By Marissa Prieto, Laura Rosenau, Natasha Schoultz and Sara Solano
The Broward Bulldog is the epitome of new-age media. A not-for-profit, independent online-only website, it focuses on investigative, watchdog journalism in Broward County, Fla.
“We try to look behind the scenes,” said Dan Christensen, editor-in-chief of the Bulldog. “We do a sort of ‘watchdog’ reporting and look at stuff with a critical mind, trying to get to what’s actually happening rather than simply relying on government hand outs.”
It all got started when Christensen was laid off by the Miami Herald in the late spring of 2009. He wanted to continue to report and didn’t want to move anywhere else. He had been a reporter in South Florida for roughly 30 years and didn’t want to stop. That’s how Florida’s first not-for-profit news site, which is staffed by professional journalists, made it online in October 2009.
The Bulldog focuses on doing stories that the main newspapers of the area (mainly the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald) haven’t done, Christensen said.
“The gist of it is that there’s been a large meltdown in the news industry in South Florida and all over the country,” Christensen said. “Thousands of journalists [have been] laid off, and that means there are simply not enough bodies to go out and cover what needs to be covered in government. We’re trying to help plug the gap.”
Just like any startup business, the greatest challenge Christensen faced was making his project work financially – and he still hasn’t quite figured it out.
“We get money from several different sources, but we’re not rolling in it,” Christensen said.
The Bulldog has a business plan, but it’s only been able to implement it partially. Christensen used his own money to pay for the start-up costs, and has since relied on donations, fundraisers, selling stories and ad revenue to pay his staff. Crime writer Michael Connelly, author of the novel “The Lincoln Lawyer,” has given the most substantial donations to date, but the Bulldog has not been able to rely on individual grants alone. Ad revenue is something that Christensen hopes to increase, however, because most of the ads that can be seen on the website are Google ads that don’t make much of a profit. The Bulldog still hasn’t been able to hire an ads salesman.
While the Bulldog figures out its finances, editing positions are voluntary. It pays reporters a small amount for each article and hopes to increase this amount to make the project viable for all who participate.
“If people weren’t volunteering, [the Bulldog] wouldn’t exist,” Christensen said.
Aside from being editor-in-chief, Christensen posts all of the stories to the Web, writes headlines, manages social media and also has to deal with the business side of the project – stuff he would never have to worry about if he was at a newspaper.
With a small staff of about nine, five of those are reporters, but the number is constantly fluctuating. Every story gets edited at least twice by the experienced editors Christensen has on board.
On average, the Bulldog posts two to three stories a week, a significant increase from last year.
“The goal is to get up to five days a week,” Christensen said. “We aren’t there yet, but we’re moving along.”
Like any online news website, the Bulldog is using social media to share its stories and alert followers when it’s added something new.
It offers a variety of ways to connect through social media, including RSS, Digg, Twitter and Facebook links that are prominently displayed in the upper right corner of the webpage.
However, any visitor can see that social media are not the Bulldog’s first priority. Digg, a site that is “a place for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web,” has not seen an update from the Bulldog since Jan. 6. The Bulldog’s Twitter site is updated periodically, with some days featuring several links to stories followed by no tweets until several days later, when a single story link is tweeted. The site’s Facebook page is regularly updated with stories, though several days can pass before anything new is added.
Despite the irregularity in updates, about 600 people on Twitter and 700 Facebook profiles follow the Bulldog. Christensen said social media play a significant part of the promotion of the Bulldog and are a way to tell people there is something going on. The Bulldog hopes to eventually be able to hire someone to manage the site’s social media and improve its search engine optimization, or SEO.
The website is organized to include a front page featuring the latest stories from the staff, a Bulldog Extra section for featured articles not written for the Bulldog or by its reporters or freelancers. A separate section features a blogroll with links to multiple regional independent news sites like BrowardBeat.com and public records resources. Instead of repackaging press releases into articles, the Bulldog has a section on its site dedicated to posting releases.
The news site has been featured in and attributed by publications from around the country, including Quill Magazine, Investigative News Network, The Brechner Report, New York Daily News, The Miami Herald and the South Florida Business Journal.
Christensen hopes to establish the Bulldog as a working news organization in Broward County, becoming a permanent source of news for the community. Although sometimes progress can be frustratingly slow, the community is responding and numbers have been increasing, he said.
In terms of traffic, the Bulldog had about 9,000 to 10,000 unique hits per month last year. In February of this year, it hit about 20,000. In March, it hit about 25,000.
Ultimately, the goal of the Bulldog is sustainability, or being able to have a better income. Christensen said he’d like for the Bulldog to have an actual staff where people get a salary, including benefits. While he’s not sure when this will be possible, the Bulldog is working toward it all the time and hopes to create jobs for journalists in South Florida.