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Citizens’ Call To Take Hiatus; What’s Next: Possibilities . . .

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!

Stephen Strahs

About the Author
  1. Robert Tabak

    Steve,
    Thanks for all your work. I appreciate all the stories you have done. A few years ago the New Republic ran a story focusing on LA on the decline of local/suburban news coverage. To paraphrase the article, “If the local school burned down, the LA Times would cover it. When the local school board discusses its budget, no one covers it.” This applies to Phila.

    There is in Phila another model of neighborhood coverage that I don’t think anyone has mentioned: WHYY’s Newsworks has local network (on-line) coverage of Mt. Airy-Chestnut Hill, Roxborough-Manayunk, West Oak Lane-Germantown and several other neighborhoods. (see http://www.newsworks.org)
    I think the potential funding synergy is greater than just hoping for last minute subscriptions. It would require some local people to go to WHYY, and offer to bring/create some of that local funding in cooperation with them.
    Of course they already have the non-profit structure and much of the infrastructure. If it were expanded to Cheltenham-Abington-Jenkintown, couldn’t we help get some matching donations?
    OK, the idea is there. Who will move ahead with it?

  2. Julie Haywood

    Steve, thanks for your coverage of everything Cheltenham. Speaking as a community member and not as a School Board member any other other organization of which I may be a part, I appreciated the issues you raised that required thought and discussion in the community.

  3. Amy Fried

    For news about issues facing the Cheltenham community, I have come to rely on CC. As a more informed community member, I have felt more motivated to make sure my voice was heard.

    Hope this same community will support you in ways that allow you to keep CC going. Count Tom and me in for a subscription. An invaluable service from a great guy!

  4. Rick Heimann

    Count me in on a subscription! Very valuable and very appreciated.

  5. Gail Post

    Just got to read all of this, and ditto all of the comments. You have offered a tremendous service to the community, and I hope you find a way to sustain it, whether through donations, subscriptions, or another source of assistance. Best wises, whatever you decide.

  6. Steve

    It’s been amazing to hear from so many people in avid support of this work. I don’t know what to say – I guess just that I’m excited about a process to see if we can build a viable vehicle for community journalism. We’ll see where it goes. Thanks.

  7. Heidi Morein

    Ditto, ditto, ditto. Have a rest, take a breather, but please come back to us and this vital reporting work. Jonathan and I stand ready to market, support, subscribe, type, offer snacks and encouragement in whatever form you might want or need. You and CC are an asset.

  8. Tom Petersen

    Steve,
    Thanks for the work you put into this and the valuable information you provided. This was a successful 2 and 1/2 years of giving to your community. I’d be happy to subscribe. Enjoy the time off.

  9. Bill England

    Our community is well-read, engaged and benefits from access to information. In cases where info has been slow, not clear or lacking, Citizen’s Call has filled large gaps for us. It is wonderful to have an investigative writer among us who has shared his findings and impressions and equally important, the community voice on issues that uniquely impact we, the residents of Cheltenham. There is now, a void in our community where Steve and Citizen’s Call are typically found. My hope is that this will only be a shor-term void. In terms of subscription, yes, I would subscribe as I do with WHYY, XM radio and the Inquirer. The hope is that there will be a way to continue your work, work that as is witnessed here on this page, is appreciated and enjoyed.

  10. Marty Beilin

    RATS! I, like so many Cheltenham residents, have come to rely on Citizen’s Call for timely and reliable local news. Thank you so much for your excellent reporting. Like other respondents, I would be happy to pay for a subscription. It is hard to know wither the future of true journalism. It would be in the Township’s interest to help support a local online news service like Citizen’s Call. Wishing you all the best. Hope you will find a way to return to your calling — reporting the news for the benefit of all in our community.

  11. Jane McFadden

    Citizens’ Call is such a valuable source of information for our Cheltenham community. Thank you for always covering community news with professionalism and consideration for all those involved. I would really like to see Citizens’ Call continue and would definitely purchase a subscription. Best wishes on your future journey… one that I hope leads you back to reporting on the news in Cheltenham.

    • Ann Rappoport

      Here’s to your future “inconvenient facts,” Steve! Please have a good respite and fruitful conversations (please include me) and return re-charged and funded! Best wishes and thanks for making a difference.

