Four years after it was launched, it's somewhat strange to see Westword media critic Michael Roberts publish a blog item with the headline, "Yourhub.com: A local media success story."
Roberts was not alone among traditional journalists (yes, although he writes for an "alternative weekly," he's traditional in his views) in scoffing at the possibilities of a citizen driven journalism site. It was understandable that people would react that way in 2005 to Yourhub.com, which was then the largest effort of its kind in the country. Facebook was barely a year old at the time, and still restricted to college students. Social media wasn't on the tongue of every talker. It was a different time. YourHub.com consists of more than 40 web sites serving the seven-county Denver metro area, with 18 zoned print sections delivered on Thursdays. The print sections feature content originally published on the Web sites. And the content on the Web sites is primarily from members of the community. It was a place for them to share their stories, photos, opinions, etc.
But now Roberts says "it's clear that YourHub has surpassed expectations, outliving the Rocky and establishing itself as one of the more sturdy and credible products from the Denver Newspaper Agency."
Frankly, I'm glad he feels that way.
But the story is a bit more complicated than that. Whose expectations? His? What were the expectations based on? Is it as sturdy as he says?
First, YourHub.com was always a Denver Newspaper Agency product. It was produced by a newsroom where the journalists were Rocky employees, but in actual fact they worked directly with agency advertising, marketing and circulation folks all along. From Day 1. The editor of YourHub.com spent more time with agency folks than with me or others in the Rocky newsroom. Way more time. The cost of the newsroom was covered from Day 1 by the agency, not by the Rocky. The owners split the cost of the newsroom 50-50. The editor did report to me in my role as editor and publisher of the Rocky. And I was an enthusiastic supporter of the project. But the budget for YourHub.com's editorial department was approved by the agency, not by Scripps, the owner of the Rocky.
You'll hear different stories about the economics of Yourhub.com. But it should be obvious in times like these that it would have been killed long ago if it hadn't at least been breaking even. The first issue appeared in May of 2005 and the publication was profitable and had paid back the startup costs by the end of the year, is what I recall being told at the time. The newsroom was lean, to keep costs under control and help keep the effort alive. And although it was a Web first product, the advertising revenue came from the print sections. Roughly 90 percent came from the Thursday sections. That's what advertisers wanted. Or at least it's what the agency could sell.
As one of its founders, I was a big believer in YourHub.com. I remain so. That said, it has some basic problems as a result of neglect over the years. I'd like anybody to take a trip through the YourHub.com web sites and tell me it's a "sturdy" system. It's great to see the print sections get a redesign, which was the peg for Michael's blog post. But the software is way too slow and cumbersome. It hasn't been upgraded in years. That's a huge problem in a medium where four years seems like 40. I think it's still way too balky.
While the original founders of Yourhub.com at the agency were totally behind it, it suffered from so many changes in leadership on the business side at the agency over the past four years that it essentially never had a champion with the authority to make it shine. So not long after it was launched, the software was frozen in time. No money or commitment for upgrades. Strategy was all over the map. And it was difficult to build sales momentum, despite some energetic efforts by individuals in the advertising department. Perhaps that's changed with Jerry Grilly and Kirk MacDonald (one of the original believers in the power of this approach) now in charge at the agency. I hope so.
Another factor affecting the success of YourHub.com was that the Post newsroom never really supported the project, undercutting traffic it could have driven to the site. Instead, the Post created a competitor. You can find it on the Post's home page today. It's called DenverPost.com Neighbors. Below the links to that service on the Post's home page, you'll find links to YourHub.com. The Neighbors section of the home page has a picture. The YourHub.com section doesn't. The Rocky and Google were the main sources of traffic for the Yourhub.com web sites. The Post didn't even figure into the equation. That never made sense to me, given that the Post's owner was paying half the cost of YourHub.com and getting half it profits. But it never changed, despite my questioning the approach. We'll never know how big it could have become, because it was operating on only half its cylinders.
But now that the Denver newspaper operation is more coherent under one owner, it's good to see a renewed emphasis on community journalism and citizen involvement. Perhaps things are looking up for the initiative.
Roberts concludes his blog post: "I can imagine plenty of other folks finding the (YourHub.com) paper and its web component to be useful, informative and enjoyable. It's not the journalistic revolution Temple implied, but the paper/site has carved out an old-fashioned place for itself in the new-media marketplace."
Maybe that's because the world has caught up with YourHub.com. It was revolutionary at the time. Most journalists hated it. One weekly publisher said he would be embarrassed to be associated with something like YourHub.com. Those were fighting words, the kind we put up on bulletin boards in the YourHub.com newsroom to motivate the staff. But just as the critics were wrong then, the praise may not be fully deserved today. The truth is that YourHub.com still has a long way to go. It is good news that it's still alive after four years. It's exciting to see signs of commitment on the part of the agency. But whether a media critic coming around to appreciating it means anything, I don't know. The real test will be in whether the site works well enough for users to stick with it in the era of Facebook and Twitter. We don't know the answer to that yet.