Independents Day: 4 grassroots media sites
When it comes to Net news, small can be beautiful
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
Everybody knows about the 800-pound gorillas of online news — nytimes.com, CNN.com, MSNBC — but there’s another group that’s contributing mightily to the craft of Web journalism: the solo, lone-wolf operation.
These outfits, each created and operated largely by one person, show that you don’t need a large staff and venture-capital seed money to do news on the Net.
What the creators of KenRadio, Kuro5hin, IWantMedia and Metafilter share is a relentless drive, a passion for their subject matter, and an abiding respect for the power of the Internet to reach thousands of readers cheaply and effectively. In the case of Kuro5hin and Metafilter, they also rely on users creating much of the sites’ content.
For news professionals or students of online journalism, all four are worth checking out.
Ken Rutkowski is something of a one-man personal broadcasting network. One of the earliest pioneers of Web radio — he has been called the Internet’s first Webcaster — Rutkowski doesn’t have any formal training in broadcast news.
“I’m a programmer and just decided to give the radio thing a shot,” he says.
“I’m more fascinated about the tech news happening outside the US. … That’s much more interesting than banner ads or the latest high tech layoffs.”
You wouldn’t know it from listening to his Webcasts. Rutkowski pulls together his daily tech news report after digesting 75 or so different online and print publications. The result is a roundup of 10 or so of the day’s top tech stories, which he delivers from his studio in Marina del Rey, California, with a radio-friendly voice, crisp delivery and personality-driven flavor — Tech News With Attitude, as KenRadio’s motto puts it.
Recalls Rutkowski: “A few years ago, Rob Glaser (founder of RealNetworks) and Mark Cuban (who later sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo! for $6 billion) gave me a big chance by broadcasting my show from a little radio station in Joliet, Illinois. After a short while it became clear we weren’t hitting our target audience with a local radio show, so we thought, Let’s take it to the Web!”
In doing so, Rutkowski has become equal parts correspondent, commentator and educator in reporting on cyber-culture and the information revolution. Through his work with KenRadio, he has interviewed such figures as Al Gore, Bill Gates, James Carville and Todd Rundgren on topics as wide-ranging as the evolution of cyber-communities and the role of humanism in the emerging field of bio-genetics.
Rutkowski’s tech-news broadcasts have bounced around in various forms since the late ’90s — he has been a correspondent for Yahoo Finance, CNET Radio, National Public Radio, MSNBC and Spinner.com — but they’ve found their greatest success on the Web. “I’m trying to get a sense of the power of the Internet to bring micro-targeted newscasts into people’s homes,” he says.
His “World Tech Round Up” is now heard by about 35,000 listeners a day through distributors such as America Online, Yahoo and Now – Network of the World, an Internet and digital TV content service. In addition to the show’s Webcasts, the audio is licensed out to an eclectic collection of broadcasters, such as the college radio station in Newcastle, Great Britain, and stations in as Australia, Hong Kong and South Africa.
Rutkowski gives his reports a global spin. “I’m more fascinated about the tech news happening outside the US: 3G technology, HDTV, all the cool stuff happening in Australia and Singapore. That’s much more interesting than banner ads or the latest high tech layoffs.”
Even so, tech news isn’t by nature the most scintillating subject on the planet, so Rutkowski tries to make the Webcast more personality-driven. “I think personality sells a product,” he says. “If you think about the really successful personalities, from Ted Koppel to Jay Leno, they could talk about anything and make it interesting. So I want people to have an affinity to me, not to the content.”
Part of his Webcast’s success has been driven by a free e-mail newsletter, “Daily Tech News Clicks.” With 15,000 subscribers, it’s perhaps the most elaborate and extensive newsletter roundup in all of new media. The newsletter highlights not just his daily audio clips but also a comprehensive set of links to obscure or difficult-to-find media sites, broken down by continent, such as a piece on new media working with the public sector from Revolution UK Online in Britain or an article on subscription fees in Singapore from IT Asia One.