  12. Vanessa Galati

    Steve, I appreciate your honest reporting of the issues in Cheltenham Township, especially dealing with flooding. I would purchase a subscription to keep Citizen’s Call going. Good luck in whatever you choose to do.

  13. Ellen Friedman

    Steve, thanks for the clear reporting. I would be very willing to pay for a subscription.
    Enjoy your hiatus!

  14. Melanie Vallerio

    Steve, what you add to this township is value beyond price. What ever path you take please know you have done more for this town than people realize . We need more people like you in this world . Thank you for all that you’ve done .

  15. Amanda Schreiber

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much for running this news blog for 2 1/2 years! I have been a regular reader and am sad to think that this may be the end. I would happily pay a subscription fee to keep reading and would also be happy to talk about ways I could personally pitch in to keep things going. Your voice has been such a valuable asset to the community!

  16. Nora O'Neil

    I will be so sorry to see you go, if you go. I, too, would be willing to pay an annual subscription. Meantime, I hope you enjoy your time off and I look forward to your return; in fact I pray for it.

  17. BMaisey

    We should all mourn the passing or even the hiatus of the only reliable, regularly posted source of news. Your contribution has been invaluable. I join the many voices in saying I sincerely hope brainstorming will come up with a solution to keep Citizen’s Call going. Obviously, the need for citizen reporters is paramount. You know you can count on me, as long as the thunderstorms don’t wash us away, although that is a story in itself.

  18. Tom Bale

    Okay, we want to keep Citizens’ Call going. I’m ready to sign up with a paid subscription.

  19. Linda Musumeci

    Citizens Call is an outstanding service to our community. Steve, your contribution and the quality of your work cannot be overstated. I am a regular reader and am much better informed thanks to you. I wish you a nice restful, restorative break and look forward to your return. I’d be more than happy to brainstorm and help work out a new business model and funding as well as to subscribe.

  20. Claudia McGill

    I would purchase a subscription. Very quickly.

    Volunteer help? Volunteer reporter? Maybe I could help in some way? I really would hate to see this source of local news go away.

  21. Ed Landau

    Have a great summer vacation — looking forward to seeing you back in the fall. Looks like you’ve got a solid subscriber base already. I became aware of Citizens Call with your outstanding coverage of the Kerlin Farm story, and became a dedicated reader for your timely coverage of so many other stories. Thanks!
    Ed

  22. carol trotman

    I understand that there are times when we all need a hiatus. And I hope that you enjoy your time off this summer with your family. I also hope that the community that you serve so well with your insightful, factual information will come together to provide a way for you to return to reporting news around Cheltenham. Because of you and you alone, I have been kept abreast of important happenings in Cheltenham while I was across the ocean.

  23. Fredericka Waugh

    Thanks Steve. I am also willing to purchase a subscription. Citizens Call will definitely be missed; I am not sure how I will know what is going on, I will not attend all the Township meetings to find out. I do hope there is a solution that will allow you to come back with much needed support. Enjoy some time away and I hope to read you in the near future.

  24. Dan Norris

    As one of your regular readers from the start, I have found your reporting to be especially valuable to my role as Commissioner and Cheltenham citizen. I would be happy to purchase a subscription to facilitate your ongoing significant contribution to the public dissemination of information and dialogue.

  25. Jennifer Spector

    Me too, me too! I would be more than willing to pay a subscription fee for the outstanding content you provide. Please don’t let this be your swan song, it is a very significant loss to the community.

  26. Tom McHugh

    We all know the words, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” However, in this case we do know the local news chasm that you have bridged with so much skill, character and fairness. WHERE DO I SIGN UP FOR A SUBSCRIPTION? Aside from the important service and information that Citizens’ Call has provided, it will be worth every penny just to continue to hear the words from our local politicians on occasion as you entered Curtis Hall, “Watch what you say. The press is here.”

  27. Lorie Slass

    Steve – this is a great loss to the community. I too would be willing to pay a subscription fee. We could also brainstorm some crowdsoure funding. There are many communications experts, financial planners, etc. in the community who would probably be willing to work pro-bono to help you figure out a workable business model. Count me in if you want to start such a discussion.

