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The Internet Still Seeks a Pulitzer

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The best laugh I ever had came near Christmas of 1995.

It was the Atlanta Press Club Christmas party. The guest was the CEO of Cox Enterprises, James Cox Kennedy, so (for once) everyone at the local fishwrap, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, showed up.

They were scared. They were worried about this "Internet" thing, a medium I had already been covering for a decade by that time. But Kennedy reassured them, insisting they would prosper by "repurposing" existing content on new sites like Yall.com. (I still have the t-shirt.)

I had to go behind a pillar, I was laughing so hard. The whole idea was stupid, ludicrous, a guaranteed failure. But Kennedy was a big-time CEO, I was just a dumb reporter, I didn't even work for him, so why should he listen to me?

Nearly two decades later, the local news opportunity still hasn't been addressed. Cox is throwing another $250 million at the Internet, TechCrunch reports, and talking up a national conservative Web site, as the local Creative Loafing writes. But the newspaper is practically gone and nothing has replaced it.

AOL (AOL) has a bunch of local news sites called Patch. Their stock is rising thanks to higher ad revenue, as Marketwatch reports. But that money isn't coming from Patch. Analysts who have looked at the results told Reuters the big gains came from third-party ad sales -- selling ads for other publishers -- and the remaining dial-up customers.

A better view of what's happening on the ground comes from Everyblock, a hyper-local site owned by Comcast's (CMCSA - Get Report) NBC and backed by the Knight Foundation. As TechCrunch notes, it's closed. (Note: TechCrunch is owned by AOL.) An executive told Poynter.org they were "struggling with the business model."

There remains a lot of data to be aggregated. Companies like NeighborhoodScout sell reports based on data from courthouses and police agencies, the raw material of local news. Sites like Trulia and Zillow (Z - Get Report) are transforming local real estate, a big local advertiser, using data.

While data are moving from the top down, journalism is moving from the bottom up. I get great service on local news from sites like DecaturMetro and Tomorrow's News Today. But these sites are run by writers, not publishers. They're not bringing in revenue, they're not run like businesses. Localized verticals such as Eater do good work but run on national ads, not local ones.
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