For younger couples, the barely-getting-paid thing can be a struggle…
Young Couple, Emil Nolde
John and Naomi are just one of a number of couples who have updated the traditional family-run news business by taking it online. Couples have left their newsroom jobs behind, pooled their skills, and struck out on their own. With their eggs in one unpredictable basket, such couples tend to bring passion and commitment to the work, as in any family business. Still, the nature of a news site means round-the-clock work, and the online news business comes with no guarantee of success, or even survival, and no instruction manual. Being married to the company serves as both a strength and a weakness. It can help keep the overhead low and the intensity level high, but it also makes establishing boundaries between work and homelife a challenge.
The weight of financial stress on the mom-and-pop news operation can depend on the stage of life the site’s principals are in. Julie Ardery, 59, and Bill Bishop, 58, run The Daily Yonder, an online publication focused exclusively on rural issues, out of their home in Austin, Texas. Funded by the Center for Rural Strategies, they each split one salary and work part-time, editing stories from a stable of freelancers. In the ’80s, the pair ran The Bastrop County Times together and were in a “dog-eat-dog” competition for advertising with a publication up the road. They used to sleep with the police scanner beside the bed, and scrambled for enough income to pay their employees and the printing bill every week. But they sold the paper for a good price, which Julie says has afforded them a measure of security. They find their online news life to be much more manageable than their print life was. “The stresses of running [the Bastrop paper] were ten times what we deal with today,” says Julie. “We’re still very much working people, but we’re not putting children through college either.”
For younger couples, especially those with children or considering them, the barely-getting-paid thing can be a struggle. Christine Stuart, 34 and Doug Hardy, 42, own CTNewsJunkie, a site that is focused on state politics in Connecticut, supported by a combination of ads, donations, and sponsorships. They worked together at north-central Connecticut’s Journal Inquirer but, frustrated with the job and wary about its future, they both took a chance on online publishing. “I didn’t know if the paper would still be there when I was ready to retire,” Doug says. Christine quit first, in March 2006, and bought CTNewsJunkie from its creator, Dan Levine, who was moving and offered her the business as a respite from her frustrations at the newspaper. Eager to try something new, she dove in, supplementing her income with a part-time court-reporting job, while Doug continued working at the Inquirer, mostly for the benefits. “It took me several years to come to the conclusion that I’m killing myself for health benefits,” he says. He quit in March 2011, and is CTNewsJunkie’s business manager; Christine is the editor. They both juggle other gigs to stay on top of their finances, and say their for-profit operation wouldn’t make it if they had to pay for office space, or if they had children. They describe their $10,000-deductible health insurance—the most affordable plan they could find—as “birth control.” “We’re looking at a $10,000 ransom note if we have a kid,” Doug says.
Frank Carini, 44, and Joanna Detz, 37, also say they wouldn’t try to run a news website with a child. They publish ecoRI News, a donor and ad-supported nonprofit site that focuses on environmental issues in Rhode Island. The pair met at Community Newspaper Co. in Boston in the ’90s, where Frank was an editor and Joanna a reporter. She left in the late ’90s to get into graphic design, but Frank stayed, and his frustration with what happened to journalism over the years is palpable. “I’ve heard so many times, ‘Do more with less and fill the paper,’” he says. “I was tired of the mainstream media, the cuts, that whole sad story.”
Having their own news outlet was an idea the couple had always tossed around. “We’d talk playfully about what journalism friends we knew, what their strengths would be,” Joanna says. “How you talk when you’re enjoying a cocktail and daydreaming.” She was relieved when Frank decided to quit his job at the Newport Daily News in late 2008; she didn’t like seeing him so discouraged. They refinanced their house and converted their basement into the office. Joanna still has a full-time job as a graphic designer, but helps with the site after work and on weekends.
Frank has been able to hire four people to report and write, paying them a monthly salary depending on what he can afford. Frank hasn’t taken a salary for himself yet. He says the financial strain is by far the hardest part. But both think that the site is good for their marriage. “We don’t have children, so I think in a healthy relationship, you need to be working toward something,” Joanna says. “It’s really nice to have that thread.”