0509-rain-xponential

Hyperlocal Huang and Timmerman ponder the emergent ecomony.

IN FEBRUARY THE Northwest Science Writers’ Association held a forum on what new media might offer its members, most of whom are either old-media journalists or scrambling freelancers. Anxiety hung like a deadline over the room; the P-I had recently forecast its imminent demise. A consultant discussed his book, Journalism 2.0, and an ex-print editor presented his medical news site.

Then Luke Timmerman, a former reporter for The Seattle Times and Bloomberg News, described his current gig: covering biotech for a two-year-old news site called Xconomy.com. Beaming like a start-up entrepreneur, he flashed stories on the screen and described the thrill and terror of publishing at an online pace while writing with news-feature depth. One attendee cut to the chase: “How does your income now compare to what you were making at the Times?” Timmerman grinned even wider: “I’m making a lot more now.”

Granted, Timmerman and company are getting paid from angel money, not profits, which lie over the horizon. But Xconomy’s debut is still a harbinger of an economic future beyond the current malaise, and a vote of confidence in Seattle’s future.

The enterprise in question is the brainchild of Bob Buderi, a former editor of MIT’s Technology Review and tech editor at Business Week. Buderi saw two holes in the journalism marketplace. First, no one was covering the business of innovation—the start-ups, the venture capitalists, the transformative ideas—full tilt. Local newspapers and business journals try, but they’re chained to routine news: hirings, promotions, quarterly reports. And print publications have pulled back; no one replaced Timmerman covering biotech at the Times. Or they’ve folded, as have the vanguard biz magazines Red Herring and Business 2.0.

Buderi and his editors, most from the Tech Review orbit (where, let it be disclosed, I used to write for several of them) also saw a geographic opening. Xconomy’s strategy is at once what Buderi calls “hyperlocal” and national aspiring to global: It maintains news pages with daily posts for each of the three cities where it’s based, and a home page that distills everything of national interest.

Those three cities—Boston, San Diego, and Seattle—have a lot in common, says Gregory Huang, Xconomy Seattle’s editor (and Tech Review veteran): “They’re a manageable size, and they have hugely active investment communities.” Plus major research universities, large core companies (Microsoft, Amazon), and lots of biotech—a field that’s languished in the shadow of IT coverage, but which just may be the next big economic driver.

Finally, says Huang, all three are “underserved” by existing media. Silicon Valley, by contrast, is glutted, so Xconomy stays away and seeks ponds where it might become a big fish. It cements local ties and builds both brain trusts and revenues by hosting conferences, soliciting underwriters, and recruiting “xconomists,” leaders in various fields, as advisers. If it works here, other innovation centers—Austin? Seoul? Bangalore?—will follow.

How about Xvironment or Xpolitics? Buderi harbors no dreams of expanding Xconomy beyond the, well, xconomy, but he sees parallels in regional news sites such as Seattle’s Crosscut, which also steer somewhere between hyperlocal and global. “Innovation’s coming,” he warns. “On all fronts.”