Grasping for a New Way Forward at Local Media Conferences

money tunnelOver the past few months, I have attended a number of association conferences devoted to local media, including those of the Alliance for Community Media, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and last week’s Social + Mobile: Show Me the Money! conference in Chicago.

At each of these recent conferences, the overriding, anxiety-producing theme has been the development of new revenue models, whether from foundations to support nonprofit news services, or from advertising, or from something else. But the disquieting fact is that a cure-all response to what ails local media can’t be identified. Journalism guru Mike Fancher admits “the old economic model is disintegrating faster than new alternatives are emerging,” and has left a lot of people hoping that some new alternative will eventually be the Darwinian panacea. The most practicable solutions amount to pivots away from the faltering advertising model, simply because executing a new plan B is better than sticking with the status quo plan A.

The dilemma is easy to describe: content, and by extension the media that delivers it, is gradually becoming commoditized. Content that once was only produced and distributed by traditional media companies, like news and classifieds, no longer sustains value because users have many more media resources, including social media. The resulting diluted user traffic, combined with the increasing negative perception of ads has torpedoed the traditional media buy model.

Three ideas I’ve heard talked about at these conferences are:

1) Hyperlocal media can be viable as an effort for individual entrepreneurs — just not at scale.
Howard Owens at The Batavian and Dylan Smith, who runs LION Publishers, an association of independent of online newspapers, are the most visible proponents of the concept that hyperlocal media can be sustained by education from and support by other successful local publishers. USA Today’s coverage of Owens and Smith’s experience building their local publications espouses a utopian vision of online publisher as small business, with thousands of cities’ news covered individually by local entrepreneurs. This may not work as a scalable media network solution, but there have been calls to transform Patch into a facility that supports local news entrepreneurs.

2) Local media should leverage their SMB relationships by moving from the transactional advertising model to consultative marketing.
Can’t sell ads with click rates of 0.2%? The Internet disintermediates buyer/seller transactional models, and replaces them with value-add models that support premium services. The premise proffered by local research guru Gordon Borrell at the Social+Mobile conference is that the way to leverage local media’s existing SMB relationships to provide premium marketing solutions. Although some larger media networks have developed marketing arms to guide their clients, most local media won’t have the resources or knowhow to implement the strategy.  The revenue linchpin is based on the reseller relationships with third-party vendors to provide turnkey marketing solutions to SMB clients. The challenge for local media is to transition their sales teams from pitching a simple media buy proposition to coherently explaining new marketing methodologies like reputation management and social media marketing to their clients.

3) Local news model moves into community-sourced and curated news.
This is what Patch has been trying to do — source more content from the community and its bloggers to bring down content costs. It’s a solid strategy to stimulate community engagement, but Patch got caught in a brand perception trap by originally positioning their offering as a journalistic “news” brand, not a “social” community brand. Readers can draw a hard line between what is news and what is fluff, and Patch got a lot of flak for restaurant reviews and top 5 lists designed to give it a more social feel. They see journalistic ethics being compromised by business promotion.

Curation works because it can get more interesting content (if curated correctly) in front of readers. Here’s a bit from a 2008 discussion with Mary Nesbitt, managing director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, which gives a sense of why curating local content can really be a viable alternative to spending resources on original news reporting:

Readers don’t pay a lot of attention to origin of story. They are more interested in topic, the relevance to their lives and whether it touches certain “hot buttons” (what we call “experiences”). If a story is told through the perspective of a person to whom a reader relates, the story can feel local. In the Impact study, the category that had the greatest potential to grow readership was an amalgam of three topics: community announcements, obituaries and stories about ordinary people. The word “local” is never mentioned, but it is clear that in consumers’ minds this is “close to home.”

Local news curation can also be expanded to community contributions via social media from city politicians, civic groups, performing arts organizations and nonprofits. Breaking local news gets distributed a lot more quickly when social media feeds like Twitter are curated, but journalistic media have always hesitated to open their channels to others without moderation. However, if the curated contributors are vetted and their contributions monitored by the publisher and the community at large, the resulting communal social media commentary can be a powerful way for local news to be much more relevant to readers.

Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email (

  1. howardowens
    August 27, 2013

    WTF? Why is that utopian? Why the sneer? Why is scale the end all and be all? Just, wow.

  2. dylansmith
    August 27, 2013

    The quest for a “Darwinian panacea” has too many grasping for a perceived placebo that could well be the recipient of the award named after the evolutionary theorist.

    AOL’s Patch and its ilk are failures not because local news isn’t a solid business, but because they’re not local.

    The local news industry is strong, healthy and growing — the real *local* segment of the industry. The hundred-plus members of Local Independent Online News Publishers and our many colleagues running local news websites are demonstrating that every day.

