When Gannett finally shut down the print edition of the Tucson Citizen and reluctantly kept a skeleton crew of two people to maintain an online blog experiment (and keep the Justice Department happy), Mark Evans and Ryn Gargulinski got the nod.
Evans largely handled the administrative portion of the site, while Gargulinski provided content—often a bevy of content in the community blog site's earliest days.
But the reality of profitability efforts led to a morphing of Gargulinski's duties from writing and content to administrative tasks. As a result, Gargulinski departed TucsonCitizen.com earlier this month.
"I've had administrative jobs in the past," Gargulinski said. "I can do the skills, but it kills my soul. I need to create. I knew it would be total doom for me to take on that position."
Gargulinski had a number of other concerns about the direction of the site as well. Among them, she was leery of Evans' focus on page views and the effort to attract more bloggers.
"I understand that's what makes the website successful, but the page-view issue in Mark's philosophy was quantity over quality. You can get all the page views you want, but nobody will stick around if there's nothing quality there to read. There have already been a couple of issues with people posting unsubstantiated information that was neither backed up by fact nor the truth."
Evans said he had hoped Gargulinski could adjust to the job-description changes, and was under the impression that she would give it a shot until she didn't show up at a bloggers'-appreciation function earlier this month. He then checked his e-mail, which included her resignation letter—and found out she referenced her departure on a blog post.
"Ryn's naïve if she thinks one person can write enough content to generate enough traffic to make this model profitable. The bottom line is she wants to write, and I couldn't afford that anymore," said Evans, who has been the blog site's editor since its inception. "I needed administrative help, and I had one choice—one employee—and it was either change her job description or replace her, and I chose to change her job description and hope she'd roll with it and take it as a challenge.
"It only would have made her a more marketable person down the road. Every media organization in the country is looking for this stuff. Instead, she chose to quit in a very public way. I want to be very clear: I have nothing bad to say about Ryn. She did an awesome job for the site for 18 months. My only disappointment was the way she chose to end her term."
TucsonCitizen.com has grown significantly in terms of unique visitors. As a result, Evans hopes to cover costs by this time next year.
"I had 500,000 unique visitors last month, and that was more unique visitors than the newspaper version of the Tucson Citizen had between May 2008 and May 2009, except for one month," said Evans. "All the rest of (the months), they were averaging about 400,000 uniques. I almost had 400,000 uniques in September, a little more than 400,000 uniques in October and more than 500,000 uniques in November.
"My problem is I'm not getting as many page views. The old Citizen, getting 400,000 uniques, was getting four to five page views per unique for 2.5 million page views per month, and I'm only getting about 1.7 (million page views per month).
"Why is that happening? I think one of the problems is the blog design we have. When people find things through search or social media, they jump into the site, read what they were looking for and jump back out. What I need to do is capture their attention: 'Oh, by the way, look at all the other great stuff we have.' If I can do that, I can almost break even based on the number of uniques we have now. So I add more content, add more uniques and page views, and do other things Gannett has ... and I think it's realistic to get to a million uniques a month and 5 or 6 million page views, and that is profitable. And my big bosses up in Virginia recognize that. I think that's one of the reasons we're still here."
In order to fill the position, Evans lured Anthony Gimino, who joined TucsonCitizen.com as part of a grant experiment funded by J-Lab. He is the focal point of the site's successful hyper-local sports-blog coverage.
"When Ryn quit, I decided to move Anthony up to full-time and have him do mostly sports and help me with administrative stuff," Evans said. "Then (we can) pull the social-media part out and put that into a different position. Anthony will be the sports-network administrator and write about UA sports. Twenty hours a week for social media will be its own position."
In addition to pursuing bloggers with a specific expertise, Evans hopes to lure more nonprofit outlets to the site, and he's using TucsonCitizen.com's search-engine optimization as one of the key selling points.
TucsonCitizen.com is modeled in much the same way as hyperlocal Gannett blog sites in numerous cities nationwide.
"Instead of turning its nose up at the citizen-journalism revolution, Gannett is saying, 'These people break news and know what's going on in this community, so let's embrace them and let them in, and see if we can make a buck doing that, and put bucks in their pocket,'" Evans said. "That's my ultimate goal here: not just to cover my costs, but put the money in the pockets of the people who are writing the content."