"What people are hungry for is really good shoe-leather reporting and intelligent presentation of that information," says Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent. "Opinions are cheap and free. The readers are becoming your op-ed pundits. And they're good."
The sites, at their best, pursue the sort of investigative reporting that major dailies are abandoning. Voice of San Diego, launched in 2005, has unearthed conflicts of interest in the city's redevelopment agency, for instance, and exposed affordable housing that was less than affordable.
We've got a touch of that here; Hummel, the former television reporter-turned-nonprofit investigator, made a splash with his work on corruption in Central Falls City Hall. But he is only one man.
The great missing piece in the Rhode Island mediascape is a non-profit organization with the capacity for the sort of systematic, dig-into-the-public-records, accountability reporting that could alter public policy.
Why has this sot of operation emerged elsewhere, but not here? It's not entirely clear. But Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has spent heavily on media innovation over the last decade, suggests a close look at the conditions that have spawned nonprofit sites in other locales.
Among them: obvious, major gaps in local reporting; a tradition of donating to public broadcasting outlets; strong philanthropic traditions; and a cohort of committed, veteran journalists with an entrepreneurial streak.
It's easy to see where Rhode Island comes up short on some of these metrics: the ProJo has sharply declined, but still delivers on many of the basics; the local NPR affiliate, if ascendant, has traditionally been weak; much of the ex-ProJo crowd has left the state.
And while there is a solid tradition of Rhode Island philanthropy, Hummel's experience — he's relied heavily on the largess of two conservative businessmen, John Hazen White and Alan Hassenfeld — points to the difficulty in winning broad-based support from ordinary advertisers in a small, often insular state.
"I've been tremendously disappointed in the business community," Hummel says. "I get notes from them — 'Oh man, I love what you do, but I can't be associated with you because you poke people in the eye.' "
If Rhode Island presents its challenges, though, there are ways to build something worthwhile here. National foundation money, from Knight and elsewhere, has launched several of the upstart ventures elsewhere.
Joe Bergantino, co-director and senior reporter at the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based at Boston University, says his group would be open to a partnership with local organizers.
And a more sober investigative site — without the in-your-face, ambush interview tactics Hummel sometimes pursues — might seem a safer investment for the sort of local donors who could make a nonprofit news venture sustainable in the long term.
There are, in short, possibilities. A more robust local media is in reach. It's unclear, though, if anyone will grab for it.
IN THE BLOGOSPHERE: WHERE NEWS BREAKS
The blog, at this point, is de rigueur. Even the most traditional of print news organizations have embraced the form — if not, always, the spunk that should accompany it.
But no story on the future of the media in Rhode Island would be complete without noting the growing influence of the blogosphere on mainstream news here.