As newsrooms around the country shrink, local governments are finding that the burden of disseminating information—particularly run-of-the-mill public announcements—is falling upon their shoulders.
But, if the county of San Diego’s latest mass-communication venture, CountyNewsCenter.com, is indicative of the trend, government won’t do it any cheaper than the private sector. A CityBeat analysis of the $114,000 contract for the design of the website indicates that the county paid more for CountyNewsCenter.com than KPBS, Voice of San Diego and CityBeat paid for their sites combined.
CountyNewsCenter.com was launched in September as a separate website from the county’s main hub, sdcounty.ca.gov. The site serves as the “digital newsroom” for the county’s Communications Office, which operates with a $3.1-million annual budget and 11 full-time communications officers. To the viewer, it looks not unlike any news organization’s website, with stories and YouTube videos promoting the county’s outreach campaigns and public-relations successes.“The Internet Age has revolutionized media and communications, creating a new paradigm where anyone—not just those with printing presses, television and radio stations—can become a news source,” the Communications Office writes in the contract for the site. “While it will always be important to work with established media, this revolution provides us with the opportunity and responsibility to improve how we tell the County’s story, by becoming a trusted, proactive news source rather than just a reactive target of news coverage.”
Readers who are linked to stories on the site might not readily recognize the content as government-produced material. There are no bylines or disclosures, and many posts are written in traditional news formats, with inverted-pyramid structures and quotes from sources. One story profiles a horticulturist; another features a county-produced music video starring a foster youth who uses hip-hop to promote nutrition. Sometimes the stories are weightier, such as a recent series that aimed to discredit news reports about a $484 million backlog of capital-improvement projects. In the first six months after it launched in September 2011, the site logged 42,000 unique visitors.
Scott Lewis, CEO of the online nonprofit news organization Voice of San Diego, supports the idea of local agencies using emerging technologies to connect directly with constituents. As reporters flock to government PR jobs (the county Communications Office is made up of primarily ex-broadcast and newspaper reporters), Lewis says agencies should capitalize on those talents.
“These people can write, and they should write,” Lewis says. “They probably don’t need to spend $114,000 just on the website, but they also don’t need to be just relegated to picking up the phones or trying to talk to reporters.”
Rather than build websites from scratch, most major news organizations rely on firms offering niche products and services, called “content-management systems,” designed specifically for the industry. Costs vary.
Lewis says that Voice, which won the Online News Association’s 2011 Award for General Excellence in the small-site category, contracted with TownNews.com, which provides news websites to more than 1,500 clients. Currently, Voice pays $875 per month and will be undergoing a custom redesign that will cost no more than $4,000. Greg Booras, TownNews.com’s vice president of sales, says that cost—$15,000 in one year—is about average for building and hosting a news site.
After looking at CountyNewsCenter.com, Booras said TownNews.com could have “done tons more for tons less” than what the county paid.
“The site, unless I am missing something, is pretty straightforward and something we would do as a normal site and nothing special,” Booras writes via email. “Maybe this is a market we should look into.”
CityBeat currently contracts with Wehaa, with a one-time setup cost of $2,500, plus a $700 per month fee—an initial annual cost of less than $11,000, excluding negotiated discounts. KPBS uses Ellington, at a rate of $2,000 per month, according to KPBS interactive-technology manager Jim Tinsky. He esimates KPBS spent between $40,000 and $50,000 on its current site.
“A hundred grand is a lot for this kind of site nowadays,” Tinsky says of CountyNewsCenter.com. The county won’t pay for monthly licensing, as other sites do, but will be responsible for a $170 monthly hosting fee.
The county awarded the contract to Parallax Visual Communications in April through a non-competitive process. Earlier, Parallax had scored a web-development contract with the San Diego County Water Authority, and the county amended that contract to include $114,270 for the newsroom website. The only news-related client the Encinitas-based firm lists is “San Diego Healthcare Guide,” a magazine it designed more than five years ago for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Michael Workman, who heads the county’s Communications Office, rejected interview requests and agreed to answer questions only via email. Asked how the budget was determined, Workman responded with a single word, “Research,” and would not respond to further questions. He did point out that the work came under budget at $91,103.
“That’s a lot of money,” Lewis says. “They shouldn’t need that. You need to know what your options are and be well aware of how to pull it off. A simple call to a news site, like the ones that TownNews serves, would’ve been very easy to do.”
Wil Gerken, chief technology officer for Desertnet, which serves 30 weekly publications across the country with its Foundation platform, says his company could’ve provided comparable services to the county for roughly $25,000. He compared the county’s decision to that of a prospective homeowner.
“Do you choose an existing house and just do some modifications?” Gerken writes via email. “Or do you buy land and have a house from a pre-fab model? Or, do you hire an architect and meet with him to define and design your own perfect dream house, then oversee a full custom development?” The county seems to have chosen the most expensive option, Gerken says, after reading the contract.
Jed Sundwall, a consultant to government agencies on the use of social media, says web developers often tack on extra charges, such as vague “project management” line items, to cover costs inherent with doing business with the government. In Parallax’s case, it billed the county $13,000 for “project management.”
One fee in particular seems out of the ordinary: $720 for six hours spent designing a “favicon.”
A favicon is the little, 16-by-16-pixel icon that appears at the top corner of a web browser when you visit a site. Twitter’s favicon is a little blue bird, while eBay’s is a smaller version of the company’s logo. For County News Cervice, it’s the letters “CNC” in black and blue colors on a white background.
“I would give someone two hours, three hours to design a favicon,” Sundwall says. “Designing pixel by pixel, that’s a pretty complicated, specialized skill. But what they got? No way. It’s a crappy design. It’s not a great favicon. It’s not something that would take six hours to design.”
Overall, though, Sundwall says the site’s price tag isn’t out of line with what an agency might pay for a custom-built site, but he questions the overall wisdom of the project.
“I would’ve recommended against it,” he says. “I think what they’re trying to do, they could do better with just a blog and Facebook and a Twitter account.”