In September 2005, I launched a simple experimental venture based on the premise that the residents of a place called Fort Bend County, Texas, would be attracted to a Web site dedicated solely to reporting and posting local news and information.
The idea stemmed from my desire to fill a basic information gap. Why should it be so easy for people to use the Web to find out about the day’s events in Washington, D.C., New York or Iraq, but so difficult for them to find out what happened at the school board meeting down the street?
The remedy to that problem would involve reporters (mostly me) covering local government meetings, police, crime, local politics and school districts, and posting stories on those topics the same day they occurred.
The Web site, FortBendNow.com, took hold; visitor traffic as of January is up more than 418 percent from what it was two years ago. Why? My guess is that, in a market served mostly by weekly newspapers, people liked the fact that they no longer had to wait a week, or even a day, to find out about information that had an impact on their lives.
But gaining some measure of public acceptance is a far cry from turning a Web venture into a commercial success. And if not for the foresight of a small band of former newspaper executives, FortBendNow.com might have been relegated to obscurity, along with dozens of other similar experiments that came before.
Instead, FortBendNow.com benefited from the vision of a former publisher named George Boehme, who realized the news that most touches people’s lives starts not at the county level but at the neighborhood level. Further, the Web site that can deliver so-called hyper-local neighborhood news can also deliver an audience made up almost exclusively of residents of that neighborhood. As a result, Web advertisers can target their message specifically to the neighborhoods whose residents they believe are most likely to be interested in their goods or services.
A student of the media, Boehme also saw that the time advantage a Web site brings to the news game was not being fully exploited in the model I’d set up at FortBendNow.com. (A government meeting would occur, I would take notes during its course and, after it was over, I’d make the half-hour drive back to my home office, make a cup of coffee, go over my notes, write up a first draft of the story, edit it and then post it — sometimes three or four hours or more after the end of the meeting.)
When Boehme and I began talking about joining forces last year, I was initially shocked at his idea for refining the model but have since come to embrace its simple truth: It is more important for people to immediately obtain information about a news event that can impact their lives than it is for that information to have made its way through a number of editors and a copy desk — free from misspellings but arriving several hours later.
The more instant news is, the more useful it becomes. If it arrives soon enough, people can take action on local information in order to improve their individual situations, as opposed to picking up a plastic-wrapped bundle of newsprint from their driveways and reacting helplessly to events that happened a week ago or more.
Now, as part of InstantNewsNetwork.com, reporters for FortBendNow.com are able to take the advantages of Web reporting to their logical extremes. Each is equipped with a Palm Pilot device that combines telephone and e-mail, and uses Bluetooth technology to provide Internet access to the reporters’ laptops, wherever they may be. Each reporter also drives a special Chevrolet HHR retrofitted to serve as a mobile news delivery station.
The reporter can cover a meeting, a fire, a press conference or traffic accident, climb inside his or her HHR, write up a first draft of the story and then immediately post it on FortBendNow.com. The result is a local news article, delivered not in three or four hours, but in 20 or 30 minutes. FortBendNow.com reporters also carry digital video cameras, giving them the ability to shoot and post video on the Web site in about the same time it takes to write and post a news article.
We’ve found it takes experienced, talented and open-minded news reporters to adapt to the InstantNewsNetwork model. Each reporter must possess impeccable news judgment and reporting and writing skills. Each must be totally reliable and willing to work with a minimum of supervision, connected to the “office” only by cell phone or e-mail. Each must also be willing to try new concepts and technology, as we continue to experiment with methods that provide our Web visitors with a more timely, useful product.
How can a media company justify such cost per reporter? For one thing, the medium is the message: Each HHR prominently displays the Web site for each market, and a news tips hotline number. Each is a moving billboard and essentially becomes a part of the company marketing campaign.
Also, money for the equipment and the vehicles is money that does not have to go to cover the costs of newsprint, printing or the distribution of newspapers. Web sites distribute themselves.
Are we now free to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors? Far from it. InstantNewsNetwork.com hired its first reporters and leased its first mobile news stations/billboards a few weeks ago. Advertising since that time has picked up sharply and the trend is promising, but it’s much too early to judge the results.
Those results will be measured as they are for any business: Do revenues exceed expenses? Is advertising increasing year over year? The only way to ensure continued service to the public is through commercial success.
As InstantNewsNetwork expands into new neighborhoods across Texas, we believe our advertising will continue to increase, and our business model will pay off. In part, that’s because we believe we have the right team in place at the right time to execute our plan, we have confidence that there’s a strong demand for our product, and we have the ability to move into the neighborhoods that will most benefit the public and our advertisers.
We also believe we hold a distinct competitive advantage over our print and broadcast competitors, because our production and distribution costs are far lower, while the timeliness and usefulness of our product — constantly updated neighborhood news — is unmatched.