The Future of Local News is You

I’m tired of seeing the small community newspapers go under. Times are tough and traditional business models no longer sustain small publishers in small markets. It appears that most small publishers, particularly in smaller markets, lack the resources and knowledge of new business models to evolve or transform. What disturbs me most about this is the lack of risk-taking among small market journalists. There are thousands of journalists out there that have the potential to solve the local news challenge on their own – they just don’t know it yet. Where are the entrepreneurs?

I live in a suburb of Atlanta where we have two local papers. One is going through some difficult times, recently suspending operations. Through the support of the community, this paper is back up and running for now – but for how long? It’s not a long-term solution to the problem, as I simply don’t see the community willing to bankroll the paper indefinitely. A better solution would be for a well-networked journalist to strike out on her own. Granted, I’m an entrepreneur, so I’m wired this way. But really, how difficult would it be for a journalist to start a local news venture in a market where the local paper can’t hack it anymore?

Here are a few reasons why I think more small town journalists should consider starting their own local news websites or blogs:

  • The demand is already there – it’s not a lack of demand for local news content that is hurting local papers, it’s a lack of advertising support, combined with high production costs (namely printing and distributing a physical newspaper)
  • Local journalists are already producing local content – they have the contacts and resources to produce an almost infinite amount of content around local news
  • Advertiser support is there – there are plenty of advertisers who would be interested in advertising in a geographically-focused media vehicle, particularly one that produces more measurable results; journalists should be able to tap into an existing network of advertisers to support their need for income

If you’re a journalist working for a paper that’s going under, here’s a rough checklist you could use to launch your own local media empire:

  • Grab your Rolodex and head for the door
  • Contact a local freelance graphic designer and/or Web developer (start with the person that was doing layouts at your paper)
  • Have this person design a blog for you – my suggestion would be WordPress, possibly with an SEO-friendly theme like Thesis
  • Register a domain name that looks something like this: www.yourtownnews.com (replace “your town” with the actual name of your town or small market)
  • Start doing the job you’ve done all along – write stories on local news, contact the people you’ve interviewed over the years and get them on board
  • Let all the local businesses and community influencers know about your plans to provide news for the citizens for your community – invite them to share their information
  • Recruit other out-of-work journalists to jump on board
  • Offer former advertisers banner ads on your blog, for a small fraction of what they were paying before – offer highly-competitive rates in the beginning, to lessen the risk for those willing to sponsor your content during your launch phase
  • Improve the coverage on your local market, now that you’re no longer limited by column inches or deadlines – report on more, in less time and build an audience

Most journalists, from my experience, like the security of a steady paycheck. Many prefer to write and/or edit content, rather than run a business. However, it’s not as difficult as many might think. I’ll go out on a limb here and say I think most small town journalists know how to run a local news organization as good (if not better) than the place they’re drawing a paycheck from today. Don’t look for another fledgling newspaper to work for, strike out on your own and launch your own local news operation. You’ll probably enjoy the work more, get more recognition for the content you produce, and you just might make more money in the process as well.

What do you think? Should small town journalists launch their own ventures to fill the local news void in most small markets today?

(Image Credit: Joey – Everywhere by rabbleradio)

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.

19 Comments

  1. We have been urging our clients for about a year now to “BE the media” in their markets. The declining availability of news media outlets — especially the very thin content being produced for most local TV newscasts — means less opportunity for media coverage of community events by important businesses in each market.

    We produce video news wrappers for clients that take the place of traditional TV news coverage. Think of it as video news releases, but without intending to have it broadcast on a TV station, we just use the Internet as the transmitter. It has much longer shelf life and is more tailored to the audiences that the clients want to reach. This is another opportunity for freelance journalists with the proper multimedia skills.

