David Forbes is editor of the Asheville Blade, a news website in Asheville, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses the Blade’s objectives, its focus and its business model.
Q. What is the Asheville Blade? How did the site get started?
A. The Asheville Blade is a reader-supported online news site focused on Asheville. We emerged out of a union fight at Mountain Xpress, the local alt weekly, including issues many of us journalists and employees had with the ethical decisions of the paper’s management, especially when it came to covering issues involving business or landlords.
That situation revealed a need for a different type of news organization in our city, one that was backed directly by its readers and more concerned with the realities of a place we love but also has a lot of real struggles and challenges. So the Blade focuses on in-depth coverage of our city, from local government to issues like segregation, LGBT rights and labor. We also have a good deal of analysis and sharp opinion pieces.
Our work tends to be more in the long-form, news magazine-style than the traditional daily newspaper format. We usually have two to three such pieces a week.
The Blade officially launched our funding page on Patreon (patreon.com/avlblade) and full website around June 16 of last year. Since then, we’ve grown steadily, both in readership numbers and paying subscribers.
Q. Describe your role as editor. How do you and your staff decide what to cover?
A. Right now, due to the small size of our organization and resources, I run the organization as editor and do a fair amount of the reporting.
However, we’re fortunate to have numerous freelancers and contributors work with us, on topics ranging from immigration to the economy to science. Often I’ll consult with them about what to cover, especially as it pertains to their areas of expertise. We also have great communication, with many of them bringing topics and ideas.
This is also where our subscriber/reader base comes in handy. They tend to be very engaged people, and they’ll often bring story ideas and tips forward as well. Often if a topic is getting a lot of surface-level attention, we’ll take the time to do a longer piece that really delves into it and tries to present the bigger picture to the reader.
We especially try to focus on what people are talking about but isn’t getting much attention in the public discourse. In a city as focused around tourism and public relations as Asheville is, that’s quite a lot. So we’ll run pieces on stagnant wages, the history of redlining or the stories people pressured to leave the city because of the high cost of living, just to name a few topics we’ve highlighted that have often been ignored in Asheville.
Q. How do story editing, social media and headline writing work at the Blade?
A. We generally do story editing over Google docs, which is a really useful tool for a starting news site that works with a network of freelancers. I’ll usually communicate and work closely with our writers, first to see if any additional material or major changes are needed and then to dive in line-by-line. Because we do more in-depth, long-form pieces, we can manage our workflow to take the time and really hone a piece.
Social media’s also a major part of what we do at the Blade. Asheville has a very active community that follows and discusses local news over social media. We have Twitter and Facebook accounts, of course. Our Facebook community is particularly active, and our new pieces generally get a fair amount of traffic from that.
Also, we have live coverage of Asheville City Council meetings via Twitter (on the #avlgov hashtag), and that’s proven to be a pretty popular feature with our readers and the larger community, especially when paired with the in-depth local government articles we publish a few days after the meeting. It gives locals the option of following the immediate action, waiting for the larger story or getting some different insights from both.
As for headline writing, we take advantage of the larger space for subhead/summaries that using an online news site provides. Our main headlines will generally allude to an overall theme or situation in the story (e.g., “Shaky ground” for a recent analysis of wages in Asheville we did) while the subhead/summary space will offer more detail.
So far, it’s proven a successful combination: The shorter headlines prove memorable, and the longer subheads draw the reader in further. If we’re working with a freelancer or contributor, we’ll usually discuss the headline and subhead while we’re editing the piece as a whole, and I think this helps avoid the disconnect I’ve seen at some publications.
Q. News sites like yours solicit donations from readers. How do you see digital journalism becoming sustainable in Asheville and elsewhere?
A. I think reader-supported journalism has a powerful future, and one that’s not always appreciated. Services like Patreon, which provides a really easy monthly funding platform, have generally been used by artists, but they’re potentially strong funding sources for news organizations as well. There’s a plethora of really interesting crowdfunding tools out there, and some real potential to give independent media a desperately needed tool to survive and thrive.
I saw some of the potential for this freelancing for NSFWCorp, which asked its readers to subscribe for a really cheap amount per month to get full access. Their reader base paid, stayed engaged and was a really powerful source of support.
The Blade opted to have its pieces free to the public, but offering rewards and additional material for subscribers. We also chose to make the subscription affordable – ours start at $3 a month — to make them easily available to working people in Asheville.
There’s also an independence and simplicity in being reader-supported. The lack of ads certainly made our site far simpler to build and use from day one. We also don’t face the same potential pressure from advertisers, which can be a challenge for media organizations even if they’re trying to operate ethically and do good, hard-hitting journalism. Instead, our subscribers tend to act as a network of support in helping our publication succeed and keeping us informed.
Lastly, and this is very important for media in today’s changing world, it tends to be very stable. While we don’t see the swift gains some ad-backed publications do, we also don’t see the big declines. Our funding grows steadily each month, and there’s a lot of power in that.