Could a Hybrid Model Scale Community News and Keep the Passion?

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HybridFamed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen last week tweeted his case against local news: “I think main problem with local news is most people don’t care. Sad but true.” Andreessen’s judgment drew a lot of reaction. But virtually ignored was what Andreessen said in a second tweet that came two minutes after his first one – “If market not valuing creator’s work, not market’s fault, it’s creator’s fault.”

Andreessen was right with his second tweet, and a look at major markets bears him out. Put pins on cities where there’s at least one cluster of high-value community news sites, and you’ll be done in a 10 seconds. There are New York City (DNAinfo in 28 neighborhoods in the five boroughs), Chicago (the 129-community Daily Herald and the 80-community TribLocal in the suburbs and DNAinfo, again, in 29 neighborhoods within the city), metro Washington, D.C. (the Washington Post’s 32-community Gazettes in suburban Maryland) and Seattle (the 29-community News Partner Network of hyperlocals that collaborates with the Seattle Times on content and promotion).

But where are the many more community sites everywhere that were supposed to blossom with the Web 2.0 revolution, that would turn passive readers of local news into active participants of its creation?

As the promise of Web 2.0 became a powerful intoxicant in the middle part of the previous decade, digital community news took a divided road. Corporate media — old and new — saw news as the key to mining big profits by scaling the hometown digital space from coast to coast. Meanwhile, independent journalistic entrepreneurs, driven by passion for their community, saw news as the way to reinvent the weekly print newspaper that used to be a daily album of community life.

But neither big media nor these journalistic entrepreneurs have succeeded in their separate and grand enterprises. A decade later, we have that map with just a few pins on it. So why couldn’t we try a hybrid approach that adopts what’s best about each?

It begins, I believe, with the DNA of community news: editor-publishers who have a passionate commitment to community and want to use news as a pathway to making their hometown a better place. But passion’s not enough. It has to be balanced by a business model that will pay attention to cost curves and be open to new revenue opportunities — especially working with programmatic advertising as it seeks to connect with consumers down to the census-tract level.

And to succeed, this model requires scale as well as passion, an elusive combination. There are a smattering of one-off sites that are splendid successes. But what happens when the entrepreneurial founders who balance their creations on their sturdy shoulders decide to retire? And what bigger business opportunities are being missed by these sites going it alone?

“Community” today has a much more expansive meaning than what happens where you live. What matters now is not so much boundary lines between communities, but impact that can be hyperlocally significant but doesn’t respect boundaries. Take the 134 communities of greater Boston, which are covered by the Boston Globe’s Your Town network. What happens in metro Boston’s Rte. 128 corridor of high tech, biotech and financial services affects nearly every one of those communities in basic ways. The availability of housing and its cost in Everett and North End — to cite just two of the communities — and how livable they are and will be will be depends a lot on how many and what kind of jobs are created in the Rte. 128 corridor. The community lens can be even wider. The quality and costs of health care for Everett and North End residents depend on how hospitals and other care centers and insurers respond to the Affordable Care Act, which was written in and enforced from Washington. A hybrid model will have the resources to respond to news that is shaped by this new sense of community.

Exactly how the hybrid should be constructed needs to be hammered out, but it would be not dissimilar to a franchise model. The individual journalist/entrepreneur has to bring some investment as well as passion to the table. On the other side of the hybrid, the larger corporation provides sales, marketing, deep analytics and technology the journalist/entrepreneur needs to make community publishing work in this new environment, with all its risks but huge potential.

Can this happen — or is it a pipe dream?

I asked Mike Shapiro, founder the The Alternative Press (TAP) network of wholly owned and franchised sites in suburban New Jersey, and who is seeking outside funding for his new round of expansion, what he thought about a hybrid model for community sites:

“I think that’s what TAP is doing – enabling hyperlocal to scale yet keeping it truly local by having passionate, local owner-operators. TAP provides the back office and support, enabling the franchisee to concentrate on the content and building their business. Meanwhile, TAP is creating a unique ad network that continues to grow as we bring more franchisees on board.  Similarly we are able to scale on the content side. For example, this coming week, we are doing a multi-part series on the heroin epidemic in New Jersey’s suburbs, for which several of our sites contributed content, and we are running it across several sites.”

Other entrepreneurial journalists are expanding beyond one-offs: Scott Brodbeck with his three ARLnow sites in metro Washington, Liena Zagare with her four sites in Brooklyn and Kelly Gilfillan and Susan Leathers with their three sites in suburban Nashville among them.

These entrepreneurs are not following one blueprint of expansion. But what they have in common is that they’re creators I’m sure Marc Andreessen would admire – and see as the future of local news that the community market would value.

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.