Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

Crowdsourcing my dissertation subject decision

This is a bit of a break from what I typically write about, but I thought if anyone could help me reach a decision on this, it’s the industry professionals who read this blog.

Many of you already know that I’m currently pursuing an MA in Electronic Publishing at City University London. I came to do this degree because I wanted to gain an edge in the ways of new media, both through shooting and editing A/V, and Web development.

For my dissertation I have two options: I can write a full academic dissertation; or do a project and write a shorter “dissertation” to accompany it. I’ve been thinking about this dissertation for a while. My first ideas were pretty far-fetched and (most likely) involved more travel than I can afford. But I have a new plan. It’s a project that I’m very interested in doing. But I do have reservations.

The project

In February 2008 I had something of an epiphany about my hometown newspaper, The Oakland Press. I realized how badly they needed to launch a Web-based youth-focused news magazine. I know this because I’ve been a resident of Oakland County nearly my entire life. But before going to the paper with this idea, I decided to do a bit of research to see if my theories about the county’s population were at all as I believed they were: young, educated and affluent. Here’s a excerpt from the proposal I eventually sent to the paper:

Today’s Oakland County resident is dynamic, well-educated, Internet-savvy, and young. According to a recent American Community Survey, the 18 to 24 segment of the population grew almost 8 percent between 2002 and 2005, to 91,228. In that same survey, it found that the 25 to 44 age segment represented over 28 percent of the population, totaling 339,210 in 2005. It also found that children in Oakland County made up almost 25 percent if the total population and numbered 297,331 in 2005.1 These same young people are also affluent. According to a recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Oakland County has the third-highest per capita income in the nation, at $52,274. That is up 7 percent from 2003.2 A population that is affluent, dynamic, Internet-savvy, young, and well-educated is unlikely to get their news from a standard newspaper.

I saw this as a great opportunity that needed exploring. Unfortunately this proposal came in March 2008, when the industry was beginning to enter its current free-fall. It didn’t help that the company The Journal-Register Company, who own The Oakland Press, was essentially bankrupt at the time. So new spending in an atmosphere of consistent staff layoffs made getting this project off the ground increasingly unlikely. The paper expressed interest, but not in the idea of me producing it for them. They asked me, in effect, to freelance for my own idea. Obviously I couldn’t accept that.

In the time since I sent my proposal, local media coverage in Oakland County has essentially evaporated. With The Oakland Press experiencing an identity crisis, The Detroit Free Press canceling their regional publications, and a major monthly glossy magazine going belly-up, there exists a vacuum.

With my dissertation project, I’d like to fill that vacuum. My idea, however, is smaller than the original proposal I sent out, of a county-wide Web-based publication. Instead I’d like to go hyperlocal, focusing only on the goings-on of my home communities of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.

This would be a one-man operation: me. I’ll write the code, write the stories and shoot the multimedia. I’d do this from the middle of May to the end of September. At the same time I’ll be writing the accompanying “dissertation” about the project. I feel confident about being able to develop this because of my background in journalism and, by then, my background in launching online-only news magazines. My second one will launch either by the end of this month or the very beginning of next.

My concerns

It’s important to face facts: The journalism industry is currently in a death spiral. Here in the U.K. the impact is being felt, however the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in the U.S. In the limited amount of time that I’ve been living in London, I’ve been able to afford myself a number of quite lucrative opportunities in the industry and have met very intelligent, well-connected people. Because London is increasingly becoming the global capital once again, the potential opportunities here are more plentiful than they are at home.

There’s also the question of what I do after the project is finished in September. In spite of what the president believes will be the eventual turn-around of the U.S. and world economies, I suspect the trickle-down effect on an individual state basis will take a considerable amount of time. Michigan’s economy is worse off than most other states, so the likelihood that my publication would be bought by a preexisting organization is unlikely, at least in the short term. If the publication is sustainable, I could run it myself. The problem with that is, even running it as a one-man operation, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to even be able to begin repaying my student loans.

Another possibility is being hired by a preexisting media organization following the completion of the project, to work on their Web side. I see that as being the most likely outcome if I did return home to complete this project. But is that what I want? Put all the time and effort into creating a publication, making connections, establishing a rapport, just to leave it?

There’s something to be said for picking the industry up by its bootstraps and “being the change” that the industry needs. What I don’t know is if it’s the right thing for me to do.

What do you think?

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Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, student journalism, , ,

One Response

  1. Okay Ben, Here is the deal:

    (1) choose the project with short dissertation.
    (2) stay in London.

    On (1) you will always have a superior learning with practical experience. So hands down the way to go.

    On (2) the London experience is one of a kind experience that will stay with you for a life time and from which you can launch many career options in US. You are young, take advantage of it. You will appreciate for your lifetime.

    Going back to Detroit – regardless of emotional draw – bad move right now. [I have insight of being from state and with family there as well] Great state, and Detroit has more than given credit for. But it is no London.

    The important thing to remember on a media project is that its success will depend in large part on network potential – size of network. For local publications that population is very small and changes of success are therefore reduced. Opportunity for supporting a large network in London, or in an area of specialized knowledge with national or international presence is much higher. There is a reason that hyperlocal often fails.

    One approach might be to establish a hyper-local segment inside a traditional publication that builds on a pre-existing network (audience) and that enables a different manner of delivery where you build a following.

    Unless there is a very compelling reason to go back to Oakland, (past flame) etc., stay put and enjoy and build on what you started. It probably seems like a hard choice, but isn’t really such a hard choice at all.

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