Mark Evans said he vividly remembers the day in May 2009 when Gannett finally shut down the print version of the Tucson Citizen.
As the Citizen staff dealt with the realization the paper was finally closing, Gannett offered Evans a job: As editor/administrator of TucsonCitizen.com, he could maintain a blog site designed as much to appease complicated legal issues as to be an outlet for the stated purpose of commenting on area news.
"They never wanted it to exist in the first place. It was a compromise they had to make," Evans said of the new TucsonCitizen.com, which was born as the result of a morass of legal issues largely centering on the dissolution of Gannett's Joint Operating Agreement with Arizona Daily Star publisher Lee Enterprises.
"The night I was offered the job was the day everybody else was laid off. The description of what I was supposed to be doing was laughable: 'Comment on the day's news.' I could have done that for six months; nobody would have read the thing, and Gannett or Lee could have gone to the Justice Department asking if that was enough: 'Can we pull the plug on that?' I was determined to keep a job."
Since then, Evans has played a major role in putting together the area's most significant hub for "community journalism" and online commentary related to the issues and lifestyles affecting residents in Southern Arizona.
"Right now, we have about 50 active writers, and of those, 12 blog multiple times a week. Some write every single day, others two to three times a week," Evans said. "The ones who write frequently are the ones who get decent traffic."
Evans said the site generates in the neighborhood of 290,000 unique visitors every month. That's compared to 350,000 during the dying days of the afternoon daily. However, Evans said the old site kept viewers longer and averaged about 2 million page views a month, whereas the current incarnation is more in the half-million range.
Still, those are decent numbers, and the home office is taking heed.
"Gannett has been pleasantly surprised with the traffic, and as a result, I'm getting support from Gannett corporate," Evans said. "They've helped me design the site. (The updated look launched last month.) They're helping me with newsfeeds from the great wide world of Gannett. We're now getting video from the entire Gannett world. If there's breaking news from anywhere around the country, I can go through Gannett and put it on the site."
The process has been one big learning experience, to say the least.
A key focus for Evans has been separating the concepts of online journalism (tracking a story, calling sources, reporting gathered information) and generic blogging. TucsonCitizen.com includes both, but Evans is focusing on ways to create a generic journalistic blueprint for writers who, in most cases, haven't had traditional journalism training.
"I've been working with the National Association of Citizen Journalists, which is trying to establish some citizen-journalism standards and create an academy and handbook," said Evans. "There needs to be an expanded definition of what is journalism, what is information provision, what is news provision, and that's going to sort itself as we go forward dealing with this new technology that allows people to go out and report their own news, and not rely on the infrastructure that was created through the university and journalism-school system.
"(Journalism) used to be an apprentice job. You got a job at your local newspaper as a kid working in the copy room, and you slowly moved your way up and worked through the different beats and learned as you moved along. In the '60s and '70s, that got replaced with the journalism school. You couldn't get a job in the business unless you had a journalism degree. Now if you have an interest in gathering and reporting news, you don't need a degree. Now there just isn't that infrastructure of the newspaper newsroom to provide the training and guidance and standards and practices of the profession, so what I'm trying to do is give (writers) the ability to learn the standards and practices of the profession. How they apply them is up to them."
Because of the basically nonexistent pay structure—Evans offers the benefit of the Citizen name and the site's solid search-engine optimization as incentive to writers—he is limited in the amount of changes he can make to blog content.
"Since these people are not being paid, I can't have any real influence over what they do, other than to set a basic set of ground rules. There's a very basic list of standards available on my blog," said Evans. "If I start saying, 'You can write this; you can't write that,' and editing copy, I own it, and I open myself up to the liability if they've made an error. But it also causes taxation problems. I can't have a slave-labor force where I have all these people working for me, and I don't pay them. I am providing them the vehicle. It's up to them whether they want to drive it or not."
To date, the road has been reasonably smooth.
"That was one of my worries," said Evans. "You give the untrained the power to write, and what could happen? Well, it's been fine."
On the financial front, TucsonCitizen.com lost a big portion of its J-Lab grant funding this year from American University. TucsonCitizen.com received just $15,000, compared to $45,000 the year before, which means a big hit to its popular sports-blog wing. The sales folks behind TucsonCitizen.com are now hoping to lure sponsors to specific blogs, as opposed to just scattering run-of-site ads across the Tucson Newspapers network.
"Revenue is being generated by the site. Whether we're making money or not, I don't know. My guess is probably not, but my intent is to break even by this time next year," said Evans.
"I've learned a lot in the last year. It's not what I got into the business to do, but it's certainly carried my interest. It's been a challenge. It's charting new territory."