Does your journalism solution scale down? Or why local journalism is dying

When I was with Gannett, my regional president nominated me to take part in the Newsroom of the Future process, and it was quite an honour to be nominated after only a couple of months with the organisation. Gannett classified its properties into five tiers, and I was the only person in the room responsible for managing papers in tier four and five, meaning its smallest papers. Everyone else, to my knowledge, was working for a top 35 market out of Gannett’s, then, almost 100 properties. I remember one meeting in Cincinnati, and I projected my organisational chart on the screen. There were audible gasps in the room as they realised how few bodies were in the newsrooms at small sites like mine. And to the organisation’s credit, a senior member of the leadership reminded everyone in the room that half of Gannett’s properties operated at that scale.

In that same meeting, I remember clearly as solutions were mooted that I said that I worried that they simply didn’t scale down to the hyperlocal journalism at small sites like mine. The solutions being suggested didn’t take into account the physical distances involved and the unique nature of the communities. There is more to write about from that meeting, but the overriding sense was that the solutions scaled up so they would scale down as well.

I bring up this up because so much of the discussion about journalism is focused on the question: Does it scale up? I want to applaud Sam Ford for asking these questions about scale and championing other experiments that focus on scaling down. In a media world where scale has become everything and even if the shine has come off the scale play in 2017, the reality is that national players like the New York Times and the Washington Post might be turning the corner, but that isn’t the case at regional or local newspapers in the US. If anything 2017, was not a year of rebuilding but another year of grinding losses, brutal consolidation, and heart-wrenching cuts.

What is interesting in the process driven ideas that Sam talks about is how civically grounded they are. I think the future is going to be small-scale indie digital shops like the ones represented by LION Publishers, but I also see the solution coming from civic partnerships. I am also on the board of my local library, and I do wonder if the mission of libraries as local information hubs might be reimagined to fill in some of the information and civic engagement gaps left in news deserts.

The tension between local news needs and the economics of local content

With the recent closure of DNAInfo and the “-ist” network (Gothamist, Chicagoist, etc) by its billionaire owner, allegedly in a fit of pique over a vote to unionise, there has been more focus on challenges of local news. To me, this is the real crisis in journalism in the English-speaking world. The economic basis for local journalism, advertising, has come under extreme pressure as print subscriptions decline and Facebook and Google gobble up more of the digital advertising pie.

In a recent edition of my newsletter, I flagged up this interesting quote from Patch CEO Warren St. John, who told Axios:

“is that economically, good local news isn’t be designed to serve national or scaled interests, and the driving forces behind it need to come from the community level with community interests.”

This seems to run entirely counter to the consolidation in local news right now, but as local news becomes regionalised by groups focused on cost-cutting and efficiencies of an already lean business, there are opportunities opening up for local scale news businesses. The next few years will be interesting to watch. I predict a lot of experiments in communities smaller than 100,000 that aren’t close to larger metro areas.

Whither hyperlocal? Still in search of sustainability

During this period of disruption and transition, we journalists wring our hands about any number of things, and I suppose the thing I do genuinely worry about is local news. I’m not alone, and it’s spawned a huge number of hyperlocal experiments. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, most of these experiments have failed to develop into sustainable models for the future. At SXSW in the US, they had a panel looking called the “Hyperlocal Hoax: Where’s the Holy Grail?” The intro to the panel said:

Over the last decade, so called “Hyperlocal” websites, apps and services have been “the next big thing.” Now quick: Name one super-successful company in that space. Now name ten in the graveyard.

The effort to find the model continues and so does the frustration at the elusiveness of one. Here in the UK, where I sit, Marc Reeves asked: Why have Birmingham’s hyperlocal bloggers failed to deliver? The motivation was similar to other projects:

The democratic deficit left behind as papers and TV retreated from the territory marked ‘holding power to account’ could be filled – it was hoped – by a growing band of independent, socially active and civic-minded citizens who could use their digital skills to create news and information services for their neighbourhoods.

But five years later, “(m)any of the early sites have withered on the vine” and “most of the true hyperlocal, neighbourhood, blogs seem to run out of steam”. Reeves still has hope that as local media in the UK also continue to whither that “the opportunity for hyperlocals will surely get larger”. 

These blogging projects were definitely on the smaller end of the hyperlocal spectrum, but even larger networks are struggling. In an interview for Street Fight Mag, US hyperlocal project EveryBlock president Brian Addison probably put it best:

We’re operating in a space that excites a lot of people but there’s so much dust that needs to be settled. There’s so much uncertainty around sustainable business models and who’s going to emerge as a leader…

For those not familiar with EveryBlock, it is data-driven aggregator of local several large cities across the US. One of the earliest journo-programmers Adrian Holovaty led its creation using Knight Foundation funding, and team then sold it to in 2009

When asked whether the aggregator would be moving into original content, Addison said:

My strong hunch would be no, largely because I think the economics of that model are broken. That’s pretty easy to see.

What is working? 

