Issue April 13, 2010

Bad Mojo

The demise of Louisville Mojo news spotlights the struggle of local online media

After graduating from college, Louisville native John LaFollette returned home as a bumblebee freelance reporter. The 23-year-old Xavier University grad had served as editor of the school’s newspaper, but he admittedly struggled to find consistent work in the field of journalism.

“I spent a lot of time waiting on return phone calls. It can be sort of discouraging,” he says. “But I kept doing small pieces just to get my name out there and make acquaintances.”

LaFollette sought work at various media outlets and landed a few sporadic gigs writing for local blogs, which eventually led to a consistent freelance position at the website Louisville Mojo. Although Mojo had long been known for social-networking and online dating, the site added a news component last fall, hiring local blogger Rick Redding — formerly of The ‘Ville Voice — to help guide the new format.

From there, LaFollette was given a wide-ranging news beat that included covering local politics and business. It was shaping up to be a good career move, that is until last week when the owners of LouisvilleMojo.com announced they were shutting down the site’s news department — known as Metromojo — after only eight months.

According to an internal memorandum issued by Louisville Mojo CEO Keith Ringer, the company’s strategic shift to an online news source didn’t pay off financially. Here’s an excerpt: “As our collective news initiative has evolved, it has become clear to me that the future of journalism lies in the success of independent media groups and individuals like you. However, it is with great sadness that I must inform you … Metromojo will no longer retain the services of any freelance writers … The reasons for this abrupt change are numerous, but to summarize, we have not seen the news initiative result in suitable revenue contribution to support further investment.”

In further explaining the decision, Ringer tells LEO Weekly, “We have to spend the time where it makes the money.” Although this venture did not work out for Mojo, he says, “Anybody who isn’t posting news online in the future won’t be in business for very long.”

The quick rise and fall of Metromojo raises questions about whether there’s a viable business model for news outlets that operate strictly online and whether those operations can be successful in a city still bound by traditional media outlets.

In announcing plans to begin covering news last September, Louisville Mojo recruited veteran reporters and bloggers, including Redding as Mojo’s editor-in-chief.

In accepting the new position, Redding left his post as chief blogger at The ‘Ville Voice, a successful local blog that operates in conjunction with the popular Page One Kentucky.

“I’m going to be covering a lot of the same stuff I’ve been covering before,” Redding told LEO at the time. “Basically, (I’ll be covering) what the people who have followed me at The ’Ville Voice have come to expect, know and like. Obviously, I think that they were reading it because of me.”

Although readers appeared to follow Redding to Mojo, advertisers did not. Meanwhile, longtime Mojo advertisers were not happy with the site’s shift to news, believing the social-networking vibe was a better fit.

It’s a mentality that suggests although there is indeed a growing audience in search of alternative news sources online, the model has yet to be perfected. And while a handful of local blogs have successfully made a name for themselves uncovering news and highlighting controversial topics often missed by mainstream media, they have faced a hefty dose of criticism along the way. That’s because such unfettered expression sometimes results in reckless reporting techniques traditional journalists tend to avoid, like posting tabloid-style gossip and unsubstantiated juicy attacks to get heavier online traffic.

In contrast, Mojo attempted to create a news model that mimicked mainstream outlets in its consistent coverage and editing policy. It did that by keeping moderate control of its content and picking veteran journalists when it launched.

“It wasn’t just people with opinions posting online. What we did was pretty rare in the city,” says Redding. “We actually did reporting, with respected, credible writers and journalists who were established in the market.”

Bloggers throughout Kentucky have admitted that most fail due to a lack of time, money and energy dedicated by their individual webmasters. There’s a freedom allowed online, but only a few area bloggers have managed to build a truly independent online media business.

“The successful models aren’t one-man shows, and no one has put together a bunch of competent writers for an online venture,” says Redding. “And I think if you have a pure news and information website, that would be supported by advertisers. It comes down to whether you have a product advertisers will buy into.”

Part of the struggle for an exclusively online news publication is that more traditional news outlets with better resources have raised the competitive bar by migrating their content on the Internet.

“The online (source) does a great job of supplementing and real-time distribution, but to create a simple model that says everything’s online, I don’t think we’re there as a consumer of media,” says Ed Manassah, executive director of the Institute for Media, Culture and Ethics at Bellarmine University. “For instance, Page One does a good job of exploring a lot of things, but I don’t know if that can be your main diet of news and information,” adds Manassah, former publisher of The Courier-Journal. “It’s not broad-based enough to where if you read that you’d be satisfied.”