The Batavian: An Interesting Experiment

In the past few days, some local blogs have been linking to pieces in The Batavian, a new media experiment from local media company Gatehouse Communications Media. Gatehouse launched The Batavian four months ago, and it's been slowly growing into a fascinating example of what can happen when a newspaper company throws the old rules out the window.

The Batavian has a number of differences from traditional newspaper Internet properties. First, it has no printed counterpart. Batavia has a daily newspaper, the Daily News, which has no real website. The Batavian leaves the more lucrative print market to the Daily News, but it also avoids the expensive investment of a printing plant.

More importantly, The Batavian lets any registered reader contribute posts, and it treats all registered readers as equals. One full-time reporter, and a couple of other Gatehouse employees who contribute occasionally, make sure The Batavian has new posts every day. The rest of The Batavian's content comes from residents.

Even the pros at The Batavian approach their stories differently from traditional print journalists. For example, one of the most commented stories concerned Jack Davis' fake Jon Powers website. The story was reported by Philip Anselmo, The Batavian's lone full-time reporter. Philip's story links liberally to local blogs that first broke the story, but it also includes some research about the political consultant behind the site, Erick Mullen. (Mullen produced some ads for Eric Massa in 2006. Massa has a new, local consultant this cycle.)

Philip invited Mullen to respond to the story, which he does in the comments. Other commenters have it out with Mullen in a respectful, yet pointed argument. The whole experience is refreshing. Philip doesn't pretend blogs don't exist, he expresses his opinion (while stating the facts), and Mullen has an opportunity to respond completely to the charges made in the piece. This isn't "traditional" journalism -- it's better.

There are other things to like about The Batavian. Locals post videos of spot news events, like fires. When everyone has a cell phone, it makes sense and saves money to let town residents report breaking news themselves.

The Batavian makes little effort to cover news from outside the area. It includes a number of feeds from area news sources, which means its staff doesn't have to duplicate the effort of others. Traditional newspapers, which have to fill a certain number of pages every day, run the same wire stories as every other newspaper in the state. The Batavian's list of links avoids that cost entirely.

The big question for The Batavian is how it will make money. It doesn't have ads, though an "Early Bird Special" offer indicates that they're coming. The good news is that The Batavian costs a tiny fraction of what a "real newspaper" costs, so it can afford to charge less for advertising. Traditional newspapers are struggling mightily to make money from cheap Internet ads. Perhaps The Batavian won't struggle so hard.

Like every other media company, Gatehouse has its share of financial troubles. We'll see if they're able to get past those and launch more sites like The Batavian. Here's hoping.


It is an interesting site.

I would love to see a impartial (ie not Howard Owens or the Batavia Daily News) study on what this site has done to the News' circulation and advertising.

The money aspect is also puzzling. While the Batavian could certainly turn a profit, the revenue would be so insignificant I don't see Gatehouse closing their print properties and going to this model ever.

The lack of expense as you point out is a good thing on one hand, but it also allows for competition to easily enter the marketplace. In another 6 months the Batavian could have five other websites competing for the same audience and advertising.

The other thing that bothers me about blogs and websites in general is they tend to fracture the populace by political beliefs. In my time on the 29th, RT, the Albany Project and Dragon Fly, conservative voices are few and far between. On the conservative sites I visit liberal voices are also hard to find. People tend to create their own little camps and refuse to interact with the other side. This probably isn't a good thing.

On profitability: I agree that the revenue would be small. But isn't that going to be the reality in a few years when people stop reading paper newspapers? Better that Gatehouse start now in markets where there's no effective Internet competition, than playing catch-up later.

On competition: I agree that the barrier to entry is small if you're just talking about building a website. What Gatehouse brings to the table is paid reporters who can generate content, recruit other writers, and basically get the site going from day one. By small-business standards, that's a pretty significant investment in the size of market that Gatehouse is addressing. A local, self-financed website in Batavia that started today would have a tough time competing with The Batavian.

I agree that blogs tend to fracture along party lines. That's another benefit of having a small professional staff. They can go out and recruit conservatives to write, or they can interview candidates from parties that aren't as well-covered by the unpaid writers. One reason The Batavian hasn't covered Republicans in the NY-26 race is that there's no Republican primary. I'm sure Christopher Lee will get his due coverage once the primary has passed.

Having been in the business for over 30 years, I can attest to the fact that 50% of the reporters would like to run their own newspaper. After a couple of run-ins with their editor, they will start planning to launch their own web site. Another possible competitor in individual towns would be the local radio station.

I thought most reporters wanted to run their own bar. :)

Radio station is a good example of a possible competitor.

I accept your general points about profitability and low barrier to entry. What I don't understand is why sites like The Batavian aren't breaking out all over the place. Most of what you're seeing on the Internet are blogs like this one, which aren't competition for the local paper.

A site with real local reporting, selling local ads, is a very rare thing.

Local newspapers get a tremendous amount of visitors every day. At the present time, most advertisers feel comfortable doing their web advertising on these sites.

The Batavia Daily does not seem to have a "normal" website, leaving it open to competition from something like the Batavian.

The Batavia Daily does not seem to have a "normal" website, leaving it open to competition from something like the Batavian.

This is a very important point. I wonder how many such markets there are in other small towns.