First I think it’s important to draw some distinctions between the issues with local media in the US and UK. The markets are very different. The regional (local) media has been much harder hit in the UK than in the US. In the UK, the national media has suffered cuts, but we still haven’t seen the closures, the shifts from daily to weekly and the deep cuts that the regional and local media has. 

In the US, big city metros have been hit hardest while local media, mid-size and smaller newspapers are faring better. US digital advertising analyst Gordon Borrell predicted that newspaper advertising would actually increase next year, 2013. However, the prediction of growth was largely down to growth by small papers.  At Street Fight Mag, Alex Salkever said:

Which is why I actually think Borrell is onto something. We all know that small papers have suffered far less than major metros in the advertising bloodbath. And talk to anyone in a small town and these papers continue to have tremendous relevance.

Salkever thought that it wasn’t just the relevance to local audiences that is helping these small newspapers but also their more direct relationship to advertisers. 

That’s what is working and what isn’t in terms of traditional media, but what about this new breed of local news providers? In the US, J-Lab funded more than 55 ‘New Voice’  hyperlocal projects beginning in 2005. In 2010, it was time to take stock and look at what worked and what didn’t work. What didn’t work? 

One of our biggest learning curves is this: It doesn’t pay to train whole classes of ‘citizen’ journalists. While you’ll be doing wonders for advancing digital media skills in your community, you won’t end up with a reliable corps of contributors for your news site. Ordinary citizens, armed with good intentions, are just too busy.

Citizen journalism turns out to be a high-churn, high-touch enterprise – one that requires a full-time community manager.

In some ways, this is probably why the hyperlocal blogs in Birmingham didn’t work. Feeding a blog is hard work, which I know only too well. The study has 10 takeaways, and I’l leave you to follow the link above to check them all out. They highlighted that:

• “Engagement, not just content, is key.”
• The passion of the founders was key to success.
• “Community news sites are not a business yet. Income from grants, ads, events and other things falls short, in most cases, of paying staff salaries and operating expenses.”

In the UK, Nesta released a report last year, Here and Now, UK hyperlocal media today (PDF), authored by Damian Radcliffe. The report was incredibly useful in that it tackled the big challenges that local media is facing, both for traditional news organisations and new forms of hyperlocal media. He tackled the issues of sustainability and scalability head-on. He said:

Fundamental questions remain about the financial sustainability of the sector, and whether hyperlocal media can benefit from the spread of technology or will get lost in an increasingly noisy digital space.

To sum up the report, he said that there is “no silver bullet for making hyperlocal work”. 

I’d love to end this post with some pithy prescription for success, but that’s just not where we’re at with the disruption of local media and the development of new models. If there was one model that I think needs more exploration is is an idea that Ken Sands told me a few years back. Ken is the editor of Bloomberg Government now, but almost a decade ago, he was the head of web operations in Spokane Washington. He launched an early blogging network at a newspaper. He suggested that a winning combination was place and passion, the intersection of location and focused subjects. I am sure that one of the many people working on hyperlocal projects is already on it. 

Journal-Register’s Brady talks mobile and advertising for local news business

In Journal-Register’s Brady: Local Advertisers Have a Tech Gap | Street Fight., Jim Brady recently has moved to the Journal Register Company, a local newspaper group in the US which is moving aggressively to remake its business. Brady gives a lot of great ideas on the future of local journalism. He talks about mobile and how location can be used to deliver information. He also weighs in on local paid content, and I think he makes a valuable point that the customer base is so small that it might not be economically worthwhile, especially when you factor in marketing (acquisition) costs.

Location: News organisations must seize this opportunity

Since I started geo-tagging content during my trip across the US for the 2008 elections, I’ve been interested in the possibilities of location-based services and news. Location is one way to deliver timely, relevant content to audiences. Smart news organisations such as in Washington DC in the US are already leveraging geo-tagging to deliver their content, and now has struck a deal with Foursquare in 288 cities., part of the paidContent network, is reporting that:

In essence, Examiner’s 68,000 contributors, known as “Examiners,” will provide reviews and recommendations on nearby venues, restaurants, events, businesses and landmarks that will surface within the Foursquare mobile app when users following check in.

This is one of the opportunities that news organisations must not miss. Location allows for better delivery and discovery of content by readers, but it can also deliver new revenue streams to support journalism.

Asbury Park Press blog launches coffeehouse newsroom

Kevin: In a move that echoes the FutuRoom in Prague and its network of news cafés across the Czech Republic, "Freehold InJersey, a community news blog run by the Asbury Park Press and Gannett, has launched a coffeeshop newsroom in conjunction with Zebu Forno Cafe in Freehold, New Jersey". "We hope that having a 'newsroom' in the center of town will encourage folks to drop by, talk to me and the other writers, and participate in a community conversation," said Colleen Curry, the editor of the website and creator of the partnership. It's smart, but the thing that sets the FutuRoom's cafés apart is that they also derive revenue from the cafés so that what was previously a cost centre, a newsroom, becomes a revenue stream.