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Partnerships in Geo-Ethnic Media: The Alhambra Source, Funding & the Sustainability of Local Journalism


 The Alhambra Source: Funding & Sustainability For A Civically-Oriented Local News Website

Local news media have an important role within the Communication Infrastructure of a community. When local media tell stories about activities and issues in a neighborhood, residents are more likely to get involved, and the social change initiatives of community-based organizations have an opportunity to grow. In recent years, however, local storytelling in the news media – especially in large, mainstream publications – has diminished, so concerned journalists, organizations and citizens have worked together to try to create new models for local news.

This  MetaConnects post is brought to you by some of the founders of the Alhambra Source, a multi-lingual, nonprofit local news website that was created as a tool to address the lack of mainstream media coverage of local neighborhood issues in the city of Alhambra.  In an effort like this, sustainable funding is one of the most important and difficult aspects of making a local news outlet work – this post outlines some of the funding strategies that have been employed by several local news media initiatives, including the Alhambra Source. Understanding today's local news landscape can be helpful for organizers who are interested in collaborating in their work with journalists, as well as for organizations that are interested in producing media of their own.

In September 2010, the Metamorphosis Project and the Local News Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism launched the Alhambra Source (www.alhambrasource.org), a local news website for the City of Alhambra in Los Angeles County. Different from all other local news website, the Source was developed based on theory and research conducted over a two year period in the neighborhood. This research helped shape the content and format of the website, and allowed researchers and journalists to forge connections with local residents, businesses, organizations, and public officials. The website strives to be participatory and resident-owned, such that the only full-time staff member is the managing editor, who oversees content production by citizen journalists – local residents and community organizations – and provides them assistance in any way possible, such as multi-media training, editing advice and story ideas.

Funding from the USC Annenberg School, the Annenberg Foundation and the Taiwan-based media company Eastern Broadcasting Corporation made possible the research that led to the launch of the Source, the development of the site's interface and its first year of operation. However, like most nonprofit websites, the Source faces the challenge of financial sustainability beyond initial grants from foundations and the university. Past experience has indicated that even websites that have been recognized as exemplary for nonprofit local news coverage have trouble with continuing operation after the initial funding dries up. For example, Chi-TownDaily News, a participatory news website launched with a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation to serve Chicago residents, ceased operation after this grant ran out despite having received much praise from both journalists and scholars for its participatory mode of local news production.

A more successful example in terms of funding sustainability is the Forum (forumhome.org), a community news website launched in 2005 to serve rural residents in the New Hampshire towns of Candia, Deerfield, Northwood and Nottingham.  Similarly launched with a grant from the Knight Foundation, this website has become self-sustaining through the selling of local advertising and sponsorships as well as reader donations. An advertising manager works on commission for the Forum, and two editors receive a stipend to oversee the site’s content, which is all provided by the volunteer contributors. Despite its ability to sustain operation for more than six years, the site's operator acknowledges that attracting advertisers and sponsors has been a constant challenge, as most local businesses express a preference to advertise in print publications. It is perhaps not surprising that the site began to roll out monthly print editions in 2011.

Looking at the successes and failures of other nonprofit local news sites, the Alhambra Source is now exploring the possibility of combining university and foundation funding with local advertising and a small subscription fee from readers. Given that even prestigious newspapers, such as the New York Times, have faced considerable reader resistance in adopting a fee-based model for their online content, the Source will need to conduct research in Alhambra to assess the feasibility of requiring subscriptions. In the meantime, the Source is planning to meet in the future with City Council and the local Chamber of Commerce to identify other possible mechanisms for achieving sustainability. Additional strategies include building partnerships with media organizations with more resources and identifying prominent community organizations or local leaders that might provide sponsorships to the site.

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