Big AppleWhen former Colborne Chronicle editor Bob Owen was laid off during the amalgamation of three local newspapers in Southern Ontario, instead of rolling over, he created an online news site to serve his community of 2,000. Robert Washburn, editor of our new Innovation section, reports on Owen’s progress.

Robert WashburnWhen former Colborne Chronicle editor Bob Owen was laid off during the amalgamation of three local newspapers in Southern Ontario, instead of rolling over, he created an online news site to serve his community of 2,000. Robert Washburn, editor of our new Innovation section, reports on Owen’s progress. 

In a tiny township about 90 minutes east of Toronto on the
shores of Lake Ontario sits the village of Colborne, a place most people might not recognize.Yet, for those who travel along the eastern stretches of Highway
401, they may know it as the place with the Big Apple on the south side of the
road. This landmark is often a spot where people pull off for a piece of
homemade pie and a cup of coffee to break up a long trip.

Big Apple CramaheBig AppleIt is certainly not the spot where you would think a new
movement in journalism is taking root. But, for Bob Owen, the former editor of
the weekly Colborne Chronicle, it was the only solution for the community and his
career.

In March 2009, publisher Sun Media
decided it was unprofitable to publish the historic paper that had served the
community since 1866, first as the Colborne Express and later as the Chronicle.
Sun Media had purchased Northumberland Publishers, who controlled the Port Hope
Evening Guide
and the Cobourg Daily Star, along with the Chronicle. It decided
to amalgamate the three and publish a single daily paper called Northumberland
Today
.

Owen was given notice. But what bothered him most was the
lack of coverage of important issues in his community. The new amalgamated
paper faced its own set of layoffs, so the entire operation was short staff. It
meant the local council was not being watched and the community was not being
informed.

He talked with his wife and spoke to some people in the
community. Instead of rolling
over, he decided to create a hyperlocal online news site called Cramahe Now,
after the township surrounding the village.

Using free software and registering a site with Blogger.com,
Owen took his first tentative steps towards hyperlocal publishing for the 2,000
residents in the village and about 4,000 in the township. He began posting. He
receives about 350 unique hits per day and within the first few months had accumulated
10,000 hits. He figures he is getting about twice the circulation of the
old newspaper and Owens believes he is getting solid penetration into
the community.

Cramahe Now“We are not just getting local people. Many people who have
moved away or have a connection to the community are visiting the site. That is
why the numbers are so high,” he said.

The business model is a mixture of non-profit and old-fashioned
advertising revenue. Considering most businesses along the main street are not
the most web savvy group, Owen works with advertisers to educate them around
how they can use the web to help their business.

But more often, it is not a business decision, but a way they
can support the community. And that is where the non-profit model comes in.
Rather than relying solely on advertising Owen believes he can get residents
to make donations to the site for the benefit of all people.

“When the new paper came, a lot of people would not
subscribe. It was not their paper anymore. But, the website has really struck a
chord. They see it as their own,” he said.

And the coverage is one of the reasons it is so popular. The
Warkworth Maple Syrup Festival, the Roseneath Spring Festival and the 150th
anniversary celebrations of the founding of Colborne are among the highly
localized stories that appear.

Another benefit of the website is the ability to post
picture galleries, a popular feature after any community event.

But, it is the hard-hitting journalism that also makes the
site a must-read. A recent debate over the location of the Farmer’s Market received
a lot of attention, but was never covered by the Sun Media paper. Also, a
controversy over a communications tower and renovation to the local library
also made news on the website, but not in the mainstream press.

Still, Owen does not see his website as competition to
Northumberland Today or Northumberland News, the free Metroland newspaper
distributed in the area.

“We want to be seen as a supplement to the mainstream media,
not a replacement,” he said. “I think we are filling a void. There are a lot of
organizations here that do not have a media relations person or who are not as
sophisticated, so they will see me on the street and tell me what is going on. That
is the kind of stuff I want to cover.”

Cramahe Now is not expected to be a big money maker. In
fact, Owen is a retired schoolteacher, who hopes to eventually make enough
money to supplement his income. As he works toward this goal, he says his main focus is
to serve the community.

Robert Washburn is J-Source section editor for Innovation and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont.

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