It’s Local Media That’s Broken, Not Hyperlocal

reporterNational news networks like CNN, TMZ and ESPN are not broken.

Nor is the small-town community newspaper that is locally owned, printed weekly and offers parents coverage of their child’s junior high school/ The digital version of this — a hyperlocal business model — has focused on redlining small affluent towns and selling expensive digital ads to targeted local advertisers like pizza places.

What is broken is local. In mid-sized cities across America for nearly 100 years, the daily newspaper was the purveyor of enterprise journalism, the opinion maker, and a focal point for advertising. In many cities they were monopolies: they set the pricing for advertising, they promoted and punished political officials, and they decided the news cycle every day.

But as digital has overtaken American life, mid-sized American newspapers have not kept pace. The problem? These newspapers, even if they’ve “gone digital,” have not invested wisely in journalism, staffing, or real innovation.

The Opportunity
The new opportunity afforded by this gap is to create a digital platform that focuses on enterprise journalism — high-value content that unveils, informs, and educates the community. It’s the kind of reporting and writing that provides insights into a proposed education policy or reveals that a police chief is corrupt. It keeps the indefatigable and skeptical reporter on the heels of power, no matter where the story leads.

Now more than ever, it is possible for an all-digital platform to write the biggest story, unveil the biggest corruption, or write the smartest analysis in a local market.

And the strongest journalism, consistently delivered, builds a community audience. These engaged members of the community care deeply about schools, healthcare, great restaurants, high school sports and everything local. Do you know who else cares about those engaged members of the community? Local advertisers — banks, hospitals, restaurants, auto dealers, jewelers, and theaters — all want to reach those same engaged community users. They are consumers who buy.

The opportunities that many chase in monetizing midsized markets via online ad, mobile, social media sponsorships and sponsored content can only happen if the consumer comes to read the content. You can’t fake local content — eliminating local news and replacing it with wire stories won’t justify paying $400 a year for your local newspaper to be thrown on your lawn each morning.

The Manufacturing Process Can’t Limit News
Mid-size daily newspapers had a chance to shift their focus to the fast-paced delivery of news on digital platforms, but many refused to break news on the Web in order to protect their printed paper’s distribution and relevance. The irony became quickly profound — the print cycle took the form of a plastic bag on a dew-soaked lawn, a full 12 hours or more after the news actually occurred and was shared via Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

Further, consider the time-honored model of newspapers producing 80% of the local news in most markets, with morning TV and radio piggybacking off that journalism for their content. No wonder local news on the airwaves is losing relevance as well. The silence is deafening.

Sadly, the void in local coverage is significant and ever-growing with every round of newspaper layoffs. How big are the cuts? The population of full-time professional newsroom employees fell below 40,000 for the first time since 1978. It’s down nearly 30% from its 1989 high.

Radio has all but abandoned local reporting in most cities, and local television is focused on auto crashes, house fires, and random shootings. Their investigative teams during sweeps weeks will follow an unlucky city worker around and report on the guy’s “rip off” of the taxpayers, but those TV stations are unlikely to dig into a story of political corruption or engage in aggressive enterprise journalism.

“Nearly one-third — 31% — of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013,” said Pew’s State of Local Media 2013 report.

The Future
People still value — crave, even — local coverage, and the opportunity has never been more clear or compelling. The answer? Journalists, columnists, videographers, experts and so much more delivering strong, insightful, original content on a digital platform and distributed on a real-time basis.

But the digital model cannot sit back and wait for the user. The model must reach out and connect via mobile, via social media, and via email.  And it must be free. If content is king (and it is), then you don’t pen up your monarch behind paywalls.

Local can and should be redefined and improved. More relevant content can and should be delivered to the local user in a focused and time-sensitive way. Local is broken, and it’s high time to fix it.

Fenton, JoshJosh Fenton is the co-founder of GoLocal24, a digital news company focused on local media in midsized markets (not hyperlocal).

  1. May 31, 2013

    Really insightful post, Josh. You right re midsized markets needing to make the most of mobile *and* social–but it’s probably still a matter of costs (although I think mobile, esp. to format for mobile, is a lot cheaper than they realize.) Smaller markets, though, need more news too. I live in a small town of 16,000 and we have a lot more going on than *just* what the kids are doing in school…yet our local weekly rarely covers any of it. I’ve been trying to figure out why since I’ve lived here–whether it’s that the reporters aren’t encouraged to attend events outside normal business hours, or if they are told to stick to the ‘homey’ types of stories vs. covering many of the events that go on in town. I have a feeling though that the paper might be going for the whole “what can we get in unpaid, user generated content” to fill the reporting gaps. In the long run, that’s a bad way to go.

    May 31, 2013

    Very well written…one of the best articles I’ve ever read here on SFM.

  3. Scott Angus
    May 31, 2013

    And the money to support those skilled journalists for the many hours it takes to do that kind of work comes from? Kind of important, don’t you think? Digital just isn’t making it, especially free digital. Love the concept, but show me the money.

      May 31, 2013

      Produce content that is of higher quality than your competition and the traffic will come, followed by advertising revenue. Considering the inherent lower-cost model of purely online news delivery, you should be able to lure your competitor’s top journalists with a higher rate of pay, while charging your advertisers a lower ad-rate; while making a nice profit for yourself. Of course, all of this hinges upon you (as the site-owner) producing consistently excellent content…passion, skill, and hard-work are must-haves to be successful in this arena.

      1. May 31, 2013

        “you should be able to lure your competitor’s top journalists with a higher rate of pay, while charging your advertisers a lower ad-rate; while making a nice profit for yourself.”

        Producing the content is not the problem, if you have the money to pay for it. Monetizing it is.

        1. Scott Angus
          May 31, 2013

          Nice concept, but few if any are having success. The money simply isn’t there in digital advertising – at least yet and in the amount needed. I hope it comes around, but other revenue streams are essential, and paid content is among the best prospects.

          May 31, 2013

          Respectfully, I disagree. Everyblock & Patch are not accurate barometers of the health of “hyperlocal news”, as they make no effort to intimately ingrain themselves within the communities they supposedly serve. Want to see hyperlocal news success in action? Go to…each block ad you see on page one brings-in $500/month in revenue to the site, for a community of 35,000 people. Sales is easy, if you have something of value to sell.

  4. May 31, 2013

    Thanks Josh. Nice overview.
    One question: You said: “Do you know who else cares about those engaged members of the community? Local advertisers — banks, hospitals, restaurants, auto dealers, jewelers, and theaters — all want to reach those same engaged community users. They are consumers who buy.”

    I say: Really? Because if these advertisers were buying ads, hyperlocal wouldn’t be broken. There are plenty of hyperlocal news sites providing great coverage of news – but where are the advertisers? Show me a well-staffed pureplay local news site with great coverage, and I’ll show you pool full of red ink.

    One factor you did not mention is that advertisers have a myriad of cheap and even free alternatives to drive customers – a gigantic problem for local news sites.

    The only formula I’m seeing here is:

    Do great local online news coverage + ? = Profit.

    1. Josh Fenton
      June 1, 2013

      We have had a lot of success in two markets now attracting these local advertisers – they want to connect to engaged consumers. Content gets consumers – consumers gets advertisers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

LBMA Podcast: Domino’s, LevelUp, and UpOut’s Martin Shen