Citizens’ Call is taking a hiatus. Call it an extended leave, a major breather or a long summer vacation. To be honest, I’m not sure what it is. It’s been more than two and one-half years and it’s been a great ride, but something had to give. Doing local news and covering often what no other outlet had the gumption to cover, or just doing it in a way that raised the uncomfortable issues that more polite news outlets prefer to keep buried, was and is a labor of love. But reporting is no hobby; it’s hard work, no matter on what scale.
If you appreciate Citizens’ Call, you probably recognize the journalistic void here and – let’s face it – in many, if not most, suburban communities, to which CC’s absence will contribute. There aren’t many sources of local news other than (some) big city dailies (remember when you got the paper brought to your door every day) with the commitment and resources to consistently raise tough questions about, say, a string of government decisions loosening zoning standards, or whether public bodies are quietly evading “sunshine” requirements for open decision-making. Not just a splash “investigative” story but day-to-day reporting that sees patterns and influences.
In researching the story just posted on the amazing history of flooding withstood by one Wyncote firm and one upcoming on a kind of Catch-22 aspect of flood project planning, the void became clearer to me. Fifteen years ago, The Inquirer actually covered suburban stories like flood projects in Cheltenham, Abington and other places. Not just a simple summary of the official line maybe rounded out by a quote of a dissident voice or an overview once the decision was finalized. They reported on where things were at a given moment and the controversies that flared. True, that was before the roof fell in on the economics of newspapers. The point is not to laud or wax nostalgic about The Inquirer or the news business. It’s just that that’s what journalism is supposed to do, what readers should expect. Yet in suburbia’s insular world of sewers and zoning and the like, it doesn’t happen nearly enough.
There will be some, of course, who will be more than pleased at this announcement, hoping that it turns into a full sayonara. For them there may have been too many inconvenient facts and voices featured on our digital pages. Perhaps they have the wherewithal to get their message out independent of any intermediary, or maybe silence or happy talk works even better for their needs. Just to be clear, that’s not to say that CC didn’t do a lot of lighter stuff. Like others, we try to do our part when it comes to spreading the spirit and pride in Cheltenham Township.
Now let’s get down to some brass tacks. Reporting the news is an enterprise – unless you’re on salary. Whether you’re talking about a media empire or a simple single site web-based local news vehicle, it requires consistency and dependability and, oh yes, a revenue stream. Sustainability is vital. Citizens’ Call began with a creaky one cylinder business model – generating a loyal readership and selling ads to local businesses – and figured we’d learn by doing. In effect, the experience would be the feasibility study. While that may not have been the most business savvy approach, consider that the news business as we know it is dying (local cases in point are the recent bankruptcies involving The Inquirer/Daily News and The Journal Register) and nobody has solid answers on what’s next, especially for small communities.
The problem, though, was not just the business model; it was executing it. This is by-and-large a one-person shop, and you-know-who never managed to carve out enough time in the day to also wear his publisher/entrepreneur hat and pound the pavement selling ads and generally nurturing the business side. So while there was a modicum of success generating readership (considering there was no significant promotion) – more than 3,000 individual readers per month – it never translated into much sales revenue. Sure, there were some options that might break the logjam – interns, for example. That was one route that was pretty faithfully pursued, but it just never panned out. Not sure why other than if you had the choice between NBC 10 and Citizens’ Call, which would you choose?
If I have a regret, it is not in the apparent business failure but in the fact that there was never a real test of how far it could get. Still, the apparent inability to make a go of the project is broadly consistent with the success rate of “hyper-local” news websites across the country. Despite a market that was once ballyhooed, they’ve been dropping like flies.
So where does this leave things, and is there any chance of a come-back? To some extent, it’s up to you. My sense of the direction of smaller news web sites and just a gut feel tell me that a reader “subscription” approach a la NPR would likely be a part of any future economic formula. Non-profit status isn’t a prerequisite for that, but it could be a possibility. Either way, you need revenue streams. My interest now is in taking a break and having the luxury of kicking this around. That means, I hope, talking to people (assuming interest) in unstructured and more structured ways. Have a serious idea? Let’s talk. Have some know-how in digital business development? Let’s see if there’s some way to link up. You’re a member of a concerned community organization? Let’s consider some outreach for a broader focused conversation. Everything is on the table for discussion, including scale, structure and editorial approach. Even a more limited thematic menu with fewer but more in-depth, bigger picture stories could be considered. (As a writer-researcher it has some appeal, but I’m skeptical about its viability.)
After another story this week on flood project planning, I’ll be on break for a while. But I expect to pick up the writing on an occasional basis this summer through September for stories that keep yelling in my ear. And they will. Overall, I’m excited about possibilities but realistic about outcomes when it comes to the future of Citizens’ Call. Most of all, I’m looking forward to hearing what people think about all this. I hope you’ll consider leaving a comment on this announcement. I’ll read them carefully. And it won’t be your only opportunity to weigh in. You also can reach me at steveatcitizenscall.net.
I’ve had a great time doing this work and getting to know our town and so many great people making it a better place. In that sense, it’s been an overwhelming success. Have a great summer!