The Ithaca Voice is a free online newspaper serving the Ithaca area and Tompkins County.
A Q&A with Jeff Stein, Editor and member of the Board of Directors. We photographed a staff meeting at the Ithaca Voice headquarters.
What do you do?
The Ithaca Voice provides timely, accurate, and in-depth information to the residents of Ithaca and Tompkins County. The major newspaper in the area has moved behind a paywall which severely restricts access and the free circulation of information to residents who can’t afford it. A big part of our mission is providing stories and valuable civic insights that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds in town can access.
Who is it good for?
We see our job as representing the public and ensuring that those who have an important say over our major public bodies are held accountable, closely scrutinized, and looked at carefully.
What change are you trying to make?
Across the country, local news has been decimated by the attempt to transition their business models online. This is a sort of quixotic quest likely to not succeed, but there is a lot of earnestness and a lot of drive to discover a new revenue model for local news because it’s really a major problem for communities all over that have seen their newsrooms impacted by this change.
There have been a few responses from the major corporations to try to restore the old revenue models. So far, especially in this market, those efforts have been short-sighted short-term plays and not up to the task. I think, especially locally, that the dropoff in the number of local reporters has hurt the ability to look at what the politicians are doing carefully and scrutinize their efforts.
What brought you here?
My parents told me not to do it, which made me want to do it, obviously. I had the idea when I was a student at Cornell. I was planning on doing it right out of Cornell but thought better of it. I took a job as a crime reporter in Syracuse at the Post-Standard. The idea to do this was always in the back of my mind… I hope it doesn’t sound self-aggrandizing, but I got this award from the Associated Press, Young Journalist of the Year for New York State, and that gave me a little bit more of a confidence boost to go out and try to do this myself. I think the response kind of speaks for itself.
How does this impact our community?
A quick glance at our Facebook page will show that we’ve created and sustained real debates about everything from noise ordinance policy to whether a cop should be required to live in the city. And because we’re free and we’re fast and we’re interesting, and I’m really quite proud to say this, we’ve sparked debate and we’ve gotten people more interested than they would otherwise be about what’s going on in their town and their community. Sometimes the debates on our Facebook page devolve into vulgarities, into nonsense, but in general I think the level of discourse is astoundingly high. It’s a good way for officials to get the pulse of what’s going on and how people feel.
How has our community supported you?
We have over 3000 Facebook followers on our page and I think every time the Voice goes toe to toe with someone, our followers have had our back. Cornell banned us from this press conference and the outpouring of support from the community was awesome. It was so much fun to see.
I think that we’ve pursued a policy of extreme transparency that’s sort of my organizing principle; we’re a newspaper that’s demanding accountability and openness from government officials and others, and we need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard. I think the readers have really appreciated that.
What struggles have you encountered?
Revenue has been a bit of a challenge. We have the idea of restoring digital ad revenue that can support real reporters doing real reporting, but that journey is far from over.
What should we be celebrating?
I think the community should be celebrating this newspaper that’s free for everyone and that’s not accountable to corporate overlords in DC or in NYC. We’re of the community and for the community and by the community and that sort of organic growth is something worth drinking a nice glass of champagne over, I think.
How can we take part?
Tell everyone you know to like us on Facebook! We’ll be having a membership drive soon. We’ll be selling Ithaca Voice t-shirts, and I will be very glad if people buy those and even more glad if they’re not just my mom’s friends.10
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