As the dot-com free-fall has cleared the field of startups that had relied on small editorial staffs churning out content, and as traditional media companies have pared back their online staffs, Rutkowski sees an opportunity for small independents — including one-person journalism operations — to create programming for the Net’s remaining giants, like CNN, ABCNEWS.com or AOL-Time Warner, for content publications like Salon or Kagan, or for technology solutions companies like Australia’s itv|world.
“I’m the only one out there creating an independent technology show,” he says. “Someone should be doing a good finance show. There’s no reason somebody couldn’t do a good parenting show or commodity show. Creating content is a very expensive proposition. Some of these struggling content sites would be willing to do a syndication deal, but people aren’t stepping up to the plate yet.”
KenRadio doesn’t generate significant income for Rutkowski, but it helps his consulting business and has been a catalyst for his broadcast appearances at trade shows. “If I’m in your e-mail in-box every day, I have a better chance of getting into your company,” he says. “It’s a door opener.”
Kuro5hin has long impressed me as the right way to do a collaborative news site, or community Weblog. (Hell, you tell me what to call it.)
The site, which started out in December 1999 as a small personal project, is the brainchild of founder Rusty Foster, a shy, intense and extremely bright 25-year-old programmer who works out of a rental house on an island off Portland, Maine.
“You’ll often find better journalism here. Not every other story, but every month or so you’ll come across something and say to yourself, ‘Damn, that’s a good story.'”
K5, as its fans call it, initially ran Slashdot‘s open-source software, but when users began to show up in droves, Foster scrapped the code and rebuilt the site from scratch. “Much to my astonishment, people came, liked the site and started spreading the word,” Foster recalls. Other programmers added to the site’s underpinnings, and a handful of volunteers now help out maintaining and administering it.
Kuro5hin (pronounced “corrosion,” a pun on Rusty’s first name; the 5 is a programmers’ pun that somehow eludes me) has a bit more than 20,000 registered subscribers and garners 100,000 unique visitors and 2.5 million page views a month — or did until the site’s servers went belly up in late November. (The site reopened Saturday.)
While the larger, more established Slashdot pegs itself as a news-for-nerds technology forum, Foster encourages a broader range of material. Topics run the gamut, but mostly center on technology, culture and politics.
Foster’s involvement in the process is minimal. “I prefer to operate as a reader and contributor, rather than as a demigod,” he says.
Where Slashdot has a stable of editors charged with surfacing the primo postings, and Metafilter relies on a system of anything goes, Kuro5hin plies a middle ground: You submit a posting (longer, more thoughtful posts, essays and articles are encouraged) and the site’s members vote to play up exposure of the item — or to relegate it to the site’s hinterlands.
Such a democratic if Darwinian system, where the creme rises to the top, vanquishes the high noise-to-signal ratio that dogs most community news sites. The system recalls MIT’s pioneering customized personal news service, fishWrap, where readers – not editors – decided which stories appeared on the front page based each day.
While Slashdot and other forums are often about pointing readers to content on other sites — a phenomenon that Foster cheekily describes as “mindless link propagation” — Kuro5hin tries to kindle intelligent postings and interaction without leaving the site.
“Overall, I think the site’s users do a better job than the mainstream media do,” Foster says. “You’ll often find better journalism here. Not every other story, but every month or so you’ll come across something and say to yourself, ‘Damn, that’s a good story.’ ”
One memorable article came during California’s power crisis last summer. “I was living in San Francisco at the time and was bombarded daily with sound bites from this expert or that utility spokesperson,” Foster says. “A California resident who had some understanding of the deal wrote a backgrounder that laid out the situation far more incisively than anything I’d seen in the media.”
For the most part, Foster says, Kuro5hin publishes original articles by people who aren’t professional journalists but who have expertise in a given field or specialty. The articles, of course, are accompanied by commentary from the site’s members, ensuring that the original article is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end.
