Taylor Batten

Free news is great, until it runs out

David Boraks is shutting down two digital newspapers he has run for nine years.
David Boraks is shutting down two digital newspapers he has run for nine years. DAVIDSON COLLEGE

My dad would have liked David Boraks.

Jim Batten was passionate about a lot of things, but two near the top of his list were Davidson and outstanding journalism.

Not just hard-hitting, Pulitzer-winning, investigative journalism – though as a former award-winning reporter and editor, he loved that, too. As the leader of a company that owned nearly three dozen newspapers, he also understood the powerful role of intensely local journalism – stories about your neighbor’s new project, or an outstanding teacher, or the Eagle Scout award the kid down the street earned. In short, journalism that helps create community.

David Boraks has been building community in Davidson for nine years. He announced Friday that his daily digital newspapers, DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net, were going out of business, effective immediately. Outstanding journalism, high-quality staff members, thousands of dedicated readers and constantly updated hyperlocal news were not enough to turn a profit.

Boraks poured his heart, money and time into building his news operation. His sites had 100,000 unique readers per month, mostly from the three north Mecklenburg towns as well as from Charlotte and Mooresville. They offered a mix of breaking news, features, columns, reader voices, obituaries and happenings around town. “A real slice of life of what’s going on here,” Boraks told me Friday.

Readers were grieving Friday about the sites’ demise. In dozens of poignant comments on Boraks’s column announcing the news, they thanked him for his dedication and fretted about what would fill the void once the sites were gone.

“Thank you for the blood, sweat and tears,” reader Thomas Hazel wrote. “DavidsonNews.net has been a good venue for discussion of local issues, a reliable source for news in Davidson and beyond and a fun place to see and hear about family and friends.”

“What a gift you’ve given us for nearly a decade!” reader Eileen Keeley wrote.

Ah, but there’s the rub. It was a gift, because readers and advertisers weren’t paying for it. Eventually, the gift-giving has to stop.

Readership had never been higher, Boraks said. “But we didn’t have any success translating that into cash to pay for it.”

About 2 percent of readers made donations. Businesses never bought enough advertising to cover costs. In February, saddled with debt, Boraks and his business partner Lyndsay Kibiloski looked at each other, agreed they were exhausted and decided they weren’t up for saving the sites from death one more time.

It’s a stark and close-to-home depiction of the state of the news industry in the digital age. Readers want information for free, and advertisers pay a fraction of what they do for print. But gathering news isn’t cheap, even as the watchdog role a good news outlet plays is invaluable.

In the end, communities will have to decide the value they place on a vigorous press. In Davidson and Cornelius, now that one major player is gone, they might find they valued it even more than they knew.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter: @tbatten1.