Editor’s Note: Run by Michael Smith, The Ithacast is a weekly podcast featuring interviews with interesting Ithacans. You can stream the full interview below, or subscribe on iTunes.
Why I shop downtown — Carmen
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Jeff Stein – The Ithaca Voice
Jeff Stein is the founder and editor of the Ithaca Voice. The Voice is an online only, non-profit news source serving Ithaca and Tompkins County… but you probably already knew that since you’re reading this on that very site.
In the interview, we talk with Jeff about his short career in journalism. We hear about some of the most notable stories – some funny, some tragic – from Stein’s days reporting for the Cornell Sun and the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Then we dive into how the Ithaca Voice came together. We discuss the decline of traditional newspapers, how to serve a modern, plugged-in audience, and the advantages of being small, independent and online-only. Also, we trash talk some celebrities!
Below are 5 interesting snippets from the interview:
1 – What was the genesis of the idea for the Ithaca Voice?
“I’d been toying around with the idea since when I was at Cornell,” Stein says. “Across the country you have newspapers facing revenue shortages… the number of reporters has fallen, yet as that’s happened the prices have increased.”
Stein frames the decline of print media partially as a generational issue – millennials that grew up with the internet simply are not going to pay for a print newspaper when they can get the news for free. The challenge, then, was providing a self-sustaining platform that could offer just that.
It’s about more than just undercutting the competition, though – it’s about keeping everyone engaged with the community. Stein says, “I don’t think it’s good for the city if everyone under 40 is tuning out to what’s going on because they don’t want to pay $120 to get past that [subscription fee] paywall.”
2 – What are the advantages of an online-only news outlet?
In a word: freedom. The traditional papers are, according to Stein, “Tied to this arbitrary model of consumption that doesn’t fit with how we consume news anymore. Every day they have holes to fill on each page. For us, we have the beauty of using all the open space as we wish. If we want to spend a week on a 2,000 word story, we don’t have to meet a deadline or fill a hole on a certain day. Conversely, if a story only needs 400 words, we don’t need to invent filler.”
Not to mention, being on the web allows the Ithaca Voice to include multimedia content like photo galleries, videos, interactive graphics… and, you know, podcasts.
3 – What was it like to launch the site and watch it grow so quickly?
The Ithaca Voice launched in June of 2014, and now, just six months later, it gets over 15,000 pageviews daily. It also has over 4,500 Facebook followers – who Stein counts as his “daily subscribers” – and a community that he says is “So plugged in it’s almost scary.”
“The thing is, the Simeon’s crash was on our 5th day and our audience just grew exponentially right after that. It was unbelievable,” says Stein. Which has led to having to answer the uncomfortable question of how that tragic story might’ve “helped” the site’s growth. “My response is that we think we would be where we are, maybe not as fast, but we’ve done enough stories where we were first and most thorough that I think we would’ve gotten there anyway.”
4 – How will the Ithaca Voice grow and expand going forward?
Stein starts with a fun idea borrowed from a yearly tradition at the Syracuse paper: a scavenger hunt. A prize will be buried somewhere in Ithaca and the Voice will print a poem or riddle providing clues to it’s location.
His other ideas for expanding the paper are bit more far-reaching. “The other big initiative we’re working on is called ‘solutions journalism.’ You know, journalists have forever have been about ‘PROBLEMS, SCARY, FEAR’ – we want to focus on journalism oriented around solutions, answers and problem solving. Instead of just trying to scare people, we want to propose answers.”
5 – What was Stein’s favorite story from his days at the Cornell Sun?
“I guess my biggest accomplishment at the Sun was putting the phrase ‘Snow Penis’ on the front page.” Someone had erected (no pun intended) a six-foot high phallus in the Arts Quad during a massive snowball fight. The police were called in to break up the mischief and knock down the sculpture – and Stein was lucky enough to have caught the whole thing. “Every now and then,” he says, “the journalism gods reach down into your life and grace you. That was one of those moments.”