Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tucson Sentinel Launches

While we in Washington were getting buried under three feet of snow this month, I missed the launch of Tucson Sentinel, an online-only nonprofit that is attempting to fill the space left by the closing of the Tucson Citizen in March.

The new venture is led by Dylan Smith, the Citizen's former online editor. I'm no expert, but I thought the site was visually attractive and easy to navigate, despite some maiden-voyage glitches. (When I clicked the "about" button a few different times today, I got one of those awful "404 Not Found" pages.)

A quick look at the Sentinel shows how far the nonprofit startup model has evolved in just the past few years -- and how features once considered cutting edge are now must-haves. For instance, the Sentinel plans to build a business model based on contributions from local donors and foundations, but it also takes advertising as part of its quest for sustainability. And it is tapping into a growing network of nonprofit news organizations, including ProPublica and Kaiser Health News, to provide coverage of issues of national interest.

On the Sentinel's welcome page, Smith writes:
With a staff of professional reporters and editors, freelance writers and public contributors, TucsonSentinel.com acts as a honest broker of information, filling the need for a virtual roundtable where the community can discuss the issues of the day. ... Our goal is to build a sustainable nonprofit business model that delivers quality reporting in a competitive media environment.

Unlike other startups, Smith is working on spec -- there's nobody like a Warren Hellman, who put up $5 million of his own money to back the Bay Area News Project. In an email, Smith told me that for now, the Sentinel is operating with volunteer help from other former newspaper editors and reporters who lost their jobs.

"Rather than have donors commit to our promises of doing something, we figured we'd actually start out by doing it, on a small scale, to prove that we're a good social investment," Smith wrote.

"Today's budget," he adds, "is the 17 cents and the dusty coughdrop I have hanging out in my pocket."


  1. I've never met Dylan Smith (and when I do, I certainly won't be begging a cough drop off him), but when he got in touch a few months ago and explained what he was trying to do, his efforts sounded exciting and terrifically worthwhile.

    He asked me if I would contribute cartoons on the promise that he's pay my bar tab if I ever came through Tucson (I live in Japan, so ...), and more if, well, if there was ever any more.

    Good luck to the Sentinel!

  2. Hey Jeem - just randomly commented here. It doesn't look like you've written much about the non-profit college newspaper model - which encompasses virtually all collegiate newspapers and is still proving successful for those that have decent management. The formula is simple: content relevant and interesting to an identifiable core audience and free, convenient distribution. Young people will read interesting newspapers if they are free and convenient! See ya. - Elf

  3. I'm the editor of @west, a new newspaper serving ASU's west campus. We're in the final process of filing our 501(c)(3) status and plan to be 50% supported by advertising revenue and 50% through donations, grants and contributions. Anyone with advice, please e-mail me at rgehl@asu.edu.
    Robert Gehl