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) 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) 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.

Sites like Yelp ( YELP) organize local food markets but don't seem able to bring in cash from restaurants without risking scandal, described here by Epicurous. Sites such as Angieslist organize local services, then charge people to read what is written about these services.

What I was told about journalism 35 years ago at Northwestern's Medill School remains true today. It's about organizing and advocating a place, an industry or a lifestyle. It's about making markets. It's not about writing, not about covering news, it's about organizing people who want to sell stuff to those most likely to buy that stuff.

Advertising is wasted money unless it turns into sales. If you can bring a merchant sales, you're worth more to them than a piece of their ad budget -- you're their partner. Local advertisers are flocking to sites like Scoutmob and Groupon ( GRPN) because they bring in customers, but the cost is extreme when the necessary discounts are included.

I guess what I'm saying is there are huge opportunities here for connecting local businesses to local customers, and lots of people who will do the advocacy part of the business for very little money. What we need, still, are local publishers willing to do the hard work of organizing these places, these industries, these lifestyles, turning them into marketplaces.

If Joseph Pulitzer were around today, he'd know. So would Joe Medill. They don't put journalists' names on the journalism schools, only those of entrepreneurs. And there's a huge opening here. If you can build a business model that works, you can still wash, rinse and repeat yourself to a fortune.

When you do I won't laugh at you. I'll be offering you my resume.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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