What Non-Profit News Orgs Can Learn From Yelp

It was sad to read that the Chicago News Cooperative was going to suspend operations. This was one of the big efforts at non-profit local and hyper-local journalism. The team were professional journalists who wrote polished prose. The site broke news and got a decent number of page views and mindshare in the Windy City. So what happened? And does this mean the end for non-profit news collectives? For their part, the CNC said that they did not rely on multi-million dollar donors to sustain them and, likewise, the New York Times reported that the CNC lost out on funding after one of its primary donors, the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, changed grant rules in a way that limited potential disbursements.

The CNC is probably not alone. Rumors have swirled that the Bay Citizen (caveat emptor – I am a donor and member) has sought out mergers with other non-profit journalism efforts. Other non-profit locals have struggled, for sure, to find a happy spot between sponsorships sold to businesses (basically, advertising) and outright donations. For me, the bottom line looks like this: Non-profit news is very hard to make profitable precisely because of the funding model. By profitable, I mean, they bring in more than they spend. A few orgs do it and do it very well. Local stations that are part of National Public Radio, for example, use very little federal and state funding, particularly in the big cities. (They have also been notable for expanding local coverage even as most other local outlets have shrunk). But even NPR has endured big cut-backs during the hard economic times.

Contrast that to Yelp, let’s say. The hyperlocal crowdsourced ratings and reviews site filed for an IPO last week. The company has emerged as a dominant force in hyperlocal commerce. It has also had other interesting impact, such as giving independent restaurants a leg-up over national chains. But what’s notable about Yelp, of course, is the marginal cost of each story produced. Which is effectively zero. The crowd does it all.

Now, hang on. How can a crowd do really great news reporting? To date, such instances have been few and far between. And every non-profit news org has attempted to recruit citizen bloggers. But the Yelp story is instructive. And that’s because it never tried to have its cake and eat it, too. From the get-go, Yelp was 100% citizen journalism, for better or for worse. There were editors, sure, but professional journalists were not tasked with generating content. The crowd was left to self-organize and submit copy. Those who did so regularly were rewarded with schwag, notoriety, and exclusive parties. In short, Yelp did a fabulous job of motivating its crowd to write for free. The payment truly was psychic rewards and few complained of being exploited.

Imagine, if you can for a minute, a CNC founded completely on the citizen journalism ethos. No professional reporters. Only editors and guides. The trajectory could be quite interesting. Initially, coverage would be sparse and probably crude. But like a tree growing roots, the crowd of reporters (or at least the 5%, equivalent to the superYelpers who contribute the most reviews), would get better at their gigs. They would start to understand how their beat worked. In some cases, they might even bring very institutional knowledge that did not exist inside a new organization (if you want to find where bodies are buried in government files, always ask the former county clerk!). This journalism would be iterative and cumulative, with each additional post adding weight. The posts would be judged, as journalism is already judged in the court of commenting. Fact checking might be rough at first and keeping everything straight would be a chore but no one would expect perfect accuracy and that’s okay, because the mere act of acting as a check against the forces that would prefer the news not get told is a powerful step in and of itself.

Political bias would certainly seep into the coverage. Other problems would emerge. But as a whole entity, we could end up with a hive mind that is a powerful force for good. Feed them good a meal, give them street cred, educate them and make them feel special — and they might prove to be an amazing news gathering organization. What Yelp has done is prove precisely this point, generating coverage that is amazingly comprehensive. True, reviews are not time sensitive and do not require regular updates.

But as someone who has news in his blood, I can assure you — once you get the fever, there is only one cure. And that’s to write what’s on your mind and what you find. In my perfect news universe, Yelp would take some of its IPO proceeds and launch a news arm (for profit, non-profit, no matter). It would apply the lessons it has learned to date in the reviews business and leverage them to generate real news coverage. Yelp’s management would incent and then guide these citizen reporters in ways not so different than it incents reviewers. For revenue, Yelp could probably sell the very same advertisements to local merchants that its sales teams are already selling. That’s a long way to travel from the CNC suspension, but out of every failure is an opportunity, with a little serendipity mixed in.

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.

  1. February 23, 2012

    Alex, I welcome your what-if exploration of matching the Yelp model to the Chicago News Cooperative.  CNC’s provides valuable news for Chicago.  One way or another, that value should be marketable, whether for profit or as a nonprofit.  But I have my doubts that the Yelp model of reviews of restaurants and other community services could work for CNC.  Most of Yelp’s reviews are, and not surprisingly, off-the-cuff opinions that can be delivered as quickly as they can be typed into a computer or smartphone.  CNC-style news, especially the investigative pieces, are just the opposite.  They most often are carefully researched and reported accounts that take many hours of fact gathering and cross checking, and only then be composed for publication.  There’s room for Yelp and there should be room for the Chicago News Cooperative, but I think this is a twain that isn’t going to meet.

  2. February 23, 2012

    There’s a few reasons the Yelp model (for free content) worked. First, the content the site needed was obvious — everyone knows what a review is and how to write one. If you replaced a burger joint with “city council” I don’t know that everyone would be able to post something that really made sense on the first try. But, with the right design, I think you could educate users on what to say and how to report on things that matter to them and their neighbors. 

    Second – the lesson here is the same as LOLcats – you’re right on about having only editors and no reporters. When Patch publishes a story on a parade and asks for user photos, we feel like we’re giving away content, it doesn’t serve us as users. But when the site is ABOUT the user, they are doing it for the “enjoyment of the people” and don’t feel like they’re providing free content for someone else’s profit (even though they are). 

    I love the idea of iterative reporting. Again, the design has to be right for it to make sense. It needs to be obvious to users whether a story is about continuing wildfires or actually a new, separate wildfire and such. I wouldn’t trust Yelp to do any of this but I think a journalism product like this will definitely emerge!

  3. Anonymous
    February 25, 2012

    Please visit Communities @WashingtonTimes.com  We are living the exact model that Alex describes. I began this in 2009, soft launched 2010.  Now delivering over 1.1m page views to our banner every month.  Over 110 writers, seven sections.  This model can work.  Takes the right person to work it. 

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