Last year the Oakland chapter of League of Women Voters gave out awards to six bloggers, who, the organization argued, were “helping make democracy work.” The prize was small (it consisted of a plaque with a framed image of a quilt); the accolades were sure and sweeping. The winners — Aimee Allison, Debby Richman, Echa Schneider, Jonathan Bair, Rebecca Saltzman, and Zennie Abraham — were credited with providing up-to-date local news coverage, some of it in-depth. They were part of a nationwide blogging movement carried out by autonomous citizen-journalists, who mostly blogged for no pay. With all the slashing of editorial budgets and shrinking of mastheads at so-called “mainstream” press outlets, the conventional wisdom was that citizen bloggers providing free content on the Internet would fill the gaps. By April of 2011 (the month the awards were distributed), web publications like Allison’s OaklandSeen and Schneider’s A Better Oakland really seemed like the wave of the future.
But shortly after being recognized, half the blogs fizzled out. Schneider, a city library employee who wrote under the handle VSmoothe, published her last entry on November 7, 2011, and it was written by a guest commentator. OaklandSeen quietly ceased operations in May, although the domain remains active. As of late last week, Saltzman’s Living in the O hadn’t posted anything since early January, and entries were sporadic in prior months. The blogs that remain, meanwhile, tend more toward civic boosterism (like Bair’s TheDTO blog or Richman’s Today in Montclair), or foreground pop culture coverage that’s unrelated to Oakland, as is the case with Abraham’s deceptively named Oakland Focus. In short, political blogging in Oakland, once touted as the future of journalism, disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived.
And that might reflect a wider trend of blog-death in the local news circuit. Other moribund web publications include Michele Ellson’s The Island blog in Alameda (which she replaced this week). Jennifer Inez Ward largely stopped updating her blog Scenes from Oakland in order to focus on writing for Oakland Local and other media outlets. Alex Gronke’s OakBook, once considered the grandfather of Oakland blogs, ceased operations so that Gronke could work full time at AOL, where he serves as regional editor for Patch. Although Gene Anderson has managed to stay fairly prolific at his website, Our Oakland, his coverage tends to be events-oriented, rather than news-driven.
So what happened? It appears that in-depth political blogs are just too hard to keep up, and it’s easy to get burned out on blogging when you lack a reliable revenue stream.
“The hyper-local coverage we’d envisioned — there just wasn’t a good business model to sustain it,” Allison explained, adding that she’d hoped to build OaklandSeen on a philosophy of “community engagement” — meaning full of rabid, civically-minded, easy-to-edit local bloggers who would gladly work for free, and a small but capable team of editors to manage them. OaklandSeen had its genesis in 2008, as a segment on the KPFA Morning Show, which Allison co-hosted. Initially she secured seed money from the Haas Foundation and from a partnership with East Bay Housing Organizations, which was just enough to pay editors and propel the magazine along for two years on an extremely tight budget. But by mid-2011, Allison was having a hard time replenishing the web publication’s coffers. “That initial funding was great,” she said, “but there was a lot of competition for foundation support of local blogs.”
Absent donor largesse, there wasn’t really a way for the blog to be self-sustaining. Allison wouldn’t consider a paywall because the laws of supply and demand wouldn’t allow it. “The whole paywall concept would require a lot more years, and a lot more valuable content,” she explained, adding that it also went against the nonprofit ethos of providing a service for the community.
She and the editorial staff discussed other possibilities, like soliciting donations or ads from local businesses, but even those ideas wouldn’t adequately monetize the operation — especially without a business staff to orchestrate them. OaklandSeen generated revenue for several months after signing a partnership agreement with Bay Area Publisher Partnership (which sold and placed ads on smaller blogs), but the company eventually went out of business. In the meantime, Allison left regional media to work the national political campaign, Roots Action. She put OaklandSeen on hiatus.
Bair, who used to run a political blog called FutureOakland that he’s now largely abandoned, said that reported, substantive citizen journalism can be extremely time-consuming, and offers very little payoff. “If you want to engage on a more professional level it takes a lot of time and research,” he said. “It’s easy to get burned out — activism in Oakland can be particularly frustrating.”
