A Q&A with LION member Michael Martin of Columbia Heartbeat in Missouri.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
I founded the Columbia Heart Beat in November 2005. It covers Columbia and Boone County, in central Missouri. It was founded to report positive stories about a racially and economically diverse central city neighborhood that was coming back from decades of crime, decay, and neglect. The site derives its name from that initial mission: covering the beat in the heart of Columbia.
In time, it became an alternative news source – first on Blogger software, and for the past five years on a Joomla news template — that watchdogged the area’s powerful special interests, particularly as those interests sidled up to City Hall and other government agencies for corporate welfare and other taxpayer-funded goodies at the expense of the rest of us. We are distributed on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and to roughly 10,000 email subscribers via a weekly newsletter.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
Small business owner (environmental laboratory and engineering firm) who went on to get MBA from University of Washington with specialty in entrepreneurship and innovation. Changed careers in 2000 to become a science journalist, starting with UPI and moving thereafter into freelancing. Broke many interesting stories, including this and this.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
The Columbia Heart Beat is a hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, muckraking, for-profit news site that receives reader donations via sites such as Indiegogo and ad dollars via sites such as AdSense. We cover public officials and public agencies; and offer limited coverage of the arts, local personalities, entertainment, and small business.
The first question we ask when deciding to run with a story is: Has this been covered already? If so, we usually pass.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
Normally, I’d say our two local newspapers – the Columbia Daily Tribune and Columbia Missourian. But they don’t compete with us because we deliberately avoid what they’ve already covered. More often than not, they’re chasing our leads and news breaks, not the other way around. This sequential chain of stories from 2011 illustrates: Columbia Heartbeat story, Columbia Tribune story, KOMU story, Marshall News story.
5. What makes your site unique?
We cover stories our competitors have not, or in ways they have not (use of satire, parody, e.g. this).
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
I would like to have known that people will hate on you, big time, if you go against the grain. You may be stalked; sued; receive death threats; or have your site hacked, as ours was recently, after you run a controversial story. This brief story – about the end of an ordeal – illustrates:
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
My readers say we have single-handedly changed the political and policy dialog in Columbia, by legitimizing the voices of average folks in a media environment working overtime to de-legitimize those voices in favor of the powerful special interests that hold (an albeit reduced) sway.
This Wall Street Journal article entitled “A Wichita Shocker” is the best, most succinct narrative I’ve read about how legacy newspapers and other establishment figures “get into bed” with special interests, often to the detriment of the communities they are supposed to protect:
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Used to be web-mastering all the new formats we adopted (email listservs early on; social media; Blogger; WordPress; Joomla; plug-ins; modules; third party sites like Scribd, Flickr, Instagram; etc., etc., ad infinitum).
Now, after 10 years, burn out.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We’d like to sell, especially to person or persons who can add and adopt all the new digital tools that keep coming on line.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
I was thrilled to hear of like-minded news organizations breaking new ground in fertile territory. Legacy media is a shadow of what it was, what it should be, and what it could be. The roaring LIONs of the world give us hope that some reporters, editors, publishers, and journalists really are “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” or more aptly, the powerful – people whose special interests are corrupting our beautiful system via processes that can do irreparable harm if someone isn’t watching – and telling the rest of us what’s going on.
Meet the 36 winners of the 2023 LION Local Journalism Awards
Each winner received at least $1,300 to further boost their independent news business.
Introducing LION’s five-year strategic growth plan
Why we’re doubling down on measuring sustainability as our core offering.
What we’ve learned about the unique struggles and success of BIPOC news leaders, and how to better support them
Challenges include access to capital, lack of business experience and low capacity