Jonathan Weber — NewWest.Net

Posted on 26. Sep, 2007 by in Citizen Network, Hyperlocal, Social Networking

Introduction and Narrative: Jonathan Weber came to the University of Montana as a visiting professor after the bankruptcy of the Industry Standard where he was editor in chief. While there he became interested in the ongoing story of the Rocky Mountain region’s booming development. Local papers were covering specific stories and towns, but Weber thought they were too close to see the larger narrative. Capturing that missing link was the editorial inspiration for NewWest.Net, which launched in March of 2005. “I was involved with new media and I thought maybe there was a new way to approach this kind of story that might be effective in that context.

NewWest.Net was born as an online publication that would tackle regional issues through a network of local sites. The front page is regional but is supported throughout by a combination of locally focused news organizations. “I think that was a very key innovation,” says Weber.

NewWest.Net has sought to develop a new style of story telling that marries aspects of traditional reporting with blogging and citizen media. The traditional reporting on the site is very open and has a conversational tone that avoids the pyramid style of newspaper reporting. “We care about fairness and accuracy — we care about real reporting — not just opining about this and that — but we are not so caught up in the ‘he said, she said,’ and somewhat un-useful ideas of objectivity that are part of the conventional media conversation,” says Weber.

NewWest.Net writers span the gamete from paid professionals to citizen contributions.

Main Goal of NewWest.Net: To help facilitate a positive and informed conversation about growth and change in the region and provide people with a dynamic source of information and a place they can go to be part of that conversation.

Notable Achievements: Just six months after NewWest.Net launched it won the Online Journalism Award for enterprise journalism for a six-part series “Sex, Money and Meth Addiction: Inside the World of the Dasen Girls.” Beyond the accolades, this series is an example of long form journalism in an effective online format.

NewWest.Net has also been both a source of news on environmental issues including wild life management, wolves, grizzly bears and global warming it has been an active forum of conversation. While Weber admits they can result in shouting matches at times, “they do add up to an interesting and helpful conversation. We have brought in a lot of voices and perspectives, the Pro-Am model has worked well for us and we are proud of our ability to have facilitated that,” says Weber.

A Surprising Realization: There is a gap between what people say they want to do in terms of contributions and the amount of hand holding and management that NewWest.Net editors have to actually do to get that contribution. A part of NewWest.Net is completely unfiltered, where people can blog stories that and it is less utilized than NewWest.Net originally thought it would be. “You can’t just say: ‘Come on in. You should really write something.’ There is an amount of hand holding that you need to engage in to get good contributions from non-professionals. “That is a consistent experience.”

On the flip side, the quality of the photo contributions has been extremely high according to Weber. There is a very active photo community at NewWest.Net. “It doesn’t surprise me that they want to share, but the quality does surprise me.”

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: “Don’t underestimate what it takes to build a business.”

The mantra “if you build it they will come,” is short-term thinking and building a community online is a long-term game. The overnight success stories online get a lot of the attention, but they are rare says Weber. It takes perseverance and time to build a new online media organization.

Advice to people who want to repeat NewWest.Net: Think through your business model, says Weber. Venture capitalists are looking for very specific business models and if you don’t fit into that mode you won’t be able to raise money from those people.

Money: NewWest.Net operates on multiple revenue streams, which Weber says is vital for its survival. They include traditional advertising, holding conferences and events, indoor advertising and custom publishing projects.

“It’s tough to go just on online advertising.”

NewWest.Net is still in the red, but not for much longer. It expects to be breaking by the end of the year according to Weber.

Future Goals: To build NewWest.Net as a brand. The long term goal is to make NewWest.Net a brand that stands for great local and regional journalism and regional conversations in the Rocky Mountains. To do this NewWest.Net will try and build out the local presence by creating more robust sites and have stronger identities that are all linked as part of a network.

A second goal is to enhance NewWest.Net’s high impact journalism, to get to a point financially where NewWest.Net can spend money to do hard investigative journalism.

What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?

I’m interested in hearing people’s experience related to Pro-Am journalism and how to develop robust contributions and conversations on a site.

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