Introduction and Narrative: Debra Galant began her journalism career in 1977 and by 1998 was a New Jersey columnist for the New York Times. After the Times gave her column to someone else, Galant received the URL Debragalant.com as a birthday present from her husband. The next three months Galant spent starting a personal typepad blog, “Debra Galant Explains the Universe.” At a meetup for NJ.com to recruit bloggers for their website, she decided to dive straight into the blogosphere. At that meeting she heard the idea of hyperlocal blogging from Jeff Jarvis. Within a few months, she gave up her personal blog and started Baristanet.com, which she was going to turn into a hyerplocal news site that would eventually cover the areas of Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield New Jersey.
By May of 2004, Baristanet launched its beta. Today Galant and co-founder/partner Liz George employ four people working part-time as reporters, graphic artists and technology experts for Baristanet, which is one of the leading placeblogs in the country. The site has gone from 200 to more than 7,000 visits a day and has been recognized as the inspiration for hyperlocal blogs across the country. “For people who live here this is something they become addicted to,” says Galant.
Main Goal of Baristanet: To provide a new model for local news and discussion that is fast, fun and can support itself through online advertising. “Sometimes we refer to it as ‘your local weekly newspaper meets the Daily Show.’” Baristanet is a hybrid of media news and entertainment. The goal is to provide fun coverage of local issues that are important and includes the community that has gathered around the site while creating a sustainable business model at the same time.
An example of hyperlocal coverage: Last summer there was a microburst (like a tornado) in Montclair which devastated 100-year-old trees and “we covered it like crazy…. coverage that we are very proud of” says Galant.
Notable Achievements: Since launching, Baristanet has become a major competitor in the local market, with a bigger circulation in unique visitors online than the Montclair Times, according to Galant. It was named the #1 placeblog in American by Placeblogger.com last January. It has been referenced more than once in The New York Times, which culls its page for story ideas, says Galant.
During a fire induced blackout last summer Baristanet’s traffic increased 50 percent (despite the lack of electricity in many areas). During the emergency situation the site became a powerful resource for the community. In 100 degree weather Baristanet has provided info to the city that even the town website and police weren’t giving says Galant. Whether it’s a manhole explosion, murder or blackout, people come to Baristanet to see if they are covering it, “and if it isn’t covered already, readers send in tip to make sure it is.”
Aside from traditional reporting, the size and local focus has given Baristanet opportunities to experiment in online journalism. From using a Google mash-up to chronicle local development, to using a national polling company to perform hyperlocal polls in each of the three towns it covers (providing a uniquely statistical view of community feelings about specific town issues), Baristanet has set the tone for what hyperlocal news blogs can do.
A Surprising Realization: Even though you may own a publication or an online site, once you open it up to comments it really is an interactive space, says Galant. “Its personality develops on its own. You can set a tone, but it has become something bigger and different.” Strong personalities emerge and have shaped Baristanet into something that Galant never could have envisioned. “The community inhabits it in a way that is strange, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing,” says Galant.
Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: On a practical level: If Galant could have done it again, she wouldn’t have set up Baristanet to blog on weekends. Unsure when people would read the site during the initial launch, Baristanet had fresh content all week long. She didn’t find out until months later that people tend to read the site Monday through Friday. “But now our readers are spoiled, so we keep up the weekends.”
In her guest post at PressThink Galant also wrote about the lessons learned while working in an immediate medium.
“There’s also the real-time aspect of what can be accomplished by instant publishing. Like telling readers about kids selling lemonade to raise money for Katrina right now, or reporting a high school bomb scare minutes after it happened-– or even just providing an up-to-date community resource for closings and cancellations in the case of snow.”
Money: Baristanet and its four part-time employees are supported by advertising and has been operating in the black for the last two years. Baristanet also pays people to write and do graphics for the ads. Glanat says they often receive five local business advertising inquiries a week and has around 30-40 regular advertisers right now including Realtors, Montclair State University, a local hospital, retailers, services, restaurants and other city institutions.
Future Goals: Conversations with two separate people/organizations are on the table about expanding Baristanet into new cities. Nothing has been decided, but it is something Galant is looking into. Baristanet is also interested in forging alliances with other placeblogs to form ad networks and to share certain content.
What Are you Hoping to Get from other People at the News Innovation Conference?
“We are open for strategic partnerships in terms of expansion. We have an expertise and ability to make the model work and we are looking for capital to make it expand and looking for the right partners.”
Extra Reading: Galant’s guest post on PressThink (Good personal history)
Liz George’s guest post on PressThink (Her review of Backfence)