TheEastsiderLA.com founder: “I’ve always had a deep interest in my community”

TheEastsiderLAA Net Worked Q&A with Jesus Sanchez, founder and editor of TheEastsiderLA.com, an online community news site covering several neighborhoods in the northeast and northwest section of Los Angeles. Mr. Sanchez is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and started TheEastsiderLA in July 2008 after he was laid off from the Times. He lives in Echo Park, one of the communities he covers.

 Net Worked: What is the scope of your news blog — can you describe in miles, the geographic area you cover, or population, other demographics?

Jesus Sanchez: I don’t have specific numbers or stats. But my coverage area includes the neighborhoods northwest and northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The neighborhoods range from low income and primarily Latino to some upper middle class areas with a mix of ethnic and racial groups.

 What is your digital platform/publishing software?

Google’s Blogger. Blogger is not as sophisticated and does not offer as many options as some other blogging platforms. But it’s so easy to use, practically free and integrates well with the other Google services – such as gmail, Google Docs, Google Analytics – that I use. I also wanted a system that I could be able to update and change on my own and also took care of web hosting.

I looked into hiring a designer to create a more sophisticated look and system (which would cost at least several hundred dollars) but then I realized I would also have to pay them anytime I had a problem or needed to update. I have been able to customize some of the standard Blogger templates by checking some other sites and using Google’s Help Group. I’ve actually enjoyed seeing how far I can take these free online services.

Describe your workday with TheEastsiderLA.com. How many hours do you put in, how many days a week?

I usually devote my mornings to the blog. I get started by reviewing email alerts, RSS feeds and other sites for news, photos and items that go into a daily News & Notes post. I then try and write one or two posts for that day or the following day. I will try and hit perhaps one or two community meetings a week. 

Do you work out of your home?

Yes. Out of a home office/guest room.

Are you able to pay yourself? I see there is some advertising, but is it enough to allow you to do this full-time, without outside financial help?

Not much money is coming in now. I’ve displayed some ads through a Google service but they often earn less than a $ 1 day given my traffic. I’m also displaying some free ads for local merchants so I can learn about ad delivery systems, sizes, prices, etc. So, at this point, my blog is more of a hobby and calling card than a business.

What are your costs or what is your budget for TheEastsiderLA?

I pay $10 a year to Blogger for the domain name. My biggest expense is probably on notebooks and pens. I have probably spent $20 on notebooks and pens. I also spent about $20 for some business cards.What goals do you have for your enterprise? Are there certain audience targets you hope to meet, such as unique visitor counts?

My goal has been to earn at least what might be a part time income. My plan has been to look more closely at ads once I started attracting 1,000 unique visitors a day. I think that was a number that might attract local merchants. I’ve been hitting the 1,000 number for the past month or two. That’s good but it still falls far short of some of the more established community news blogs. It’s also only a fraction of the people who live in the area I cover.

What are among the most popular features of your news site? What generates the most comments?

Crime, real estate, shopping and urban culture.

Do you have contributors or do you do any crowdsourcing for stories?

I just started collaborating with another writer, Ana Facio Contreras, on a regular basis and have on occasion taken submissions from readers. I’ve used comments on Twitter and Facebook to help report stories.

How active are news tips?

Not as active as I would like. I might get three to five a week.

What equipment do you rely on in your day-to-day operations? Did you have any learning curve with it after leaving your full-time newspaper job?

I’ve got my HP Pavillion dv6000 laptop, a Blackberry cellphone (great photos), a Canon Power Shot camera and a Sony digital recorder. I’ve been trying to learn how to take better pictures, especially portraits. I would like to learn how to shoot video at some point. In all cases, I need to make sure the equipment is easy to use because I don’t have much time to learn.

Why did you start TheEastsiderLA?

I started it after being laid off at the LA Times. I wanted to promote my abilities as a journalist and keep up a daily reporting and writing skills. I’ve always had a deep interest in my community. So, I figured I would merge my interest in community and skills as a journalist.

I had worked at the Times for 22 years, primarily as a business reporter. I spent the last five years as a online reporter and blogger. In fact, I was part of the first team of Times newsroom reporters assigned to report and write for the web. Of course, working online doesn’t protect you from layoffs.

You mentioned in a previous conversation with me that it was a little disconcerting to start reporting stories on your own, instead of with your former employer, the Los Angeles Times, and running into former co-workers at a news event. Can you describe this scenario?

I’ve had it happen twice at press conferences. In both cases I don’t think the Times reporter even noticed I was there But I still felt self-conscious just the same. It’s something I have to get used to. I’ve also had several instances when the public information officer I’m dealing with is a former Times reporter. Much time is spent discussing life post-newspaper.

Speaking of the press in general, have you tried getting formal press credentials for your site? Do you have difficulty getting stories or access because you are not associated with a large media outlet?

I’ve asked the Los Angeles Police Department for press credentials but have not heard back. Still, it does not seem to have mattered much. I’ve been able to attend LAPD press conferences with no problem and the department PIOs have helped me get information on breaking crime news. The captains in charge of the local police divisions have replied to my request for interviews and I’ve been able to approach crime scenes with simply a business card.

I thought I would get ignored a lot requesting information from public agencies and private corporations. But I’ve been surprised by how many PIOs do respond to my inquiries even if it is just to say “no comment.” I think some agencies are just happy to get any coverage they can get, even it’s from a small community blog.

What are some of the bigger challenges you are facing as a digital news entrepreneur? For instance, is funding an issue? Or updating technical skills? Or generating content?

Funding and generating content are big challenges. I really don’t want to seek out partners because I’m not sure there will be enough income to split. I understand some bloggers are going the non-profit route but I feel that means you just create more work by trying to organize and run a nonprofit as well as running a news blog.

Coming up with original daily content that is a big challenge given my time constraints. As far as my technical skills, I’ve discovered that if I keep things fairly simple I don’t have to learn HTML or complicated graphics and web design programs. There are all these simple, web-based programs that allow for ways ways to edit and crop photos, for example, or create your own graphics. Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is developing my business and marketing skills to try and make this is a viable business.

Where do you see online digital start-ups in five years?

Not sure.

Do you think this is a permanent fixture in news dissemination?

Yes, blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, community message groups will all play a role in distributing news.

What feedback have you had from readers? Can you share some comments, some suggestions from them?

I’m always taken when people say “thank you” for covering a simple crime story or other bit of news that has gone overlooked. I’ve also been accused by some folks as just being nosey. I am nosey but I think that goes with the territory.

 SPJ Digital Media Committee member Jessica Durkin conducted this interview with Jesus Sanchez for Net Worked. Jessica, a former daily newspaper reporter in Scranton, is tracking online community news start-ups at her site http://inothernews.us. Jessica is also the Region 3, Mid-Atlantic director for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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