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RJI Researcher Identifies Promising Online News Sites, Seeks to Make Them Stronger

Aug. 23, 2010

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

Michele McLellan served as a 2009-2010 Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellow at the University of Missouri.

Michele McLellan served as a 2009-2010 Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellow at the University of Missouri.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – As local online news services become more numerous, discussions regarding their quality and stability have increased as well. Michele McLellan, who served as a 2009-2010 Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellow at the University of Missouri, has found dozens of online news sites that are gaining traction. She says it is vital for the future of the news industry to identify these promising sites.

“It is very important to identify the good online news sites, find out what they are learning, and share that knowledge so we can make the emerging news ecosystem stronger,” McLellan said. “We want to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and what kind of successes and problems these sites are having so we can find ways to improve.”

Past studies have suggested that the quality of online news organizations do not equal that of traditional news sources. McLellan says she wants to focus more on improving the quality and sustainability of online news sites.

“Online newcomers are struggling with sustainability,” McLellan said. “However, they also can teach us a lot about community engagement and the value of highly local news.”

McLellan developed a list of simple criteria to determine which local online news sites met her qualifications for promising sites. The criteria included:

  • Content: The site is devoted primarily to original news. It may include aggregation and opinion.
  • Practices: The content demonstrates a desire and an effort to practice accuracy, transparency and fair play.
  • Engagement: The site demonstrates a desire and an effort to promote civic engagement or an ethic of participation. 
  • Frequency: The news report is updated at least three times a week. 
  • Sustainability: Site owners are making a serious effort to develop a revenue model.

After developing her criteria, McLellan applied the list to more than 1,400 local online news sites. The criteria allowed her to cut the number of sites down to approximately 120 promising local online news sites. She then surveyed those sites to determine what challenges they face. One of the main issues McLellan found was the negative perception of the sites.

“There is an image that most new sites are blogs run by non-journalists,” McLellan said. “In fact, most of the people running these sites are journalists and roughly half their content on average comes from paid staff.”

Through her research, McLellan has found the most glaring problem that faces local online news start-ups is their lack of business management skills. She said most people that run online news sites were trained as journalists, not as business people.

“In many cases, journalism is the least of their problems,” McLellan said. “The dominate challenge is revenue and sustainability. They are journalists, but they don’t know how to run and manage a business. Many are struggling to maintain their sites as viable organizations that can last.”

McLellan will co-host the “Block by Block” summit this fall to find ways to address these problems and share success stories. Her survey and the feedback from site operators will help shape an agenda for action at the summit. The summit will bring together local site operators with news, revenue and technology experts to share resources for news sites, and collaborate on solutions for future challenges.

“These sites have the potential to be very good,” McLellan said. “They will be different, but they will still provide news and information that people need in communities that newspapers often never reach.”

Michele McLellan served as a Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Fellow during the 2009-2010 year. She worked for more than 25 years as an editor and manager in newspapers, most recently at The Oregonian in Portland. A Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2001-02, she has taught journalism and journalism ethics nationally and internationally and also serves as an independent consultant for community news start-ups. To view McLellan’s survey results, visit http://www.rjionline.org/fellows-program/mclellan/index.php

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