His other blog, TheDTO, is easier and more rewarding in the sense that it’s more of a branding exercise. The whole point of TheDTO is to champion retail and development downtown, which is both a personal passion and a career for Bair, who works as a marketing consultant for local businesses. He makes no effort to obfuscate the blog’s intent, and keeps his own goals pretty transparent, too. “The original point was to compile good news about Oakland in one place,” Bair explained — “and boost our Google ranking.”
Because citizen journalism is such a time-consuming, unprofitable enterprise, many former bloggers have redirected their energies toward Twitter, which is a quicker, easier way to opine or convey information, and also a more efficient form of personal branding. Saltzman, who tweets under the handle OaklandBecks, has largely rechanneled her reportage to fit the 140-character format. Bair, too, saw Twitter as a great utility. “VSmoothe suggested I use Twitter as a way to get my ideas out there when I don’t have time to blog,” he said. “I definitely think of it as a micro-blogging service.” He added that hashtags like #Oakmtg (which Schneider created as a way to compile tweetage from Oakland City Council meetings) enable bloggers to comprehensively report a single event within the smaller format.
Whether Twitter can truly supplant a whole consortium of reported blogs — or, for that matter, a robust “mainstream media” market — remains doubtful. While it may be a useful news aggregate, the perils of the medium are many. Recently, Saltzman found herself in a Twitter conversation with two other former bloggers, in which all three bemoaned the challenges of their new format. “It’s good for the updates, but you don’t get the in-depth analysis and reflection,” Saltzman said, noting that the shift from in-depth blogs to cursory tweetage isn’t merely an Oakland phenomenon; it’s happening statewide. Unfortunately, she said, the tradeoff for speed and immediacy is inaccuracy: It’s easy for tweets to be apocryphal or misunderstood, and it’s hard to correct them before they spread. That alone makes a lot of consumers mourn for the days when municipal papers were so well-staffed that they left no stone at Oakland City Hall unturned. It wasn’t all that surprising when local media critics started using “news desert” as a hashtag.
But if the Bay Area is, indeed, a news desert, it’s still uniquely oversaturated with understaffed publications all competing for survival. And there are apparently just enough resources for some citizen journalists to tough it out. Local reporter and frequent East Bay Express contributor Steven Tavares is one of them; he’s managed to build a reliable, constantly-updated news outlet under the handle East Bay Citizen, using PayPal donations to fund some of the nuts and bolts — like transporting himself to city council meetings in Oakland and San Leandro. Though he wryly refers to the blog as “a vanity project,” Tavares has also put considerable work into it — he estimates about forty hours a week — and in the meantime, he’s managed to break news about police misconduct, follow a largely overlooked story about a local hospital closure, and garner about 30,000 unique page views a month. For a one-man operation, that’s impressive.
Although Tavares says he’s mostly bankrolling East Bay Citizen with money saved from a former career in banking, he also thinks it could be a viable career option. A couple years ago, he met famed political journalist Michael Kinsley at the Commonwealth Club, and engaged him in a conversation about the future of media. “This nut needs to be cracked,” Tavares said, “and he [Kinsley] said, ‘It’ll probably come from somebody in South Dakota.’ I thought, ‘Well if it’s gonna come from nowhere, why can’t it come from San Leandro, California?'”
That’s a great outlook to have, and a hard one to hold onto when the money runs out. But maybe there’s hope. If anything can be said for Occupy Oakland’s efficacy as a political movement, it definitely begat a new wave of citizen correspondents. Some, like Spencer Mills (better known by his handle, OakFoSho) operate solely on Twitter and live webstream, while others blog in a more traditional sense. Scott Johnson is perhaps the most vociferous member of the latter camp. His website, Occupied Oakland Tribune — which also has a semi-regular print iteration — contains only Occupy-related news, but it’s gained traction because of the protest movement’s importance to local politics, and because Johnson adds new entries on an almost daily basis. A December cease-and-desist letter from Bay Area News Group (which owns The Oakland Tribune) only added to his renown.
But it remains to be seen whether Occupied Oakland Tribune will be sustainable, particularly if the movement loses steam and news about Occupy no longer has widespread appeal. And in that sense, it might be just like its forerunners — something that seems promising at the moment, but also has an expiration date. Yet it’s equally plausible that something else will emerge — or resuscitate, for that matter — to take its place. Allison said she’d really like to start OaklandSeen back up once the election season gets underway, especially since she still sees a lot of local stories that don’t get enough play. It’s hard to just be a passive consumer, she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not like, ‘Oh my gosh, I should be writing.'”