    Here are a couple of examples:
    Walmart Store #1742 Grand Reopening, Turnersville, NJ, 11/4/2009 – http://professionalpodcasts.blip.tv/file/2808714/

    Family Continues Search and Rescue Effort for NJ Man, Joe Dunsavage – http://professionalpodcasts.blip.tv/file/2130290/

    Steve “@PodcastSteve” Lubetkin
    Managing Partner, Professional Podcasts LLC
    steve@professionalpodcasts.com
    @PodcastSteve on Twitter

  2. As a recently laid-off editor, I am doing this. But it’s not going as well as I hoped. Things are going good on the content end, but advertising is a struggle. I have even offered local small business free trial ads, but they have been slow to respond.

    • I’m optimistic about your prospects as this worst-ever market turns around. Your site looks strong – keep doing what you do.

  3. I wish I believed that the economics of this worked. The closest thing to this I can think of is West Seattle Blog, which is just about perfect in its cost structure in that it consists of one workaholic reporter and one experienced ad sales guy who also happens to understand the journalism side of things. But they are just barely getting by. Until the world gets a single – just one! – example of this working well (you’re about the 1000th person to propose it) there simply is no model. There must be a reason it’s not going so well.

    I would submit that the reason it hasn’t worked so far is relatively straightforward: almost all these markets are *already* served by papers, even if they are struggling. We will have to see a total absence of print coverage of a given geographic area before anyone will have enough advertisers and eyeballs to make this really work.

    • There are a lot of generalizations in your reply. There are always more ways something can fail than can succeed. It’s those that give it a shot that find success – the rest usually sit around talking about it.

      Yes, my background is PR (again with the generalizations), but you’ll also notice I have experience working with a lot of start-ups (and entrepreneurs), predominantly around Internet businesses. Yes, many of those have failed, but there have been a lot of successes too.

      I’m not saying you’re going to make six figures overnight launching a local news blog – however, those that launch immediately around the downfall of a local print pub will find themselves in the best position for long-term gains. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Oh, and I notice that your background is PR. I hope this doesn’t sound snide, but you’ve got to realize: news has *never* paid for itself. Newspapers controlled the only means of communicating whole classes of advertising that have fled to the internet and are never coming back, just by virtue of their ubiquity in a pre-digital age.

    News has always been subsidized and it has never made a profit. Outsiders rarely get this. What’s next is: who (or what) will subsidize the news of the 21st century?

  5. I guess that means some people still think advertising will pay for professional journalism. Wake up: it won’t, at least not alone. I’m not willing to go it alone-almost surely doomed to failure-unless someone has a better idea on how to get funding. Grants, maybe, but I have zero interest in being a salesman, especially selling something that I would not buy myself (banner, pop up ads, etc). I can write a grant. But I refuse to write a sales pitch.

    • I wasn’t suggesting advertising as an end all, be all solution – it just wouldn’t take much to replace the average small town reporter’s salary with advertising revenue. Let’s say you’re making $30K a year writing for a local paper. If you strike out on your own, you’d probably want to bring in $50K to be able to maintain your standard of living. One option would be to come up with an average of $4,200 a month in advertising revenue (having worked on the media, marketing and PR sides, I know this is much easier than it sounds).

      There are plenty of other ways you could make money off a venture like this, but my suggestions were really geared towards somebody that wants to keep writing for their audience while replacing lost income.

  6. I think Jeremy is spot on that local journalism can be done on a small scale, and does not need a lot of revenue to be viable, once you have lost the costs of print and distribution.

    Perhaps a better way of looking at monetising the news is for a subscription. Yes I know everyone says online news has to be free, and maybe it does for a majority of readers. However a proposition which asked local businesses to subscribe for – say – $15 a month would not need many businesses before revenue was viable. You might have to offer other local services to make this an attractive proposition for business. From the journalist’s point of view selling subscriptions is less of a sales overhead than selling spot advertising.

    WordPress is ok as far as it goes. I am chairman of a company, Rolonews, which is addressing this need, and in particular the B2B aspects of this sort of proposition. We are not ready yet, but if you want to keep in touch, we can let you know more when we are ready.