Foster thinks mainstream news sites can learn a thing or two from collaborative journalism. “I would love the media to come away with the understanding that people don’t just want to be talked to. People know what’s going on, and the media still have the mindset of, ‘We’ll tell you the news and you just shut up and listen.’ Well, no, that’s not going to work anymore.”
Foster draws a distinction between the traditional model of news-gathering, “where you have a reporter who doesn’t know a whole lot about a subject but interviews people to piece it together,” and collaborative journalism, “which is about people who already have topical, detailed knowledge telling other people what’s really going on.”
Occasionally on a community Weblog you’ll come across “astro-turfing” — hacker argot for fake grassroots postings, where users have a hidden agenda or financial incentive to promote a particular cause, service or product. “That’s the dark side, and it’s hard to filter out,” he says. “But the other side — taking advantage of experts in a topic, hearing the community’s collective experiences — more than makes up for it.”
The gripping and still painful postings on Kuro5hin from the hours and days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, are already making their way into the Library of Congress’s Internet Archive. And a footnote occurred just two weeks ago, when a Kuro5hin member was visited by the Secret Service after posting a thoughtless, juvenile musing about how to infect the vice president with a dose of smallpox. Foster spoke with the poster and describes him as “a little frightened” by the visit, but says the agents were just doing their job to make sure the threat was not credible.
Kuro5hin was nominated for a Webby award last spring as best community site, and Foster seems almost like a proud parent when discussing how self-sufficient the site has become. “I went on vacation for two months last summer and the site was fine. The community ran it on its own, nobody really needed me,” he says. “Ninety percent of my time these days goes into customer service, trouble-shooting, answering e-mail. That, and trying to keep the site running.”
The site generates some advertising revenue through a deal with open-source company VA Linux’s OSDN network. “And our expenses are absurdly low,” he points out. That’s sufficient to keep Kuro5hin — and Foster — afloat. At least for now.
Two years ago Patrick Phillips was plugging away in corporate communications, helping to develop the corporate Web site for the Hearst Corporartion Then the free-lance writing bug bit, as well as the idea for a media portal.
“While working for Hearst I often needed access to the corporate Web sites of media companies, along with newspaper and magazine circulation figures, data and research,” Phillips says. “A Web site that gathered all that information in one place did not exist, and so I created one.”
“The things that catch my eye are the more significant developments in the industry: convergence, and layoffs, and the turmoil going across the media landscape.”
Thus was born IWantMedia.com, a smartly designed media portal brimming with information useful to anyone working with print or online media, from journalists and managers to marketers, sales reps and media buyers. The site draws thousands of unique visitors a day, many of them from office settings.
The site consists of a media headline news service, updated throughout the day; a daily industry news section; job listings; and databases of media publications, organizations and other resources. One of the more popular features is a layoff tracker, which has been fairly busy of late.
In addition to the databases and headline links, the site also contains original interviews Phillips conducts with movers and shakers in the media world.
Philips created the site from the ground up, working from an apartment in New York. The site’s launch, in the summer 2000, was accompanied by the debut of a free daily e-mail newsletter, which consists of pointers to stories of interest to media professionals. About 1,200 people now subscribe. (I’ve been a subscriber since shortly after it began 18 months ago and find it a huge time-saver, especially after the demise of the Industry Standard’s Media Grok.)
“The idea behind the site and the newsletter is two-fold: to help others in the media business, and to promote my own free-lance writing,” Phillips says.
The site isn’t lucrative enough to let Phillips quit his free-lance work, but he notes, “It’s taken off on its own and attracted a number of paid advertisers. I’ve had businesses and organizations contact me about licensing or acquiring the site, but so far I’m happy to keep it going on my own.”
