Sarasota’s newest media player is a statewide online news site, publishing investigative content using a nonprofit business model. The Florida Independent is the seventh venture of the American Independent News Network (AINN), which operates similar news sites in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan and Iowa. Funded with a $352,000 grant from the James L. Knight Foundation and matching grants from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice and other donors, the daily news site attracted 4,000 visitors during its first week of operation in late May. Editor Cooper Levey-Baker oversees a staff of five writers based around the state.
You’ve worked as a writer, a field organizer for the Obama campaign in Sarasota, and then editor of the alternative weekly, Creative Loafing. What drew you to The Florida Independent? All journalists have the desire to do journalism that affects people. We define it as impact journalism. We will be able to point to direct examples of how our journalism has had an impact on Florida.
What’s different about The Florida Independent’s coverage and its model? The idea is to start doing stories that are being left on the table as news organizations are cutting back on coverage of statewide issues—stories that require a little more digging. We don’t have to fill up a certain number of column inches each day. There’s also no space limit, so if we want to keep writing about a story, we can keep writing about it. With the Web model, there’s no production. We write, we edit and we publish as soon as possible. The immediacy is great.
How can you remain unbiased if your mission is “impact journalism?” The fact that we are nonprofit prevents us from doing advocacy. We identify problems and ask why they’re not being solved. I don’t think that leads to political bias. We don’t approach this with a solution in mind. We’re about holding people accountable. We don’t go into a story thinking we know the answer.
One of the keys to having impact is getting our stories into people’s hands. Before we launched, AINN did a great job of connecting with nonprofits, activist groups and media outlets. Once we launched, there were a lot of people who had been waiting for us.
If we’re doing a story about a specific issue, we have an outreach coordinator who will make sure it gets into the hands of people who have involvement with the issue.
I’ve seen ads for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Charlie Crist campaign on your website. The advertising is done through Google. Political campaigns will contract with Google to do ads, so we’ve had political ads on our website. Our rules don’t preclude it as long as if we accept ads from one, we’re accepting from all.
Where do you see The Florida Independent fitting into Florida’s media universe? Our competition is all of the big dailies and the blogosphere as well. If we do it right, what will define us is our accountability to doing journalism that matters and finding an audience that connects with and believes in that.