Thursday, March 19, 2009

Alameda has its own online news site

After we posted an item the other day about a new online newspaper, the San Francisco Appeal, we were told about another local, online news site called The Island that covers Alameda.

The Island has been providing news five days a week since February 2008. The driving force behind this site is Michele (Marcucci) Ellson (pictured), who has been working at newspapers for 17 years. She is the winner of several journalism awards, including a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting, Associated Press and James Madison Freedom of Information.

She left her last job as a regional reporter for what's now the Bay Area News Group in 2007 in part because she was concerned about the direction the business was headed. But she says she never lost the itch to produce news, and so, with some goading from a tech-savvy friend, she started The Island.

The Press Club's webmaster, Dave Price, asked Ellson a few questions.
    Q: A lot of news people wonder whether they could make a living by running a site like this in their community. Do you think you can make a living doing this?

    Ellson: I absolutely think I can make a living doing this. I don't charge much for ads right now, but I also have very, very low overhead. I actually have a loose business plan in place for drawing ads and revenue targets that I think I can make.

    Q: How many people look at your site every day?

    Ellson: I get several hundred readers a day, usually 200-300, with more if there's a big story. And that number is growing. I did some stories about the Rev. Fred Phelps' (later abandoned) plan to come to town to protest a high school production of the Laramie Project, and that drew over 600 readers in one day.

    Q: What kind of feedback do you get, and is it the same as when you worked at a newspaper?

    Ellson: Online is so different from a newspaper. When I worked at papers the communication was a lot more static. You'd run a story and someone would write a letter you wouldn't respond to, or you'd get a phone call from someone who had a question or more information or thought you were flat out wrong, and that would be it. Here, there's a lot more interest from folks in having a back and forth discussion about the news, and what's really exciting about that is that sometimes, those exchanges include information that can push a story forward. They also open up the relationship reporters have to their communities, which have traditionally between reporter and public figure/city officials or reporter/opponent of whatever. Now there are a lot more people, potentially, informing the news that I run.

    Q: How do you let Alameda residents know about your site?

    Ellson: I've been experimenting with different ways to get the word out. A lot of it is just word of mouth, either by telling people or posting stories I've written to electronic boards people are reading, like our Alameda Parents Network. I've also been freelancing for one of the local papers and including my website address in my tag line. I think a key is figuring out what people want to see covered, what they want to know. That draws eyeballs.

    Q: Describe what you do on the news side. It would seem like you have your hands full. I see that you've done some in-depth stories, like comparing your town's budget with Redwood City's. And you've also got a lot of range, reporting on everything from new store openings and school fundraisers to a legal battle over a shipyard lease. Are you a one-person operation?

    Ellson: I am a one-woman band, and yes, I do have my hands full. The schedule is pretty grueling. Basically I'm doing what anyone producing news does — making a rough budget over the weekend, doing my reading, typing up listings, getting in interviews whenever I can. And if I've been reminded of anything over the past year, it's that reporting local news — as you know — is really, really hard. So I'm grateful I've had the opportunity to write about a lot of different things over the course of my career, to sort of help me muddle through.
Ellson also reports that she is just starting to take her first orders for advertisements, which she's hoping will support her efforts. In addition to filling a need for local news, she hopes to provide a financially workable model for others to copy.

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