While press junkies flock to Jim Romenesko’s Media News, IWantMedia eyes a wider swath of the media mélange. “The things that catch my eye are the more significant developments in the industry: convergence, and layoffs, and the turmoil going across the media landscape,” Philllips says. “The industry seems to be in an era of fundamental change right now, with the economic downturn and the impact of the Internet on traditional print and broadcasting. It’s great fun to try to keep on top of it all.”
A grassroots news site or community Weblog similar to Kuro5hin in some ways, Metafilter is where you’ll likely see the earliest reports of a disaster or other breaking-news event before the news media jump into the act.
That’s because many of its 12,662 members serve as amateur reporters — or at least homespun commentators.
“People like playing amateur reporter. It’s a way to share your experience with others, and to become part of the news event.”
Matt Haughey (pronounced “howie”), a 29-year-old Web designer and programmer in San Francisco, began a “multiuser weblog” in 1999, programming the site to allow others to post. He recalls: “It sort of just hummed along for about six months, with mostly my own postings, until early 2000 when it received a cool-site award from Project Cool. That day we got 7,000 or 8,000 visitors, and a critical mass happened and the site took off.”
The site’s litmus test for newsworthy content? If you think it’s important, post it. (Only caveat: There’s a one-week time lag before new users can post to the front page.) Unlike the granddaddy of collaborative news sites, Slashdot, where a team of editors decides what’s worthy of the front page, or Kuro5hin, where the readers vote for the site’s front-page content, Metafilter is free-form and filterless.
“Anyone can put anything on our front page,” he says. “And they do.”
Which means on any given day you’ll see a couple of dozen links to sites, news stories or other bits of ephemera. Last Friday, for example, you could choose from a link to the real translation of Osama bin Laden’s videotape (UBL: “I like what you’ve done with your cave. Very minimalist.”); read a tip about a new Google capability to search thousands of mail catalogs; or wade through the commentaries on the Surgeon General’s admonition for Americans to lose weight.
The subject matter — which is surprisingly smart and funny, rather than riotous or chaotic — runs the gamut from news events to politics, technology to pop culture and everything else under the sun.
All of this is done without a big time sink for Haughey, given that the site’s members post on their own and police themselves. But Haughey’s influence shows at every turn, from the site’s About page for newbies to his self-deprecating personal profile, which shows the number of links (714) and comments (1,726) he has posted.
“My philosophy is not to use a heavy editorial hand,” he says. “I’ll fix bad HTML, but I don’t edit or delete the content,” unless a posting violates the site’s guidelines.
Haughey says he’s particularly intrigued by the first-person reports on Metafilter, such as the fellow who posted about an account of the earthquake in Seattle last Feb. 28 only a minute or two after it happened. (Slate published a piece about Metafilter scooping the national news media.) And the eyewitness accounts of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Then there was the woman who was quoted in a news account as saying that as she was witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center nearby, the first thought that crossed her mind was that she had to post to Metafilter. Says Haughey: “I thought, ‘You know, evacuation should be the first thing on your mind.'”
Haughey says that by its very nature, Metafilter will often outscoop traditional media. “The moment a person posts to the site, it’s up there, without any intermediation,” he notes. “People like playing amateur reporter. It’s a way to share your experience with others, and to become part of the news event.”
He says he was initially worried about “wild rumors running rampant” on the site, but that hasn’t been the case. “It’s typical of the Internet that if you post something kooky or out-there, people ask that you substantiate it and back it up.”
Haughey doesn’t see sites like Metafilter replacing traditional journalism. “Editors and reporters are always going to remain important. But this is an important supplement. I see people who’ve been on the Net for years — like research librarians — who can rival traditional journalists in terms of the quality and depth of knowledge in a given subject.”
The site attracts 85,000 visitors and generates 1.8 million page views per month. Despite its success, Metafilter is a labor of love and doesn’t raise a dime of income. That’s become a bit of a problem lately. Haughey recently lost his job and has had to close the site to new members because its free server, which his father built, has reached capacity.