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Laid-Off Workers From East Valley Tribune Hope to Earn Livings With Online News Sites

It's easy to admire the entrepreneurial spirit:

Four laid-off East Valley Tribune workers -- three writers and an editor -- have started their own Web-based news site to cover the happenings at the Arizona Legislature. 

Their product, The Arizona Guardian, launched today with a handful of passable political stories.

Interestingly, another laid-off Tribber, Nick Martin, also began his own news site this morning: Heat City.

Although the Guardian site is slicker, the people behind the sites seem to have one thing in common: They all hope to eventually make money.

Here's what Martin says about his new business venture:

I started HEAT CITY as a place where me and my friends in journalism could help cover stories that the major local media outlets are not covering. The work here is totally free, though someday soon I hope to ask for donations to keep original, independent journalism alive in Arizona. Mostly, you'll get real reporting on HEAT CITY without punditry. It's rare on the web to get that kind of quality from independent bloggers.

The Arizona Guardian, on the other hand, would rather have your money right now. In the site's "Guardian Angel" column, an unnamed writer asks readers to throw a few quarters in the cup:

News tips and actual monetary compensation can be sent to the Angel by clicking here.

It's free for now, but the Guardian will reportedly be subscription-based, like the Arizona Capitol Times' Yellow Sheet Report. It will also accept advertising.

Will enough people pay to read the Guardian to make the business sustainable? Highly doubtful. As a 2002 series on the Poynter journalism site detailed, people are generally not interested in paying online subscription fees. The Guardian seems to be aiming for Poynter's "Business Model No. 6," which Poynter writer Rusty Coats calls "typically dangerous for smaller publications' websites." Coats adds that:

It's especially dangerous in a competitive market (particularly if a major competitor uses the free-content model). You could end up with an embarrassingly small number of subscribers.

Of course, any small business will have huge obstacles to surmount when starting out. But the Guardian has a few extra hurdles.

On the positive side, the site has four premium local journalists on board: Former Trib city editor Patti Epler (also a former New Times editor) and former reporters Paul Giblin, Mary K. Reinhart, and Dennis Welch.

But that's also a drawback. These four were among the 40 percent of laid-off workers at the Trib and three of them -- the exception being the younger Welch -- are longtime journalists who received a decent salary by Trib standards. Once their severance packages start to run lean in a few months, they'll need money -- much more money than the Guardian is likely to generate by that time.

Which brings up another problem: The fifth Guardian, local Democratic political strategist Bob Grossfeld.

Grossfeld (pictured at right) is the publisher and will be responsible for all "non-editorial operations." He's providing the money for the start-up costs, according to a column yesterday in the Tribune. A phone number on the site for prospective advertisers rings in to Grossfeld's business, The Media Guys.

With Grossfeld's background, political observers will scrutinize the articles and tone of the Guardian for bias. Conservatives have already begun to throw water on the effort because of Grossfeld's involvement. It will take time to counter the perceived liberal bias, but counter it the Guardian must do or risk losing half of its potential subscriber base.

In fact, the problems in starting up something like the Guardian could probably fill a bookshelf at the local Small Business Administration.

But for now, we'll put the site on our daily roster of sites to surf.

If these ex-Tribbers -- Martin included -- regularly scoop the competition with compelling stories, it might be worth the time to take a look. Whether it will be worth some money, too, well... -- Ray Stern

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