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Are hyper-local websites the future of journalism?

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: In the mid-term elections coming up next week, politicians are talking a lot about high unemployment, touting their plans to create jobs.

From the sustainability desk, Marketplace’s Adriene Hill reports employment these days is part function of policy, but also viability.

Adriene Hill: Brandon Clark’s a vice president of an insurance agency. On the side, he helps run the website Knoxify, a hyper-local website focused on Knoxville, Tennessee.

Brandon Clark: It’s actually just a labor of love.

It’s the sort of site where people post pictures of the city, reviews of the newest coffee shop. And the sort of hyper-local site growing in popularity — where everyone works for free. But could this be a workable model for journalism?

Jan Schaffer from Americian University’s J-Lab says it’s early yet.

Jan Schaffer: I think that one model of sustainability might very well be a community site as an act of civic volunteerism.

It’s that energy that has grown Knoxify over the last three years. Casey Peters works with Clark.

Casey Peters: We wanted to leave the politics and crime to the general news outlets and we just wanted to focus on the hidden gems of Knoxville.

And Clark says, when they need content, there’s always someone who steps up.

Clark: ‘You know what, I’d be happy to write for you. I don’t have a journalism or J-school background, but I’d be happy to try to toss something together just to keep it going.’

At the same time these self-described reporters have stepped up for free, paid reporters lost jobs during this recession on shrinking advertising. According to the American Society of News Editors, in the last decade, newsrooms have cut more than a quarter of their reporters. The number of paid journalists is expected to continue to fall.

Jan Schaffer from J-lab, thinks just a handful of major papers covering national and international news will continue to exist as they search for new revenue models online. But:

Schaffer: I think we’ll wind up with a variegated media ecosystem.

Some successful online groups exist, from investigative journalism to “fact entrepreneurs” who run their own sites. But right now, few web-based media projects make lots of money. In order for these sites to offer real jobs, they have to start making money to pay money. Which is what Knoxify is trying to do — they’re looking for sponsors.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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