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Wired for expansion

By: 7 January 2012 One Comment

At a time when stories about the decline of traditional media are common, an online publication is expanding after operating for a little over three years.

That publication, For Smith-based The City Wire, was originally established by Tom Kirkham as a social networking site of sorts where area residents could post opinions, mingle and discuss events of the day. The direction of the site changed when Michael Tilley, business editor for both the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith and the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, was laid off by Stephens Media in June 2008. At the time, Stephens Media owned both the Times Record and the Morning News and the newspapers shared business stories and resources.

Tilley said Kirkham got in touch and the two started talking about changing the format of The City Wire so it would evolve into a news platform. Tilley said that decision paid off and the publication has been steadily adding full-time staffers, freelance writers, is actively expanding into northwest Arkansas and is working on plans to push into other parts of the state in the future. Tilley said the growth of the site has been decidedly healthy – traffic in December was up 42 percent compared to the same month last year and up 101 percent from December 2009. Traffic was also up 740 percent from December 2008, but Tilley said that number’s not terribly significant – the “new” version of The City Wire launched in November of that year, so it’s no surprise that few visitors were stopping in at the time.

In real numbers, more than 685,000 visited the website between Nov. 1, 2008 and Dec. 30, 2011, and the site has recorded more than 4.456 million pageviews.

While The City Wire was setting up shop,  the traditional, print journalism industry was going through a difficult time. In January 2009, for example, Little Rock-based Arkansas Democrat-Gazette announced a hiring and wage freeze for that publication and the 12 other papers owned by Walter Hussman’s WEHCO Media.

A few months later, WEHCO Media and Stevens Media announced the formation of a new company – NWA Media. The move represented a merger, more or less, between the two publishing giants that was brought on after both companies had lost money, cut pages and laid off employees as the Morning News and other Stephens Properties and the Democrat-Gazette and its related properties fought for dominance in northwest Arkansas.

Mergers, lay offs and even discussions in 2009 that the federal government should step in and promote the survival of traditional media outlets boiled down to the fact that newspapers were losing the money necessary to operate as they had in the past. The Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism drove that point home in it’s the State of the News Media 2011 report by pointing out that advertising revenue for newspapers around the nation fell close to 48 percent from 2006 through 2010.

Meanwhile, Tilley said The City Wire has a different story to tell. In addition to expansion plans, the publication will soon have five full-time employees. Earlier this week, The City Wire announced that Kim Souza will start next week as news editor. She comes to The City Wire from the Democrat-Gazette, where she was a business reporter – a position she held since 2005 when she started at the Morning News.

In an earlier announcement, The City Wire stated that Cyd King will join the publication next week to cover arts and entertainment in Fort Smith northwest Arkansas. Debbie Foliart started on Nov. 14 to support sales and leadership development while Daelene Brown began Nov. 7 as the business manager. Tilley – who owns the publication with Kirkham – is the president of the publication. Patricia Brown, who joined in October last year, was named chief operations officer.

Tilley said Patricia Brown has been essential in the growth of The City Wire.  She joined last year because the business needed a good advertising representative and Tilley said she’s surpassed his expectations. He credited her for helping generate the revenue that proves The City Wire’s online model is profitable. That profitability has allowed the company to expand into its own offices, add the aforementioned staff members and work with 15 to 20 freelancers, to boot.

One criticism of online journalism that has hung around for some time is summed up well by testimony delivered to Congress by David Simon in 2009. Simon, a former Baltimore newspaperman, warned of the loss of what he described as “high end journalism” produced by professionals who are full-time, beat reporters dedicated to keeping an eye on the government, corporations and other institutions that make decisions impacting society as a whole.

Online journalists, Simon argues, are often part-time hobbyists who spend more time linking to “legitimate” news sources and tossing out opinions than engaging in investigative journalism. Simon, in short, claims the amateurs that dot the “new media” landscape aren’t the ones covering city council meetings and keeping an eye on other institutions that impact the day-to-day lives of Americans.

The picture painted by Simon differs from The City Wire’s model in at least a couple of ways. Tilley pointed out that the full-time employees and freelancers are trained, professional journalists who create unique content and keep an eye on government, industry and those groups that do impact people. Furthermore, following the time-honored practice of keeping the editorial and advertising departments separate works as well in “new media” as it has in “traditional media” – ethical conflicts and undue influence are kept at bay when editorial policies are not influenced by advertisers.

Tilley is quick to point out, however, that The City Wire’s model isn’t merely print journalism that’s made it’s way to the Internet. He said pragmatism rules the day and the model is flexible enough to use what has been successful in the past and incorporate emerging philosophies that best serve the public and give advertisers the desired “bang for the buck.”

For example, newspapers have traditionally been obsessed with keeping an eye on each other – to view it as a failure to not cover a story a competitor has regardless of whether the article is a benefit to readers. The emphasis under that model, then, is to simply beat the other guy to the punch regardless of the intrinsic value of the story at issue.

“We’re not focused on beating newspapers or the competition,” he said. “We have a business model, we have a journalism philosophy and we are Interested in improving our product daily. We’re not going to change our focus just because someone beat us on a story.”

Tilley said another feature of The City Wire’s model also stressed cooperation with other media outlets rather than engaging in sheer competition. The City Wire, for example, shares content with Talk Business, an online publication in Little Rock that covers business and politics. Other content partners include CBS Affiliate KFSM and  KUAF 91.3FM in Fayetteville. Those partnerships, Tilley said, benefit all involved – a bit of a novelty in a media industry that stresses competition.

“We’re not worried about shutting anyone else down or running anyone else out of business,” he said.

Look for The City Wire to expand into northwest Arkansas later this month or by mid-February. Tilley is not shy, by the way, of admitting that the company plans to expand into other areas where the market justifies such a move.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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