  7. A Toast to Some Entrepeneurs Out There….

    I agree with your current commentary but fortunately there are some exceptions. I represent a music Festival out of South Florida and ran into a serious issue when all arts reporters from Miami to the Palm Beaches almost overnight were no longer on the payroll at the key dailies. Fortuitously for art lovers and for me, there were a few industrious reporters in the bunch who started some really great blogs. These morphed into a publication lead by Greg Stepanich entrepreneur and former Palm Beach Post reporter. He brought most of the key bloggers and former top art reporters at the local papers in – experts in dance and literature, theater jazz – together to form a site and now they even published a monthly magazine in hard copy. I applaud them because they serve as an example to others of what is indeed possible if you take the bull by the horns. They capturing the market by truly serving the community in what they do. Check them out online. They are beta testing their new site and I do admire what they have done… now they do deserve a standing ovation…. And no they are not a client…. Palm Beach Arts Paper… check it our http://www.palmbeachartspaper.com/

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear some people are making a go of it out there. I know it’s hard – but isn’t all work really?

  8. One correction, to Christopher above.

    We, after two years in business, are not “just barely getting by.” We’re doing pretty well, thank you very much. The money we bring in covers family and business expenses and a great deal of freelance expenditures (reporting, photography, video, development; still interviewing for the first official employee).

    We’re going to surpass 8 million pageviews for the year (in blog format, with few jumps, and no cheap traffic tricks like slideshows), up 33% from last year. We are here to stay and also here to tell the naysayers to hush up already – this IS a workable model. (As our friends at Baristanet in NJ proved before us.)

    BTW, a lot of what goes for conventional wisdom these days (such as “advertising is dead”) is just flat laughably wrong. Look us up if you come to Seattle sometime and we’ll show you why.

    • I’m genuinely glad to hear things are working out for you! The last time I read anything about West Seattle Blog, it was that you had just barely broken even. So: turns out there *is* at least one example out there of this working. I look forward to the day that these local blogs / sites are doing well enough that a national conglomerate sees fit to buy a bunch of them up, extract all the profits they can, degrade the quality of the coverage and begin the process all over again. 😉

      By which I mean: I sincerely hope that local news, like local coffee shops, stays local.

      • Not on your life. I am militantly opposed to big media getting involved in this. Here in Seattle, a couple of corporate media concerns are trying to do “neighborhood news” with largely “volunteer” (aka free) labor (or in one case, a few producers doing calendar-item rewrites for dozens of sites). So far, the “readers” aren’t fooled.

        We and several other sites are in a collaborative partnership with the Seattle Times as part of a yearlong J-Lab project and it does NOT involve a takeover, them trying to replicate our sites, or anything other than small media organizations and a big one trying to figure out how they might actually be able to work together so that better news coverage would result.

  9. When we sell “advertising” on our new media news outlets,
    we can kick it up a notch.

    Why try to sell advertisers the same old tired solutions
    that were based on printed media?
    Now that the ad is built for the web,
    it can make the sale directly using ecommerce —
    or connect the customer to the store directly
    by email, tweets or facebook etc.,
    while indicating to the advertiser that the
    connection comes from your news media site
    e.g.: “Customer inquiry from SoSara.com”.

    Advertisers get a lot of business each month,
    sometimes they know where the referrals come from, sometimes not.
    My point is, now that our business is connected to the internet,
    let’s make sure that the computer passes that referral info on
    to our advertisers and lets them know for sure — that our
    news outlet generated these leads, customers and sales.

    Also, since we are concentrating on local news and local businesses,
    customer relationships are going to be more important than
    any individual sales transaction. Think in terms of building a
    narrative with your advertiser’s potential customers, rather than
    the old skool newspaper attitude of ‘anything goes’.
    Newspapers aren’t well known for customer satisfaction or advocacy.
    I see this as just another way that we can have an edge on the
    corporate dinosaurs.

    PS: Why didn’t any of the newspapers ever offer an “E-Subscription”
    with a kindle reader bundled in?
    The cost of the reader could offset the cost of printing and delivering a paper product.
    Anyway…
    Is there any reason that our news blogs can’t be setup to RSS to people’s smartphones?

    If we build it…
    advertisers will come.

  10. Your post kick-started enthusiasm for our own effort – just over a month old now – and many of the items on your inspired are list ticked off. Nice one.

    😎

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