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Sometimes the News Just Can’t Wait

March 8, 2010

Veteran journalist Bobbi Bowman has been working for the past few months to start a local site covering the town she lives in, McLean, Va. The former staffer at The Washington Post, Detroit Free Press and USA Today had made careful plans to launch her site later this spring, working with a site designer, recruiting contributors, laying the groundwork for community beats and thinking about ad sales.

And then news broke out.

Bowman learned that Fairfax County officials planned to close McLean’s library—a hub of community life in the Washington suburb—for more than a year while renovations are completed, and that they hadn’t figured out a temporary replacement. But few in town seemed to know about all this. Since newsies tend to be like fire horses, becoming instantly alert at the first sniff of smoke (or news), Bowman knew that she couldn’t wait a few weeks to get her fullblown site up and running. She had a Big Story. So she went to Plan B—and demonstrated just how easy it is to get into the community news business.

With help from J-Lab, Bowman got a crash course in WordPress, set up a quick blog using the name of her forthcoming site (The McLeanEar), and set to work letting her neighbors know about the library closing. Over the past couple of weeks, she’s posted stories about the closing and renovation plans; put up posters touting her headlines in the local supermarket, restaurants and other local businesses; handed out flyers around town to advertise her site; and kept pressing for answers about the library’s future. Just-started blogs aren’t exactly traffic magnets, but Bowman’s readership quickly topped 100 pages a day, and locals began adding comments to her coverage.

In the process, she scored another scoop: Local officials, who had been stymied in finding a temporary home for the displaced library, found one: in an empty storefront on a local shopping center. Now the community’s important gathering place had a home—and Bowman used McLeanEar to let her neighbors know.

Bowman and the McLeanEar are filling a gap in local coverage. The Washington suburb’s print weekly, the McLean Times, was folded into a much larger county paper, the Fairfax Times, four years ago; The Washington Post only writes about McLean sporadically. (Coincidentally, McLean was one of the first towns in which Backfence launched in 2005.) Bowman planned her site because she saw a need for better coverage of the town, whose population is about 38,000. Since neither the Fairfax Times nor the Post has written about the library closing or relocation, it looks like Bowman was spot on.

“This is true community journalism and my neighbors noticed,” she says. “They told me they saw the headlines, I put up in businesses all over town before 7  in the morning. I became a journalist because I thought I could change the world. Giving your neighbors vital to them comes pretty close.”

And here’s the kicker: The cost of Bowman’s hurry-up publishing effort: Zero. WordPress is free, and its built-in tools gave her everything she needed to start a basic site. Her office? A local coffee shop, most days.

That’s the lesson here. At GrowthSpur, we get asked a lot what it takes to start a local site, and a lot of people seem surprised when we say, “Go to WordPress or TypePad, start a blog, and start writing.” It’s just that easy. What comes next is hard—finding an audience and monetizing the site through advertising. Those require a lot of work (and, time for a plug: that’s where GrowthSpur can help turn a community startup into a money-making business through local ad-sales networks, tool and training). But getting going is as easy as launching a blog, adding local coverage and telling the community about it. Baby steps, to be sure, but they’re the most important ones.

As with many other local site entrepreneurs, Bowman sees clear parallels with smalltown community newspapers of yore. “I feel like an old-fashioned pioneer journalist,” she says. “I am the editor, reporter, market director and webmaster. I haven’t had this much fun in years.”

So Bowman’s now a local Web site editor and publisher, a couple months before she intended. An outbreak of news can have that effect. But she’s learning valuable lessons—and starting to build an audience—that will make the launch of her full site much easier. If you’re thinking of starting a local site, stop thinking—and just do it.

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