Online Community Newspapers for Sale: Out2 Media Group Is Out To Nurture “Hyper-Local” Citizen Journalism

Want to own your own online newspaper? Bob Leonard, CEO of Out2 Media Group, may have a deal for you.

He will set you up with a “hyper-local” local online presence. He will train you to be a newspaperman and a businessman. And he wants your reporters to get paid.

Leonard believes all media is local, even when it is online. That’s why next week, Leonard plans to roll out more than 13,400 online newspaper “franchises” and introduce per-article payments to citizen journalist contributors.

“Our objective was always to create a newspaper,” said Leonard, whose Florida-based company has been in the online media space since 1997. “But the changes in the last year have accelerated our actions.

“We always believed that (print) newspapers will diminish, but that there would be an evolution that will take place,” Leonard said. “We don’t want to replace traditional newspapers, but what we have is a product with a foothold in place, and evolutionary momentum.”

This isn’t new to Out2. What’s changed is the prevalence of low-cost publishing tools, the availability of Internet access in rural areas and small towns across the United States (where citizen journalism is more needed), and a growing distrust of mainstream media as well as dwindling professional resources. News abhors a vacuum, and citizen journalism sites from Northwest Voice in California to H20 Town in Massachusetts are filling the void.

New Media Meets ‘Old School’
Out2 is taking the concept further – in a sense, applying a more “traditional” model of local ownership and paying freelancers than a pure online model where anyone anywhere can contribute and work is done on a purely volunteer basis.

Out2 “reporters” will earn $5 per published article. The idea, according to the company, is to “reward contributors and further encourage citizen journalism for local and community-based coverage.” In other words, while reporting on the local sewer project or the high school wrestling match requires passion and an interest in writing, a little extra cash doesn’t hurt, either. And if there is more good local coverage, then online eyeballs will increase and advertising and e-commerce dollars will follow – or so goes the theory.

Franchisees get a piece of the online pie, although they also need to make a capital investment, work to sell the ads and keep the content fresh. This includes reprinting local government press releases verbatim, which is less news than it is dictation from an unchecked source. And then there are the issues of accuracy and legal liability, which are problems for all news organizations that accept public-generated content.

Nevertheless, Leonard believes this is the only way to make hyper-local journalism work.

“We don’t edit or censor, but I believe the quality will improve over time,” Leonard said. “Once someone posted a story about a local football team beating another, but it wasn’t true and the story was corrected within minutes by the community.

“You need to live in the town you cover in order to be a franchisee,” he said. “If you want to be the local media, you have to be local.”

No Blogging, No RSS ‘Stealing’
Leonard believes in the newspaper model – so much so that Out2 publications shy away from modern “Web 2.0” engagement tools like blogs and RSS (syndication) feeds.

“We like the newspaper model, it’s very cost-effective,” Leonard said. “ I don’t believe in the Internet model — blogs are the hula-hoop of the day.

“We also don’t believe in RSS,” he continued. “There is no deep linking in Out2 – why have a newspaper than allows you to just buy the sports page? I don’t want someone to be able to come in and steal our newspaper, so I don’t like RSS.”

Whether the public feels similarly remains to be seen. Out2 is confident, but being a good communicator today means reaching people in ways that make sense to their own lives, not to a company’s balance sheet. If I am at a high school football game and want to know how the team across town did, I can’t pull out my computer and go online. I can, however, get an alert on my mobile phone – Naplesnews.Com is doing this in Florida with some success.

But after nine years in business and a planned expansion over the next few months, Leonard is in it for the long haul. And his success, as well as success for other citizen journalism ventures, will have little to do with business models or whether you can get RSS feeds.

It will be about relevance. It will be about quality. And it will be about trust – you can’t pay for it, but you can and should earn it.

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