An online alt weekly approach to local news in a red state community

Tasneem Raja to speak at 2017 LION Summit about The Tyler Loop experiment

By Matt DeRienzo | Oct. 16, 2017

Tasneem Raja

Tasneem Raja is a writer and radio producer with lots of national news experience at outlets many would consider firmly in the "big city and coastal elite media bubble." So why did she launch a local independent online news site in the red state community of Tyler, Texas, and what is she learning? She'll be spekaing at the 2017 LION Summit Oct. 26-28 in Chicago, the country's largest gathering of local independent online news publishers. We asked her for a preview:

1. Why did you launch The Tyler Loop? What void were you trying to fill in the local news ecosystem?

First and foremost, The Tyler Loop was founded for selfish reasons. I've been spending a fair bit of time in Tyler over the last five years after meeting my now-husband, who was already living here at the time, and I moved here full-time last year. There's a well-established daily newspaper in Tyler, in operation for over eighty years, that does a good job of covering local events and gatherings. But as someone who's always had the good fortune of living in cities with culturally astute, bold, muckraking alt-weeklies, I was personally dissatisfied with my options for going deeper into the why and how behind things happening here. I never expected to live in a place like Tyler; like a lot of national journos, I'm more used to parachuting in and out of small-town non-coastal America. But given that I had chosen to make Tyler home, and given that the sort of deep-dive magazine-style journalism I had always relied on to better understand the places I lived in didn't exist here, it seemed the only way forward was to start my own. My husband and co-editor, who's also a journalist with experience in national and local media, and I launched the site in April 2017.

2. You've talked about the Tyler Loop taking an "alt weekly"-style approach to an online-only local news site. What do you fear is being lost in major cities with the decline of alt weeklies? And Tyler isn't typical of an alt weekly market?

As someone who's lived in Chicago, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area — all places blessed with fantastic alt-weeklies for long stretches — I've seen firsthand, at least in the circles I traveled in, a direct relationship between local civic engagement and the presence of papers like these. Alt-weeklies force us to rethink our ideas of who the city is for, whose priorities matter, and who is worth listening to. I find it especially concerning that major coastal cities are becoming fantastically unsustainable for all but the wealthy and powerful in sync with the decline or outright disappearance of some of our country's most vital alt-weeklies. When an alt-weekly folds or shrinks, it always feels like a win for the powers-that-be. Beyond that, a lot has already been said about the crucial role that alt-weeklies have played in grooming the next generation of great longform writers and editors.

As for Tyler, the recurring theme of our launch and first few months of existence has been a drumbeat of thanks from folks in town, some who've lived here for decades, saying they've been waiting and waiting for something like this to come along. When I first starting visiting Tyler in 2012, I had a fairly generic (and, in retrospect, embarrassing) big-city idea of what a place like this was all about. But as I got to know people and local organizations, I realized that there's this whole thriving web of people who are deeply invested in issues of social justice, racial reconciliation, identity, food access, income inequalities, and so on. And even outside of folks who do that sort of work for a living or as volunteers, there's tremendous appetite for conversation and information sharing along those lines. But they didn't have a central hub, at least not in terms of local media, and that's where The Tyler Loop has come in.

3. How deeply have you gotten into revenue models to support the site? Do you have a plan or prognosis for sustainability?

We launched in late spring of 2017 with a plan to give it six months or so and see if there truly is community interest in a site like this, and, after hitting that milestone and learning more about the size and depth of our audience, returning to the question of revenue and sustainability. I'm happy to say that our initial launch has us absolutely convinced that there is potential support for The Tyler Loop; now it's a matter of figuring out what shape that support might take. At minimum, we expect to see some success with passive crowdfunding tools like Patreon or GoFundMe. But I don't anticipate The Loop ever becoming my full-time job, and not just because it wouldn't pay the bills. I'm an independent national magazine reporter, and I spend most of time each week working on stories for those outlets. Living in a place like Tyler — where the cost of living is so low compared to what we're used to and where there's little competition for the kinds of stories we want to tell — has opened up tremendous possibilities from both a journalistic standpoint and a purely practical one.

4. A huge priority for LION is to see and to support more people of color launching local independent online news sites. Any advice from your work with Code Switch in surfacing underrepresented voices?

There’s such a multiplier effect that can come from really, seriously and thoughtfully investing, and even starting out with just one editor or reporter of color at a new outlet like ours, in terms of the audience you can reach, the stories you can bring in, and the networks you can tap into.

(Instead of trying to plug someone into what you are already doing), identify one person in the community who already has a project that deserves greater investment, resources or training ...

Starting from there and letting that person truly take the wheel and develop their vision can be more effective than things I’ve seen where people start with the idea of a program where they find several people they want to retrofit into.

Start with the person, not the vision, and help that person develop their vision.

5. What have you learned about local news since embarking on this project that would have helped you better steer the work of the national news outlets you've helped lead?

There’s no mystery about it. Give someone the opportunity to truly spend some time in a community, to undersatnd the lay of the land.

I had a very big city, coastal idea of what a city like Tyler was going to be about. I’m glad I took the time before I published a single story on the Loop. I went on a kind of listening tour where I sat down with two or three dozen community stakeholders ... and i just walked away from that understanding that I had been in danger of … a very top-down, very under the microscope-type site if I had followed my instincts as a national reporter.

Everybody is thinking about a place like this through the lens of Trump, for instance. But as I got to know the community, that’s not really on people’s minds here, at all.

Giving somebody the time to truly dig in and tell these stories from the gorund up, instead of top down. … I think people are tired of people parachuting in and out.

Check out more entries in our 2017 conference blog »