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