Andre Natta moved to Birmingham in 2004 to work for Main Street Birmingham, a predecessor of the economic development organization now known as REV Birmingham. A year later Natta started a personal blog he called Dre’s Ramblings, but soon realized that his blog wasn’t simply an online journal telling the stories of his life; it was telling the stories of Birmingham. Looking to sites like Gothamist in New York City, Gapers Block in Chicago, and Pegasus News in Dallas-Fort Worth, in 2007 Natta launched The Terminal, an online hub of information about the city of Birmingham.
Natta has garnered a number of awards and opportunities thanks to his work with The Terminal. The site was the first non-mainstream media site to place for four consecutive years in the al.com/The Birmingham News’ readers’ poll Birmingham’s Best. The Terminal was also included in a list of 100 promising community news sites found by Michele McLellan during her fellowship of the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
“I’ve personally had opportunities to be a participant in the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Hardly Strictly Young symposium, and present at the Online News Association conference when it was in Boston, and the first two years of the Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago (attending all three years) in addition to conferences in Memphis and Chattanooga, Tenn.,” Natta says. “The fun part about presenting is the chance to learn from everyone else who’s in attendance.”
Natta’s work with The Terminal also led to The Digital City, a monthly column on technology in Birmingham that Natta has written for B-Metro Magazine since its launch in 2009.
In May of this year Natta started contributing to the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error blog, which reports on media errors and corrections and accuracy and verification trends in journalism.
“Craig Silverman, the blog’s creator, has been focusing on his role as director of content at a startup called Spundge for more than a year now and was looking for someone to help hunt down the corrections and post to the blog,” explains Natta, who met Silverman at Hardly Strictly Young.
Silverman asked Natta to take on the job and Natta was more than happy to help.
“It’s been a beneficial learning experience for me,” Natta says. “I get to spend about two hours a day reviewing corrections and clarifications posted by news organizations across the country and around the world. It’s broadened what comes to mind when thinking about potential focus areas for the site. It’s also helped me improve my writing skills while getting critical feedback. I’m hopeful it will continue in some form and potentially lead to more writing opportunities.”
Natta recently relaunched The Terminal, making various changes to the site.
“The first significant change was to narrow the focus of the publication to be specifically about the city of Birmingham and its built environment,” Natta says. “It sounds limiting but it’s actually quite freeing and seeks to help visitors and readers understand why something is happening and how different things happening in different parts of the city affect each other. It also gives us a lens to look through when crafting pieces and projects for the site that makes it easier.”
The Terminal will also include more videos and written pieces will be longer. “I’ve realized I want to make sure we say what needs to be said instead of worrying about space limitations,” Natta says. “It is digital, after all.”
These days Natta also is busy working on a new project.
“I’m in the early stages of developing a project that would make the site more of a hub than ever before – one that serves not just The Terminal, but all of our local media outlets while serving as a resource for educational purposes,” Natta explains. He’s busy working on a site plan for 2014 and hopes to hire a sales associate soon. These efforts, Natta says, will help The Terminal “evolve into a different type of media organization – one more research driven than people believe possible.”
It’s about people, not pageviews
When Natta started The Terminal in 2006 he spread the word about his site in a number of ways.
“We leveraged word of mouth early on, using Myspace as a major communications tool,” Natta says. “There were also monthly mixers, partnerships with local cultural institutions, and a lot of sitting in coffee houses and bars just talking with people. Word of mouth was the most useful tool to grow The Terminal – that and an incredible group of contributors early on.”
Natta doesn’t deny that social media networks continue to be an effective way of reaching people, but he believes it’s important to step away from the computer too.
“At the end of the day, most of these social networks and websites are just digital spaces where we tend to act as we would offline,” he says. “We wanted to serve as a way people could connect on issues, regardless of opinion, and so I focused on figuring out how to connect with folks where they were most comfortable. I can’t measure the impact of a piece by pageviews alone; I’ve learned more about folks reading the site offline in conversation than I ever would just sitting behind a screen and not living a life.”
Natta offered advice for others hoping to launch sites like The Terminal in their towns.
“Look for those who don’t currently have a voice, or a specific void that needs to be filled,” Natta says. “You can’t be all things to all people, so I’d make sure you weren’t trying to overextend. You do want to test the limits of your comfort zone though, otherwise you won’t know what’s possible.”
Natta added that it’s also important to be willing to learning new things and open to criticism.
“I’d also reach out to those already operating sites, even if they’re in the same city,” Natta says. “Sometimes you’ll be surprised that all you needed to do was ask.”
Hi final piece of advice is simple, though something too many of us forget to do: “Most important,” he says, “have fun and be you doing it. If you can’t be you, what’s the point?”
A version of this story was originally published at See Jane Write Magazine.