These are my questions independent blogger, and free-lance reporter, Tony Hopfinger, about his website, Alaska Dispatch. Amanda Coyne, a local writer, is Tony’s co-publisher and spouse.
Do you consider what you're doing with Alaska Dispatch to be a business or a hobby?
It’s a business to the extent that we hope to raise revenue to contract with editors and freelancers. But neither Amanda nor I view this as a profit-making venture for us personally. We started Alaska Dispatch with our own money because we felt like we might have something to share with the community. We both have full-time jobs, and this is secondary, so it could be classified as a hobby, albeit an obsessive one. But I don’t believe the two need be mutually exclusive.
If it's a business, could you explain the business model?
The same as your newspaper: to sell advertising and generate revenue. The first step has been to establish a presence on the Web (we launched our site Aug. 13, 2008). We’re now entering our second phase, which has involved developing a more elaborate site that looks and feels like an online magazine and can accommodate advertising. Our goal is to eventually contract with editors and writers, while continuing to provide a platform for citizen journalism. Perhaps down the road, Alaska Dispatch could become a full-time job for one of us, but right now we’re not quitting our steady gigs (I’m a correspondent for Bloomberg News and a freelance writer; Amanda also freelances and is a full-time writing instructor at Alaska Pacific University).
If it's a hobby, what do you find most rewarding about doing it?
We live in such an interesting place, filled with such interesting people who have fascinating things to share about their worlds, and it gives me great pleasure to provide an outlet for those who wouldn’t normally see their stories published.
Are you able to cover your expenses? If not, when would you expect that to be the case?
We are fortunate in that my brother, Todd Hopfinger, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has dedicated countless hours building our websites. He just completed a new website for us that looks and operates much more like an online magazine. This has saved us thousands of dollars. We are also fortunate in that we have money to invest in our site. To date, we have spent about $2,500. Through donations and some advertising, we have covered most of our costs. Our expenses have included hosting the site, purchasing domains, commissioning graphics, hiring a lawyer to review one of our stories, and securing rights to republish articles from The Christian Science Monitor.
I believe I saw on your site a request for readers to donate money. Are people sending you money?
See answer above. We still accept donations but we are now focused on advertising. If folks want to help, the best thing they can do is contribute their stories, photos and videos. Send them to email@example.com or complete the submission form on our website.
How would you define the audience for Alaska Dispatch? What do your readers get from you that they cannot get elsewhere?
I don’t think we really have a different audience than the ADN. Just like you, we’re trying to attract readers who care about the state, who are interested in their communities and the news. But maybe because necessity is truly the mother of invention, or maybe because we just want to hear from folks, we want many of these stories to come directly from those who are experiencing them. We don’t know how that’s ultimately going to play out or what that’s going to look like, but we do know that people across this state have interesting things to say, and there does seem to be a rapt audience for their stories. The buzz phrase of the day is “social networking,” which is just another way of saying that people want to talk to each other. We’d like to be an outlet for the conversation.
On that note, Pat, we invite you and your employees to contribute to the Dispatch.
How do you measure audience, in page views, unique visitors, etc.? What's the current size of your audience?
We use both page views and unique visitors. Our page views have ranged from 40,000 a month to more than 120,000 a month and our unique visitors have ranged from 400 a day to more than 40,000 a day. Being a new website, we expected traffic to be sporadic.
If I understand correctly, you and Amanda write for and have responsibility for the site. About how many hours a week do you two devote to reporting, writing or editing for Alaska Dispatch? How do you take time off?
It’s a second job. I’m not sure how many hours we devote weekly; at least 20 to 30 hours each. It’s been double-duty the past couple months because we’ve had to maintain the old site and build the new one, which launched Monday. As for time off, we got a vacation in after Christmas. During that time, we did not update the site regularly. Taking time off is a challenge, but we hope to enlist others to help maintain the site so we can have a break occasionally.
I understand your principal income is from free-lance writing and reporting. Does that work pose any conflicts with your Alaska Dispatch publishing? Is it synergistic?
No conflicts to date. But it has provided numerous synergies. Many of the stories I come across don’t rise to a national level, and thus Bloomberg News and Newsweek pass on them. The Dispatch gives me an outlet to publish them or pass the ideas along to contributors. Secondly, my freelance work keeps me in the game as a reporter and up to date with the current issues. If I wasn’t freelancing regularly, the Dispatch would be much harder to justify. I’d be too busy searching for work to have time to run an online magazine.
You asked me a lot of questions about the sustainability of newspaper publishing. Do you think a blogging project like Alaska Dispatch is sustainable? Can you imagine a day when the blog would provide you with the conventional features of employment: a salary, vacation, health insurance, a retirement plan, etc.
I wouldn’t be doing all this if I didn’t think it was sustainable, but then again, you and I might have different definitions of the word. (And I should say that I think we have moved beyond a blog.)
That doesn’t mean I’m taking your question lightly. There are a many Alaska businesses, particularly small companies, looking for an affordable place to advertise. And many of these businesses are beginning to get used to the idea of doing so online. As a result, a few online Alaska-based news sites are bound to have some measure of success. Perhaps the Dispatch will be among those to take root. For now, we’ll have to continue with sweat equity and asking friends and strangers alike for help.
I don’t believe the traditional publishing and compensation model is the wave of the future. As you know, health care costs are crippling businesses nationwide; no doubt insurance is a big cost for McClatchy. People have sacrificed their creative impulses to work for companies that provide health care and retirement plans only to find their employers scaling back their benefits. As far as job security, I’m not sure I know anybody, outside of government, who truly feels secure in their job. That goes for many newspaper reporters and editors.
Our long-term vision, which seems to be in line with other startups, is to contract with editors and freelancers, all based out of their homes, and contribute to their health care and work expenses. This is basically how I am compensated by Bloomberg News, and I believe it will be a growing model in the Internet publishing world. (Health care is still a major issue, even if contractors are compensated so they can purchase individual insurance plans. Hopefully someday the self-employed will be allowed to pool for coverage and not be excluded by preexisting conditions.)
Compared to a daily newspaper, what is the role of local blogs in serving the information needs of a community?
I’m not sure what others are getting out of reading blogs, but I often find different perspectives than those in daily newspapers. Some blogs provide a rougher, edgier look at the news. Some make you feel like you’re in a living room, listening to a monologue. Some are doing original reporting, which is always a good thing. But ultimately, I’m not sure its ever going to be up to me to decide the information needs of the community. As you well know, readers do a pretty good job of telling us that. And so far, the message seems to be they want a range of information from a variety of media sources.
Do you consider Alaska Dispatch to be primarily a source of original reporting, a place for commentary about news reported elsewhere, or a place to republish interesting content you've found elsewhere?
The goal is to achieve all the above, which of course will take time. So far, we’ve published more than original 400 stories, from opinion and analysis to original news and investigative reporting to feature writing and dining reviews. And if Amanda’s doesn’t kick me out of the house for turning our abode into a newsroom, we’ll continue to plug away.
Do you pay any of the writers who contribute to your site?
Not yet. We hope we can do that this year.
What do you think has been your site's biggest success so far?
Bringing together more three dozen Alaskans to produce a new outlet for news, opinion, features, arts, photography and video. Being mentioned in The New Yorker wasn’t that bad either.