Block by Block – A Trade Association is Born

“Our narrative has always been constructed by others, either academics or mainstream media and it has always been to the tone of ‘aren’t they quaint.’ Well we aren’t quaint anymore, we are the future and we can construct our own narrative.” – Ned Berke from Sheepshead Bites.

I had the privilege of attending Block by Block last year. It felt unlike any other conference I’ve been to. It was a consortium of small hyperlocal publishers from across the country. These were sites that, unfortunately, aren’t give their due-credit except for a few leaders of the pack such as Baristanet, The Batavian and West Seattle Blog. But it is a rich, diverse and growing community.

This gathering is funded by the Patterson Foundation.* Without their help these small publishers probably wouldn’t be able to gather and share their experiences. But Patterson can’t fund Block by Block forever and that’s why at this year’s Block by Block event (perhaps the second to last one funded by Patterson) a trade association was born among the independent publishers.

Photo credit: Howard Owens

Organizing principles for the group haven’t been drawn up. This was more of an agreement to collaborate than a constitution, but metaphors of the “Continental Congress” were used as a means of acknowledging that there are shared problems and through the freedom of association this group will try and tackle those problems together. This is very much an organic process where a critical mass of publishers whose needs are not being met by current associations (ONA, NNA, SPJ, AAN, INN, etc) are going to create their own.

A trade association (with no “official” name) would allow the group to negotiate all kinds of troubled waters. From the relationship of small community publishers with the FCC, ad-networks, group libel-insurance, health insurance, awards, and more. They could collaborate by sharing knowledge as well as back-end analytics as a means of learning how each other are doing in their respective markets.

The association at this moment has a lot to figure out. Exactly who are “they” and who isn’t. Looking at the group of attendees at Block by Block definitely provides insight but isn’t defining. I’m certain folks that didn’t attend BXB will be admitted to the association but under what rubric. I can imagine a situation where Spot.Us shouldn’t be a member, but I’d argue that Berkeley’s hyperlocal sites should under the guise of their respective professor/editors. For the moment Facebook is being used as a communication tool as some of the founding members define and refine what it is exactly that they are. And remember, the first Constitution didn’t work out – but it was fertile ground upon which to improve. There are lots of questions that I imagine will arise. Should their be regional clusters of this association or a central organization? (Think Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists)

One thing has been clear emphasis has been put on the words “independent” and “publishers” (notice the second word is not “journalist” – an important and wise distinction IMHO). My one editorial remark here: I’d encourage the group to define themselves by the problems they are trying to solve. The Texas Tribune is also an “independent publisher” but I think has a totally different set of problems they must solve.

At the very least the association is there to validate something that many folks have known for a long time. The space of independent local publishers is valid and growing. It truly is a “Street Fight” and sure enough there’s a site of that name covering this space from that angle. With the publishers now having had a chance to meet face-to-face there is a sense of self-worth that they are often declined by the larger media scene. Combined these sites have claws; both in their communities and as an association.

I am excited to see how this group develops and am honored I get to say “I was there.”

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* I’m also privileged to have advised the Patterson Foundation before their public launch and two years later I’m happy to see the results.

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