A daily-updated website and mobile service covers Oakland, Calif., with a focus on environment, climate, transportation, housing, local government and community activism in Downtown, Uptown, North Oakland, West Oakland, Fruitvale, Lake Merritt, and the Dimond District. An editor, publisher and three paid part-time reporters produce content, as will citizen contributors. The site geotags content to an XML data map, encourages users to interact via cell phones and employs a range of social networking tools.
It’s been a wild year for Susan Mernit and her startup news site, Oakland Local.
She has taken the promise of a $25,000 two-year grant from the New Voices program and created a viable news site covering the underserved city across the San Francisco Bay. She has also leveraged that to raise an additional $102,700 in support from other foundations.
“The launch went amazingly well,” Mernit said, recalling back to Oct. 19, 2009. Stories about Oakland Local ran in three other media outlets and had over 1,800 people view the site on its first day. That number quickly settled in at about 800 visitors a day, still 200 percent more than expected.
The challenge then for Mernit and her two co-founders was to maintain that level. “We worked incredibly hard as writers to do that,” she said, “simultaneously writing stories ourselves for up to six hours a day, working to get content from partners and working to build a writers’ list to work with. It was intense!”
The site was experiencing 30 percent month-over-month growth and was quickly outgrowing its home. On the technical side, the team made changes on the fly: They removed a poll that took up too much processing time and made the site load slowly; they had to increase bandwidth and move to an off-site private server sooner than expected.
In the seven months since, Oakland Local has published more than 3,000 stories, blog posts and photo galleries from 52 contributors.
The first year statistics, which were published on OL’s site in an effort for transparency, include:
386,466 visits, with 608,428 page views
1.77 pages per visit, 1.58 minutes average time on site
151,336 unique visitors
In addition, they count more than 3,100 fans on Facebook, 1,626 Twitter followers and 783 registered site users.
Central to the site’s success, Mernit explains, has to do with their growing roster of non-profit and community partners, at more than 35 so far in the first year. Described as “training wheels” to allow partners to build capacity on Oakland Local before branching out, these partnerships include online writing and social media training, as well as publishing or promoting content for other outlets.
It hasn’t been a completely rosy ride. Susan Mernit explained: “As the site quickly grew in local influence and popularity, we found ourselves explaining to other media organizations that had a longer tenure in Oakland, but less understanding of how the web operated that our page views and credibility could be a tool to help them gain more readers and attention, rather than a means to deprive them of readers and influence.”
She and her team found writing about the issue on their site to be useful, helping them reflect on and affirm their core mission. The productive dialogue, she said, led to “a better understanding of some of the frustrations of those who feel caught in the digital divide.”
Challenges now also revolve around infrastructure and sustained growth. The team has sublet co-working space and will bring aboard about six interns for the summer.
The next six months will also find the team focused on building revenue “in a way that fits in with our core mission.” Mernit’s goal is to be able to fund up to three staff members.
With site growth slowing now, down from a high of 30 percent a month, Oakland Local staffers will continue their outreach “to a wider pool of local people,” in order to increase their audience base.
And Oakland Local will continue to focus on lean mobile phones as a delivery device. The site was initially designed to function correctly on mobile devices, and this remains central to its mission of access for all.
Oakland Local Chugging Along
In the months since its launch, Oakland Local has been growing its audience exponentially.
By the end of September, just prior to launch, the site’s staff was putting on the finishing touches and beginning to load content.
Three months later, in December 2009, Oakland Local had 27,320 unique visits and 45,000 page views. By the end of March 2010, the numbers had jumped to 92,227 page views and 45,000 visits - a 40 percent increase.
Other metrics shifted, “to give us an average of 1.7 pages viewed, 1.66 [minutes] spent on site, and 51 percent new visits,” reports site founder Susan Mernit.
Perhaps most important is that the site has recently received funding commitments of $100,000, including: $10,000 from the Harnisch Foundation, $20,000 awarded for cell phone research from the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State, and $70,000 from the California Endowment.
The site has also made great use of Spot.Us - the crowd-funding venture created by David Cohn and launched in the Bay Area. A total of six stories have been funded this way, including an ambitious package of stories on the business of marijuana. Founder Mernit has said that reporting would probably not have been done were it not for the community funding.
The six writers on the site in December have turned into 15 now, most of who are volunteers.
Building strong partnerships with local organizations
Oakland Local went live in mid-October after months of planning by editor Susan Mernit and her editorial team.
