Of course, pushing the limits may be unavoidable if you're going head-to-head with an entrenched, if declining daily newspaper. And that is what GoLocalProv is doing. Indeed, Fenton and Krasinski hope to replicate the model in other mid-size cities with struggling newspapers.
The strategy makes the company a bit of an outlier, with competitors like AOL's Patch — which operates 800 local news sites across the country, including 15 in Rhode Island — targeting not the cities covered by fading metro papers, but the small, affluent towns they have left behind.
Fenton insists Patch's small-fry approach just won't work: AOL chief "Tim Armstrong has it wrong — 'I spent a million dollars to win Portsmouth, Rhode Island.' Why?"
And numbers aside — Fenton engages in a bit of hyperbole, here — his questions about the viability of the Patch model are hardly unique (see "Can Patch survive?," below); as many AOL observers have noted, other so-called "hyperlocal" efforts, like backfence, have failed.
But analyst Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics, says the GoLocalProv alternative is hardly a sure thing. A similar effort, the San Diego News Network, folded last summer. And the parent company of The Politico, a popular national politics site, stumbled badly when it tried to build a local news site in Washington, DC.
The chief challenge: getting the sort of largescale readership that will attract advertisers in an intensely competitive on-line space.
Fenton, who declined to open his books to the Phoenix, insists GoLocalProv has been profitable for five months now. And with a full-time staff of just four, that may be true. But it seems unlikely that such a small organization can have more than a marginal impact on the quality of local news.
"The Internet is just incredible: low cost . . . low barriers to entry, it's all true," Doctor says. "But commercial entrepreneurs . . . just trying to take dollars out of the advertising market are [little more than] a distraction to people who care about the news business."
Patch, which is looking to expand beyond its 15 Rhode Island sites in the coming months, is not a journalistic powerhouse either. Its stories on town council meetings and lost dogs may fill a need, but they won't win any awards.
Little surprise, really. The company's organizing principle is providing local news on the cheap: in each town, Patch employs a single editor who must produce several posts per day and manage a small stable of freelancers — leaving little time for ambitious reporting.
But if the market cannot support an on-line only news staff of reasonable size and experience, there are alternatives.
Indeed, the most promising web-based local efforts, at the moment, are non-profits: sites like the Texas Tribune, MinnPost in Minneapolis, and — closer to home — the New Haven Independent.
These organizations use NPR and PBS as fundraising models: soliciting money from foundations, wealthy donors, readers, and the occasional advertiser. And while they still have to prove that this model can work, the journalism they are producing in the meantime is quality stuff.
While none purport to replace the local newspaper — their staffs, if larger than those at GoLocalProv or a Patch site, are still relatively small — they all aspire to a wide-ranging, local journalism that can be surprisingly old-fashioned.