Buttry Sees Progress for Digital First’s ‘New Model’ for Community News

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digital-first-mediaSteve Buttry, the digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, began his career in community newspapers more than 40 years ago in Columbus, Ohio – as a teenage carrier. In the years since, he’s been a reporter, editor, and teacher of journalists around the world. Digital First Media, through the fund that owns it, controls the Journal-Register newspaper chain, which recently went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, and manages the publications owned by MediaNews Group, which went through its own Chapter 11 reorganization.

These days, Buttry’s job is to complete the “print-to-digital transformation” of the two slimmed-down “legacy” news media companies. To find out how it’s going, I put these questions to him:

Digital First Media oversees 75 dailies and a handful of twice-weeklies and weeklies across the U.S., in small, medium-size and major-city metro markets. What’s your strategy to drill down to neighborhoods in the digital space? Spell out your execution.
We don’t have the staff at our dailies to cover news at the neighborhood level in most of our communities, though our weekly (and twice-weekly) newspapers, news sites, and news apps provide community news at a hyperlocal level in some 200 communities.

Beyond the local coverage we can cover with our daily and weekly news staffs, we need to engage the community to provide coverage by amplifying the voices of those in the community who are using blogs or social media to tell the stories of neighborhoods and topical community niches. We have blog networks in many (not all) of our communities to do this. We also have encouraged newsrooms to highlight newsy hyperlocal social media feeds in our local Social Media Wires.

Several examples of our execution: Town Square at the Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury, the Community Media Labs of the Oakland Press and Heritage Media (a group of weeklies in the Detroit area), York Blog in York, Pa., YourHub in the Denver area, Blogtown in West Chester, Pa., and the grant-supported Oakland Voices program in California.

Pure-play hyperlocals, especially networks like Patch and Daily Voice, are trying furiously to develop a model that works, editorially and business-wise. With your print resources still available (if shrinking), is this less of a problem at Digital First Media — or are you inventing an entirely new model for generating community news and attracting the revenue to pay for it?
We are trying to invent a new model for generating community news and attracting the revenue to pay for it. This is a significant issue with our without print resources. While we do have the largest news staffs in our communities (even if they are not as big as they used to be) and brands that people trust.

But we also have the cost structure of legacy media. I can’t say that it’s easier for us or for someone else. It’s hard work for everyone who’s trying it.

Do you have competition from pure plays like Patch or from one-off independents?
We certainly have competition from Patch and others, though of course the Patch competition has diminished with their cutbacks.

The one-off independents can be collaborators as well as competitors. Many local news blogs are part of our blog networks.  We have collaborated in Connecticut with the New Haven Independent, CTNewsJunkie, CTMirror, the Connecticut Health Investigation Team and CTWatchdog. Those are topical, rather than hyperlocal organizations, but we gladly partner with those, too. [Ed. Note: We’ve deleted an erroneous reference to the Chester, Pa., beat in Steve’s interview. See comments for explanation.]

Programmatic advertising is starting to take a close look at the local space as it keeps searching for customers. Do you seek national ads for any digital community platforms you’ve developed or are developng at Digital First Media? If so, are you optimistic about getting national ads?
We are pleased with the potential and performance of our AdTaxi Networks at growing revenue and serving advertisers with a wider array of products. We also are optimistic about getting national ads. All of this is a work in progress, where we see the potential as greater than what we have achieved so far.

What about digital revenues at the community level?
Our growth in digital revenues are far above the industry as a whole and most of that is local revenue. But I don’t have specific breakdowns.

You’ve pushed hard on reader engagement. How does that play out in your communities?
We engage through a variety of tools and techniques: Social media, the blog networks I’ve already described, community campaigns with our blog networks, mobile newsrooms we take into the community, holiday engagement projects, community editorial boards and more. The audience overlaps with our print audience, but we also reach new people. We regard engagement as an essential strategy to attract and retain community interest, whether people are already print readers or not.

You have digital subs at most of your dailies. How does that work when you’re trying to expand your digital reach?
We have just announced a plan for all-access subscriptions in nearly all our markets. We will not count referral traffic, such as those from social media, search or blogs, against the meter, so we are hopeful that we will be able to continue expanding our digital reach.

You’ve been close to so many dailies in so many markets  and during such rapid change in news media what have been the biggest surprises  to you?
I learned long ago to be ready for anything, so I’m not very surprised very often (even if I didn’t see something coming). I was surprised by Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, but that didn’t present anything that DFM or I had to cope with. It will be interesting to watch, though. I was less surprised by Pierre Omidyar’s alliance with Glenn Greenwald and Jay Rosen in a media startup. Omidyar had already ventured into the news media business with Civil Beat and this was a logical next step.

Looking over the horizon, how, in five years, how do you see local/hyperlocal news and its audiences evolving, in the context of both editorial content and revenue?
When I look back five years and ponder how well I could have foreseen what’s happened, I am humble enough not to make predictions with any certainty. But I believe people will remain interested in community news at the local and hyperlocal levels. I believe some mix of nonprofits, entrepreneurs and legacy media will find ways to provide the local news people will want and to help businesses reach those local audiences in ways that are helpful to the businesses and that will provide sustainable revenue streams for the media providers.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that will rate communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability. He will present the site’s new demo on Charleston, S.C., at the DIG SOUTH 2014 interactive festival in Charleston on April 9-13, 2014.