What Non-Profit News Orgs Can Learn From Yelp

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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.