Grubisich is worth reading (look for it at the end of Orren’s piece). He and Orren have obviously had some back-and-forth on citizen journalism tactics, and Grubisich’s critique is that Orren spread Pegasus too thin by trying to get hyperlocal with “content” that is often little more than massaged, press releases. “Press releases can become the equivalent of crack cocaine for community sites trying to make grassroots journalism work,” Grubisich writes.

Orren replies at length and with sone frustration:

“I’ve got nothing against grassroots journalism. I love grassroots journalism. It’s the adrenaline that fuels me daily. But the rational brain knows that I can’t practice grassroots journalism if we don’t make money.”

Orren’s vision made a little more sense after I read Frank Barnako’s flattering piece in MarketWatch. As Barnako explained, Orren does not want to deliver today’s news product, which is primarily chosen by editors. Instead, he writes:

“When visitors come to (Pegasus News) and register with their address, Pegasus begins tracking the items they read and the interests they have.  The next time they log in, they are greeted by a Google Map centered on their home and pointers to stories nearby.  As people read more, they will be assigned “points” which the technology will ultimately use to deliver hyper-personalized content and ads.”

Barnako, impressed with this targeting concept, goes on to say that Pegasus News, which links to some 800 other regional content-creation sites, “doesn’t do much news gathering.”

That remark prompted Orren to write back in the comments to Barnako’s blog:

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that we don’t do much newsgathering. Actually, that’s the bulk of what we do — gather and edit and tag news from many sources. And, about 20% of our articles are actually staff-written/reported. Also, in our vernacular, the 2000+ weekly events in our calendar; databases of bands, companies, restaurants and places is “news.” And unlike many major city sites, we’re doing that by (technologically assisted) hands.”

So we learn two more things: first, that Orren likes to have the last word and second that he believes this media revolution is more about personalization than community. Rather than expect citizens to rise up and cover their communities, he thinks algorithms will figure out what may be useful to each viewer, based on geography and other cues. The online news site should scour the web for this relevant content and then deliver it. Later, if the viewer has time to read an article, or respond to one, or — could it happen – write one, that would be gravy. Meanwhile, personalization will pay the bills.

There doesn’t seem much glory in that vision, especially not for writers. But if personalization puts online journalism onto a firmer financial footing than perhaps it can survive long enough to witness the birth of community.