Howard Owens, the guru of independent local—or hyperlocal—online journalism in America, recently made one of his rare journeys beyond the boundaries of Genesee County when we took in a basketball game between the University of Buffalo Bulls and the Kent State Golden Flashes. (We can call ‘em Kent State again since the school has dropped its silly attempt to shed the “Four Dead in Ohio” baggage by rebranding itself just plain “Kent.” The UB student section, perhaps torpid from the month-long Christmas break, contained not a single heckler dressed as a National Guardsman.)
I told Howard that a day or two prior, I had dropped by the local Office for the Aging (not as a client). Seeing a helicopter hovering above our funereal mall across the street, a woman shouted, “Check The Batavian.” Which is what several thousand do in our rural county every day.
Profiled by the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review, USA Today, and NPR, The Batavian website has been plausibly heralded as the future of post-newspaper local journalism. I’m still waiting for this whole Internet thing to blow over, but as a hopeful romantic I’m inclined to agree with the encomiasts.
The God Who fits people to places brought Howard Owens to Batavia. A San Diego native—easily identified in these parts by the camera suspended from his neck and the San Diego State Aztecs cap atop his head—Howard had been a publisher, reporter, and editor with papers in Ventura, Bakersfield, and San Diego before flying east to direct digital publishing for GateHouse Media, an octopus with over 400 daily, weekly, and shopper tentacles.
In 2008, GateHouse came to our town. The idea was to launch an online news site in a small city whose daily newspaper did not have a significant Internet presence. An obsessive grower of roses, Howard had visited the Cooperative Extension in Batavia and found a “small city that was surrounded by nothing but farmland. I liked that isolation.” He persuaded his boss to make this his journalistic laboratory. A year into the experiment, GateHouse bailed, selling The Batavian to Howard and his wife Billie.
Five years of 12-hour-a-day and seven-day-a-week workloads later, Owens has embedded The Batavian in the public mind. From his office on the second floor of the Masonic Temple on Main Street, Howard covers local government and politics, arts, culture, sports, business, crime, the natural world: all that is beautiful or ugly within his beat of Genesee County.
Billie Owens, like her spouse a former Southern California reporter, is The Batavian’s editor, resident grammarian, and writer of such deadpan police-scanner entries as “Pantless man making snow angels on South Main Street” and “Boyfriend allegedly takes pregnant girlfriend’s pack of smokes.”
The website maintains a small stable of stringers—bylines have included the estimable Gretel Kauffman—and a sales director, but by and large The Batavian, c’est Howard.
Unlike the vast majority of members of the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), The Batavian is run as a for-profit enterprise. “I’m a capitalist,” says Howard. “I believe in making money. Journalistic purists object to advertising as if you’re beholden to advertisers, but the fact is, when your money comes from advertising, your exposure to compromise is diversified and distributed. It’s rare that any one advertiser can hold much sway and local business owners don’t operate as a monolithic group.” (The site has 140 advertisers and $180,000 in annual revenue.)
As has been the case since the days of Mencken and The Front Page, crime, crashes, and fires are the hot reads. “People like knowing why the fire trucks just went down Main Street or why all of the police cars are gathered at the end of their block,” says Howard. “The Web makes it possible to report real-time news that simply didn’t exist in paper or broadcast eras.”
So when the siren screams… or a yegg gets pinched… or a lamb is born during a blizzard or the conversation turns to malversation… The Batavian has the story.
Will every small city or county someday have a Batavian of its own? “Hard to say,” replies Howard. “Most people don’t want to assume the risk and work that hard for something with no definitive payoff. I believe the opportunity is there. Most small and mid-size cities are underserved for news by their existing local news organizations. Opportunity abounds for those willing to take the plunge.”
As we watched the UB Bulls lope up and down the court, the guy in the San Diego State cap said, “I’d love to see a Batavia kid make this team someday.” Spoken like a true local.