Mernit says during this early start-up stage, Oakland Live will be publishing 3 new stories a week, plus blog posts and community content. The site will update a minimum of two times a day Monday to Friday, and possibly three to five times a day. The site is running investigative stories, news, features, and more.
“Being a partner means we post their content on our site as community news, offer them training in social media and using our platform to blog and write articles, and ask them to promote us in their newsletters and materials.”
Oakland Local’s core staff includes the following people:
Susan Mernit herself, as Editor/Publisher. She assigns stories, raises money, writes blogs & articles, and works with nonprofits and community organizations.
Kwan Booth, Senior Producer. Kwan assigns stories, works with our youth reporters, writes and produces content and handles much of our community outreach and training. A West Oaklander, Kwan is passionate about poetry, art, beats, music and empowering others, especially around the digital divide. Contact Kwan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Gahran, Senior Editor, Amy focuses on environment, transportation, development and, of course, “the emerging Zombie beat.” A mobile news guru, Amy is passionate about training and speaking truth to power. A new North Oakland resident, she sees the Town with fresh eyes. Contact Amy at email@example.com
Kamika Dunlap, reporter, is an award-winning investigative reporter and a former staffer at both The Oakland Tribune and The Mercury News, who focuses on reform issues.
Barbara Grady, reporter, was most recently the issues reporter for The Oakland Tribune and MediaNews Group, covering such issues as youth violence, and homelessness. She focuses on environment issues and youth issues.
Ryan Van Lenning, reporter, focuses on food access and sustainability issues for Oakland Local. He contributes frequently to Green Options, Matador Travel Network, Planetwize, DGuides, and Ethical Traveler.
In addition to this core group, Oakland Local is working with six additional writers, photographer and reporters, including Rhyen Coombs, who worked on The Chauncey Bailey Project, Carmel Wroth, recent UCB grad, Elise Ackerman, formerly of The Mercury News, and Ian Martin and Alison Yin, photo-journalists.
The core team of reporters is supported by an extensive network of connections with local organizations.
Oakland Local has signed up 35 nonprofits and community organizations as partners, out of a total targeted list of about 75.
“Being a partner means we post their content on our site as community news, offer them training in social media and using our platform to blog and write articles, and ask them to promote us in their newsletters and materials,” says Mernit.
Partnering groups are all either within local neighborhoods or cover topics of focus for the site, and include extremely active larger organizations (staff from 25-30) such as Urban Habitat, The Lao Family Fund, Communities for a Better Environment, Just Cause Oakland, and smaller groups (15 and under staff) including Oakland Rising, InsightCEED, East Bay Asian Youth Center, and Kids First Oakland.
Mernit says local non-profit organizers and new folks have expressed delight and surprise at the depth and range of Oakland Local first set of partners, and have remarked on how joining with Oakland Local is one of the few efforts they have seen the smaller non-profits make in what is she describes as a “often a siloed and racially segmented city.”.
As part of the site’s partnership efforts, Oakland Local is offering training in blogging, news literacy and social media. Recently it sent partner organizations to the Public Media Collaborative event “Social Media for Social Action” in Oakland on Oct 23rd. Mernit says they will do two Brown Bag lunches every month that will offer training to partners, starting in early November.
On the technical side, Oakland Live is built in Drupal. “We’ve spent $3,000 to build it, and it uses 40 different Drupal modules,” says Mernit. “Three of the modules are original or highly customized and will be documented and given back to the community.”
The three new modules are: an email to RSS tool meant to publish organization email blasts and newsletters; a feed-handler to aggregate RSS feeds by topic; and a calendar import/export tool that feeds from Gcal to Ical and into then a Drupal calendar module.
“We are also using a Drupal mobile plug in so we have a basic mobile interface, and we have enabled SMS text alerts as an option, using another Drupal module,” Mernit adds.
While the New Voices grant is helping Oakland Local get off the ground, Mernit says the goal is to secure additional funding, build the member base, and introduce a portfolio of revenue strategies for earned income.
“Oakland Local’s immediate priority is to secure additional grant funding; we have participated in an OSI application with The Center for Investigative Reporting, and are planning to apply for investigative reporting funds from The Journalism and Ethics Foundation,” says Mernit. “We have also met and/or spoken with The California Endowment, The Kapor Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation.”
Mernit and her team are also preparing a OSI Prison Justice Media Fellowship application for Kamika Dunlap and Barbara Grady to support their application for a series of stories on Reintegration and women prisoners planned for Oakland Local.
New Voices is an initiative of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. J-LabTM is an incubator for innovative, participatory news experiments and is a center of American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. New Voices is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.