In the weeks leading up to the 2011 municipal elections, San Antonio’s die hard political junkies were glued to plazadearmastx.com, looking for the latest chismé on our local political ruling class. Fast forward to 2013: during the home stretch of our current campaign season, the subscription-only website sat idle for nearly a month, to the ire of some subscribers.
That is until yesterday afternoon, when Elaine Wolff posted a message informing us that Plaza de Armas , the two-year-old hyper-local news website, is now on an “indefinite publishing hiatus.”
Soon after leaving the Current, where she served as editor from 2006-10, Wolff began Plaza de Armas with local reporter Greg Jefferson. Taking its name from the historic downtown square that’s home to City Hall, PdA aimed to be the go-to source for in-depth, hyper-local news on San Antonio politics. The subscription-only site – $5.99 per month or $60 annually – began with formidable roster of journalists, including Jefferson and writer Gilbert Garcia, both refugees of former E-N editor Bob Rivard’s newsroom. The site also hosted art by Jeremiah Teutsch, a remarkable local illustrator who dabbled with the Current before Wolff poached him away (come back!).
After a solid first year in operation, at least story/content wise, things started to get shaky for PdA . Not too long after Rivard’s abrupt E-N exit, Jefferson moved back to the daily as business editor – at PdA, Jefferson wrote about clashing with Rivard over coverage when he was first at the daily. Garcia would soon re-join the E-N as a political writer. Contributor Terry Gildea left to lead the newsroom at an NPR affiliate in Salt Lake City, UT. Callie Enlow, a frequent PdA contributor in early 2013, became Current editor in March.
In her note to subscribers, Wolff says those developments “have made it difficult to continue producing the quality reporting and writing we promised you when you subscribed.” In a phone conversation Wednesday, Wolff said she worried the website was becoming primarily a source for blogs and commentary – a more critical version of, say, the Rivard Report.
“I respect what the Rivard Report does, but it’s not what PdA does,” Wolff said. “I really still believe in the role of the professional journalist in society, the person who is compensated to be an impartial commentator, observer, investigator
someone whose job it is to tell the story and let people decide what that story means for themselves.”
In addition, conflicts of interest became a nagging issue. Wolff no longer had writers she could pass stories to when she – or her husband Michael Westheimer , a local developer – were too close to an issue or subject. “Why not keep PdA going and just do all the bulk of the writing myself? Well, there’s some stuff I just can’t touch because a disclosure doesn’t cut it,” she said. “That meant I couldn’t just be the full-time political writer.”
Wolff started the website with seed money from donors, hoping to gain a wide enough subscription and advertising base to eventually make PdA self-sustainable. “It takes a while before you become self-sustaining,” she said. “I wish we had gone into it with deeper pockets to begin with."
As PdA struggled to find reporters to fill the gap left by its former staffers, the website toyed with a talk show-style model, with Wolff and local comedian Jade Esteban Estrada interviewing local artists, politicians, and reporters for a weekly video blog produced by Geekdom’s Silver Fox Studios. Subscribers noticed PdA was no longer what it used to be, a steady source of biting commentary, solid investigative reporting, and insider knowledge tailor-made for local politics wonks (myself included; I canceled my subscription last month).
Wolff says she still believes in subscriber-supported content, predicting it will be an increasingly important component of online journalism in the years to come– as evidenced by recent developments at both the Dallas Morning News and the Express-News.
“I think being on the vanguard, which we kind of were locally, is always kind of tough,” Wolff said.
At its worst, PdA was a gossip-infused snark fest, seemingly written for the very movers and shakers it covered. At its best, though, PdA covered critical stories we and the E-N missed.
Go here to see one of my favorite PdA columns (which is not behind the paywall), in which Wolff tears into Bob Rivard, his penchant for non-journalism, and "insipid happy news.”