  28. Debbie Posmontier

    Thank you, Steve, for your reports of the real story. We look to you as the voice of the community and your voice will be missed. Enjoy some restful, reflective time and please come back to us! Anyone with funding knowledge, advertising information, subscription suggestions, please come forward.

  29. John Dunphy

    Say it ain’t so, Joe!! I don’t think I can adapt to the Dark Ages again. Say it ain’t so!!

  30. Michael J. Oswald

    The loss of Citizen’s Call is a loss of getting the real story from an unbiased source. I would bet there are pepole around who could help (I know at least one retired reporter)and many others who would pay a few bucks a month to keep it going. During this time of regrouping, perhaps a model that would create a small, more than one man operation, with some funding sources, could provide some possibilites for the long term. Stick around. You are needed.

  31. Jim Butt

    As one who knows first hand the challenges, risks, as well as the power of public communications, I deeply respect the work you’ve done, Steve.

    I pay a small fortune for all 3 hard news sources (TC, Inq, and NYT) because I appreciate the difficulty of sustaining as well as the value of a free press in sustaining our democracy. I’d pay more.

    I’d also be interested in your conversations with TC in this regard, if you care to share.

    Enjoy the break because I expect to see you back.

  32. Cathleen Capriotti

    I agree. I value what you have provided to our community. It can be somewhat difficult to find out what is going on around me. Even with the township alert emails, and the township website, things sometimes are not noticed by the general population until after the fact (whether on purpose or not). The Citizens’ Call is an avenue to seek accountability, to make sure the important issues of our community could be brought to the surface, discussed, and commented on. Having worked in the newspaper industry, I believe I know the amount of work and time that must be invested daily. I also would pay an annual membership/subscription fee to be able to continue receiving my community news with your fresh and unbiased perspective. Thank you for all you have done.

  33. Barbara Cunningham

    Always found your articles enlightening. You are absolutely correct when you write no one covers the suburban communities interests stories. Your recent articles about the Cheltenham School District issues is one example of your informative reporting to those of us not really in the know on such topics. If a subscription type series should arise, I would be happy to sign up.

  34. Napoleon Nelson

    Steve,

    I am also one of your many daily readers and truly value the service you provide. I would appreciate a few minutes of your time to sit down and discuss some of your options and identify a way forward. Clearly, I say this only as a citizen and do not speak for any other board or organization of which I may be a part.

  35. Rita Poley

    Citizen’s Call has become an important part of my need to know. No one else covers our local news the way you do. I hope to be part of the conversation to keep it going. Good luck
    R

  36. D Brooks

    It’s my sincere hope that those of us who benefit and enjoy reading your articles will step up to ensure its continued success. Please keep us informed!

  37. Julie Cohen

    Thanks for sharing your situation with us. I am one of your regular readers and thoroughly value what you provide to our community. I know I would be willing to pay an annual membership fee to continue reading the type of reporting you’ve been doing!

    • Janet B.

      Ditto! I’d be glad to pay a subscription fee to get your terrific and invaluable reporting on local issues! J.

  38. Howard Covitz

    Have you considered getting together some elves? some helpers?

  39. jeffrey kennethkohn, m.d.

    Stephen,

    It saddens me to learn of this. I had expected that this could eventually happen. I have had a office and/or lived in Elkins Park since 1979. Over the years the Times Chronicle supplied the little local news coverage available. I stopped purchasing the actual newspaper years ago as its quality continued to decline. I was so pleased to accidentally discover your newsblog becoming a regular readier immediately.

    I found your quality, detailed, and factual news reporting to be informative and useful. I, like many others, will miss your blog. If financial issues are primary, I would be happy to purchase a subscription noting I already pay for a digital NY Times subscription and likely will be forced to do so for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the near future.

    I hope you will reconsider and restart blogging again in the near future. Otherwise, here is wishing you success and personal rewards as you proceed with other ventures. Jeff

  40. Dottie Baumgarten

    Thank you, Steve, for your voice these 2 and 1/2 years. I hope to benefit from your research and writing again, as you see fit.

    • mike

      Steve–

      This was often interesting, useful–but I was SHOCKED to get it EVERY day/

      More than I’d expected or wanted.

      How about 3x a week. Easier for you–and me.