Grasping for a New Way Forward at Local Media Conferences

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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 ([email protected]).