    Local doesn’t scale.

    We’ve seen it again and again; giant chains trying to templatize the production of news. That’s not a tactic that worked in print for Gannett and others, and it certainly won’t work online.

    Networked plays such as Patch fail precisely because they are *not* local. They seek to profit from communities, rather than being invested in them. Centralized planning leads to success in journalism just as effectively as it worked for Soviet agriculture.

    Aggregating RSS and social media feeds isn’t a solution, either. The largest part of a reporter’s job is to find out the facts that someone doesn’t want the public to know, not just play stenographer to the Internet. Being a resource of community information is important, but so is moving beyond rebroadcasting to doing the original work that takes local knowledge and connections.

    Local news is successful when it truly *is* local — historically, when newspapers and radio stations were owned by families or local partnerships, they served their communities more effectively. Chains broke that model, focusing more on quarterly reports, stock prices and executives’ golden parachutes than long-term investments. Local news organizations must be *of* their communities, not just *in* them to ship profits out of town. Local news must respect readers: know what they want to know, know what they need to know, and provide it quickly, accurately and comprehensively. Cookie-cutter editorial priorities mandated on a national level are the complete opposite of that.

    The withering of Patch isn’t the end of local news online. Rather, it’s a chance for talented, motivated enterpreneurs to tend their own gardens.

    It should be noted that Howard Owens, along with many others, is also one of the leaders of LION Publishers.

    I don’t know that I’m a backer of the idea that local news “can be sustained by education from and support by other successful local publishers.” What will sustain local news online is hard work and dedication, for which there’s no substitute. Advice and assistance from colleagues is a boon, certainly, but founding a business in an evolving industry isn’t for the faint of heart. Getting help and talking shop every day with those who are also building their own boat isn’t utopian, it’s practical as hell.

    If you’ve got the drive to be an entrepreneur, join us at our conference in Chicago, Oct. 3-6. We’ve got a network of independent publishers who are ready and willing to help you establish a news outlet that is focused on your community.

    Dylan Smith

    Chairman, LION Publishers

    Editor & Publisher,

  3. dylansmith
    August 27, 2013

    As an example of the sort of help we offer one another, #disqus_thread {width: 610px;} would go a long way to making these comments more readable.

  4. Jerry DeMarco
    August 27, 2013

    This is a pot/kettle situation that would border on comical were it not so clueless and misleading.

    I invite you to talk with my readers, my advertisers, my contacts and sources — anyone and everyone associated with — so that you can see not only how this works but how well it does. You can view the analytics, if you like, or the site itself, its Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn pages, etc.

    More interesting content? City politicians? Really?

    We’re covering breaking local news right in our neighborhoods. And a HUGE part of our success is due to our audience: scores of people who provide info and photos and tip after tip after tip, day in/day out, then rely on us to get it all straight — as in: accurate and readable.

    I’ll let you in on another “secret” — my audience can relate. After all, I’m one of them. I’m with them in the stores, the restaurants, the events. I’m with them on Facebook and other social media. Someone goes missing — we’re on it. Family in trouble — instant call to action. It’s not a lie to say our daily connections — be they face-to-face, text, call, inbox, email, etc. — can reach the hundreds. Cn’t put a price on accessibility

    We’re not giving away ads, either — nor are so many other independent local publishers who are thriving, growing across the U.S.

    Next time you pitch one o’ these, perhaps you could consider pivoting “away” from aggregating others’ work and try setting your own boots on the actual ground..

  5. August 27, 2013

    I agree with everything the local news publishers are saying and am a big fan of LION. No argument nor sneers from me. And I would love to see every city covered by an entrepreneur news organization – that’s what I’m calling utopian.

    The reason for the article has more to do with the other local media searching for solutions – community cable, terrestrial radio, corporate broadcasting chains – these are the 99% I’m meeting at these conferences (although I’d love to attend the LION gathering in October!).

    So don’t get your hackles up indies, I believe in your mission.

    1. dylansmith
      August 27, 2013

      Radio is a platform that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the “ohmygoshtehInterwebz” discussions, but local owners in that segment are quite aware that they need to plan for a converged future.

      In my town, we’ve got just a single locally owned radio station (with a couple of frequencies), a community station, an NPR affiliate, and an endless slew of MegaChain-operated preprogrammed horribleness.

      I listen to the local folks frequently (we’ve got a great partnership with the news programs on the local commercial station) – but I do it online. I don’t even have a radio in my office.

      1. August 27, 2013

        Radio is hurting, I started out in radio. It amazes me that it’s become the car donation media

  6. Mel Taylor
    August 28, 2013

    I would write a comment about this post, but I’m too busy working with clients that I attracted with my hyper local site:

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