In Ithaca, most of us consume our news online, a trend that has been rapidly increasing over the past 15 years. This trend came to the forefront of conversation in 2016 due to the perpetuation of fake news that has pervaded social media spaces like Facebook. Despite the online news controversy, The Ithaca Voice has been able to flourish as an online-only, local news startup. The Ithaca Voice recently surpassed The Cornell Daily Sun in number of online followers, making it the most read local news outlet in Ithaca.
Jeff Stein (Cornell University ‘13) started The Ithaca Voice in the summer of 2014, just before a tragic event on the edge of The Commons. His mission was to create an online space for local news so that Ithacans would be informed about events happening in their community. Later that year, he would bring on Mike Blaney (Ithaca College ‘12) as his co-founder, and together Stein and Blaney created a successful, non-profit news startup.
Timely Reporting of the Simeon’s Crash
The Ithaca Voice website went live in June 2014, about a week before a truck crashed into Simeon’s restaurant in the Commons. “The first time I heard about The Voice [The Ithaca Voice] was through this coverage of the Simeon’s crash,” Blaney recalled. Blaney was in New York City at the time but found out about the crash through social media. “A big reason that I had heard about it so quickly is because Jeff Stein was covering that in real time.” Getting news as it was breaking was new for Ithaca. The local paper – The Ithaca Journal – did not have the ability to capture and publish events as they were happening. Stein did.
“When these horrible things happen, the first thing that people think is ‘Is everybody ok? What’s happening?’” Blaney said. “The chaos and the anxiety created in these situations arise because so many people don’t know what’s going on.” The Voice was able to play a crucial role in informing people about Simeon’s. Stein’s timeliness in reporting was important in the community and it left a lasting impression on Blaney. Blaney did not consider himself a reader of local news until hearing about The Ithaca Voice. “Social media had become a major way that I was learning about new news stories, and at the same time, I think local news had not at all caught up to social media news trends.”
A Dying Revenue Model
The shift of news consumption to social media platforms not only causes people to be uninformed about their local communities, but it also puts a huge financial strain on local news organizations. Print newspapers were originally profitable through subscriptions and advertisements, a revenue model that has been disrupted by online news consumption. This means print news organizations get fewer subscribers and less valuable advertising, leading to the evaporation of their primary sources of revenue and making it difficult for them to keep up with changing consumer behavior.
The Ithaca Voice has been able to survive and surpass Ithaca’s other news organizations because it is a lean startup. “Take your idea of what a lean startup is and think even more lean because we’re a non-profit,” Blaney explained. As a lean non-profit, The Voice has to accomplish a lot with very few resources. It keeps overhead costs low by maintaining a small staff and publishing exclusively online, which is unique for a news organization.
Pitching the Concept
Today The Voice employs seven people, but Blaney was one of the original two. After graduating from Ithaca College as a film major, he started doing freelance work for local businesses, building his reputation with business owners. Stein was looking for someone to do advertising sales, administrative work, and produce video. Blaney happened to be a great fit. “As a freelancer you do learn a lot of those things, so I had a tiny bit of experience,” Blaney remarked.
Stein pitched his concept to Blaney at Ithaca Coffee Company where they would work on The Voice together for the next few months. He did not have slides. “He wasn’t that organized,” Blaney said. Nonetheless, Blaney was convinced that the news industry was suffering and he recognized the role journalism plays in a healthy democracy. “Just because the business model isn’t there doesn’t mean we can make this die out. Funding The Ithaca Voice through philanthropic giving, donations, and sponsorship made a lot of sense to me,” said Blaney.
Just How Lean
With no formal background in business or journalism, Blaney joined The Voice in September 2014 and quickly began signing people on for large sponsorships. Blaney and Stein learned by doing, often using Google as a primary resource. “Stuff had to get done,” Blaney said. “It was just grow, grow, grow the revenue,” he recalled.
Before starting The Voice, Blaney said he thought “you had to be much more prepared to do things than in real life most people are.” He remarked that even today as an established business, The Voice conveys to new teammates, “It’s a startup. You never know where it’s going to go. I’m not promising you a job for the rest of your life. I’m promising that it’s going to be really crazy and definitely interesting.”
The Voice gained traction quickly as the team built on its previous successes and leveraged its audience. As the most-read local news source in Ithaca today, Blaney said it is not just about the numbers, but also the way readers passionately engage with their product. “The reason we have such a large following is trust. It’s all based on trust,” said Blaney. “Now it’s easier than ever to create fake news. Anyone has the ability to do it. But those things won’t last.” The Voice has built trust by sticking to their mission statement since their creation–to maintain journalistic integrity and advocate that news should be freely accessible to the public.
Keeping It Alive
As a non-profit, the most difficult challenge for The Voice is keeping the organization financially secure. ”That was the thing that I was least prepared for,” said Blaney. “I’m getting it done but it’s stressful knowing how much responsibility rests on your shoulders when you are an entrepreneur. I make constant paranoid check-ins on the bank account.” He knows that as a social entrepreneur the 10 million dollar venture capital is never going to come in.
Toward the end of 2015, The Voice came up against its make or break moment. Their revenue growth stopped, they had a large staff, and their first Founder, Stein, was leaving to work at a national news organization. Blaney recalled, “We had to ask ‘How much of our success is purely hinged on Jeff?’,” and described the moment as “sobering, difficult, but motivating.”
“I couldn’t have done any of this without my incredible staff, especially my current partner, Jolene. She is an amazing reporter and editor, and has been crucial to keeping this organization running,” said Blaney. “If either Jolene or I decided to quit, The Ithaca Voice wouldn’t exist anymore.”
March 2017 marked fifteen months since Stein left The Ithaca Voice. I asked Blaney if he ever thought about quitting The Voice during those tough times, he responded “No. Not even for a little bit.”