BxB Recap: Is This the Future of Local News?

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While the media industry struggles to determine what the future of local journalism looks like, a group of local publishers met in Chicago last week to discuss a solution that actually seems to work. The group included journalists, sales reps, designers, web producers, CEOs and CFOs — at most of the publishing companies represented, all of those positions are held by the same person.

Block by Block, an annual summit of independent community publishers, wasn’t a conference about the struggles to survive but instead was the most uplifting news-related conference I have ever attended.

Revenue was a part of the conference — and for most of the publishers it was an important part, because, after all, these aren’t just journalists they are also small business owners. And these small businesses, while not profitable to a point where a corporation would be happy having them as a subsidiary, are profitable to the point where they can continue operating in their community.

It was great to see the conference focus on things like how to improve your sales process with a presentation by E.W. Scripps digital sales lead Eleanor Cippel. As community publisher guru Howard Owens of The Batavian pointed out on Twitter and at the session, “If 10 yrs ago I told Eleanor a day would come when she taught sales to a room of journos she would have told bartender 2 cut me off.”

The emphasis on constant conversations about revenue is actually a testament to how this group actually gets the business of community journalism. It’s a shame that more news conferences and summits don’t focus on revenue more. If they had, the industry may not be in the situation it’s in today.

Sure, there was discussion about how to use social media and the latest gadgets, but the exciting conversations at Block by Block were around innovation.

Ben Ilfeld of Sacramento Press was talking up his new product AdGlue; and the team from Broadstreet Ads pitched their ad platform that updates ads using social media. Both sounded more like products I would hear pitched at an ad-tech conference, rather than a community publisher or news conference. The ideas were contagious, and instead of hearing about why an idea won’t work at a particular organization (the feedback you get when you pitch ideas to traditional publishers) this group was willing to jump in and provide useful feedback.

Now — to be clear — it isn’t all roses in the world of community publishing. Just like any other small businesses, they not all will be successful and there are still hurdles ahead depending on where the business is. These are some of the important and sometimes undiscussed (outside of Block by Block) hurdles I picked up on from the participants at Block by Block:

Sure, it’s easy to set up a WordPress blog and relatively inexpensive to host it — but as you expand, so do the costs associated with it. I met at least three publishers who were paying someone or had paid someone to do custom development to build a local business or events directory. I have faith that each of them will be able to cover the cost of development but it pains me to see duplication of spending across publishers. I think Block by Block and potentially the consortium of community publishers, LION, will be able to help in this and share expenses for similar development. I was also interested to see a Knight survey targeted to Block by Block attendees that focused on platforms and technology.

Legal and Operational Issues
A consistent conversation I overheard was about decisions related to operating a business. Most of these publishers started out with a passion and an idea, but when an idea turns into a business it brings with it other pieces that aren’t related to community coverage. This includes hiring and managing employees, determining what type of insurance is needed, reviewing contacts with partners and even writing an employee handbook. While these are items that many small businesses must deal with they are also a distraction from the core business and a burden for most small business owners, including community publishers.

Finding Investment Money
As a small business, sometimes extra cash is needed to take the business to the next level. Because there isn’t necessarily a proven track record with online community publishers, it can be more difficult to get a typical small business loan from a bank. Because of this, some have had to get creative and find some equity investors in the community or invest their own money which, as was pointed out, forces you to really evaluate your business plan.

Are They Really Journalists?
While a lot of the publishers I met were former journalists, that wasn’t always the case. There are those like Rick O’Connor of Roosevelt Islander, a lawyer who began covering his community after being upset over the neighborhood’s forcing residents to pay to watch fireworks from a public park. These new entrants to journalism expressed concern to me over not being journalists and not knowing the specific “rules” of journalism. This is also a concern that I’ve heard from journalists at traditional publishers. I, however, don’t have this concern. The publishers I met with understand that journalism is actually part of their brand and that they aren’t doing things because of something they learned in a journalism ethics class but instead because they know they need to keep the trust of their community.

Working With Traditional Publishers
This is where I lose my cred with the community publishers. I actually think that while traditional publishers have made lots of mistakes in attempting to do “hyperlocal” coverage, they should be allies with independent publishers. I don’t think a great structure has been worked out but traditional publishing companies have a lot to offer independent community publishers; a sales staff, HR/legal staff, investment money, a decent brand and other operational efficiencies. And I actually think that traditional publishers need to partner with these independent publishers in order to succeed at covering their areas. This has yet to be done successfully across the board and requires smart people willing to partner on both sides. This shouldn’t just be about traditional publishers buying content.

In case you haven’t heard: mobile is going to be big. The problem is that the way people consume content on mobile is different from they way they do on desktop. Anecdotes from traditional publishers tells me that users are more likely to come from aggregators and social links on mobile than on desktop. This can be good for community publishers who might in time be able to utilize apps like Flipboard and News 360 as a way to syndicate their content. It could also be bad if users end up being less brand loyal to content sites on mobile. Either way community publishers have the great content that users want it just going to take time to determine the best way to consume that on mobile.

Despite all of these hurdles that an independent publisher must overcome, I do think they will be more successful than traditional publishers for one main reason; passion. Just step into most newsrooms across the country and you will notice that there is lack of passion. Most likely it’s been beaten out of them due to downsizing and editorial decisions that weren’t necessarily the brightest idea. The passion with the group at Block by Block isn’t just about great journalism — it’s about turning online journalism into a business, it’s about leveraging existing tools and creating new ones and most importantly it’s about working collaboratively across these businesses to make an impact.

Matt Sokoloff is a 2012-2013 Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow working on a project to help local independent websites and bloggers gain additional revenue opportunities. Matt’s background is in building digital products for media organizations. Read more about Matt’s current work here and talk back at [email protected] and @MattSokoloff on Twitter.

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