Will 2015 Be Breakthrough Year for Community News? (Part Two)

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hands typingIt’s been a rocky road from print to online for local news publishers. Two decades into the internet era, it’s still unclear whether consumers will have enough online appetite for community information to sustain local publications that count their success by the click.

There were a few distinct signs of community news starting to get its mojo in 2014 — here, here, here and here, among other places. But is it a lasting, growing trend? To get a peek over the horizon, we went to top experts in community news — publishers, editors and others who are involved in producing, analyzing and critiquing it.

This is the second part of a two-column series. To read the first installment, click here.

Mike-RagsdaleMike Ragsdale, founder of 30A.com, a website+ serving the Gulf Coast beach communities of Santa Rosa in Northwest Florida:
Anyone who says that people don’t have an interest in — or time for — community news, has no understanding of the business. Local news is actually what we’re MOST concerned about — news that affects us directly. Sensational national headlines about random violence or celebrity scandals will always generate clicks, but that kind of information doesn’t impact people as much as events and happenings in their local community.

Hyperlocal publishers need to stop worrying about unique users and page views. Local news can’t compete with national players on those metrics. We can’t let national media companies define the rules by which we play by. Your national website generates more clicks than my local website? Good for you. My kids go to school with all of the local business owners, I eat in their restaurants, and I hang out on the beach with them every weekend. I’m here. I’m part of this community. Google and Facebook will never be able to able to compete with those local relationships. The users are already here. The revenue is already here. The investors are already here, if you can prove to them that you “get it.”

tracy-recordTracy Record, editor of West Seattle Blog:
We have long since had our breakthrough, courtesy of community members who have embraced connected community news organizations. The breakthrough, which started in 2008 and has continued to intensify, is that online news services are the news leaders in many communities, in partnership with those communities. We’re often the only ones actually covering community news, not just slapping up press releases. And despite the punditry’s allegation that display advertising is dead, you can find tens of thousands of local businesses around the country (if not more) who will tell you otherwise. They know where their prospective customers go for news, information and discussion, and that’s where they know they need to be seen and to get their message out, and so that’s where they are.

Of course today’s “investors” have no interest in funding real local news. Why would they? Their predecessors ruined the print version of the business — buying up small news organizations that had served their communities well, and independently, for decades, then consolidating/gutting them, refusing to help them grow into the digital age, and eventually closing them or maintaining them as zombies. Investors only have interest in what might multiply their cash manyfold. That, after all, is what “investing” is generally about, and even a profitable community news business isn’t going to do that. It’s not supposed to do that, it doesn’t need to do that.

Social media is not where you want to focus yourself, as many businesses and communities have learned. Despite the hype, it is often absolutely antithetical to the concept of community, silo’ing people rather than bringing them together. You’re at the whim of the services’ ownership and policymakers, changing how the system works, what’s allowed, what they want you to pay for, how much of your personal information they insist on and then re-sell, even whether they are going to be around tomorrow.

Gordon-BorrellGordon Borrell, founder and CEO of Borrell Associates:
I don’t believe community news is dying. What IS dying, however, is the conventional definition and its longstanding business ally, display advertising. Information today is far more accessible, and there appears to be an insatiable thirst for it. But the winners in this space won’t be incremental thinkers. The winners will completely redefine “community news,” just the way blacksmiths a century ago redefined their businesses. It wasn’t an iteration that included the old tools of anvils, hammers and tongs. It included gas pumps and tire wrenches. They decided that their business was serving the transportation needs of their customers, regardless of what carried those customers down the street. And, just as blacksmiths were no longer needed, we might find that journalists are no longer needed to serve the information needs of the community.

The vast expansion of information consumption is creating a fantastic opportunity for someone to become the definitive provider of community news and information in each of the 3,000 counties across the U.S. or in the tens of thousands of regional communities. The revenue to support those providers will come from local businesses who want to get their information (note I didn’t say advertising) in front of those communities. The imperative is to redefine community news. Think about Weddings.com, or Angie’s List or Yelp. Think radically about the business model. All of Huffington Post’s revenue comes from native advertising, which, in the digital world, isn’t advertising at all, but “information.” Nextdoor doesn’t hire journalists at all, but certainly is chock full of community information. The possibilities are endless, and the debate will be slowed down only by those who cling to – and try to preserve – old definitions.

Kelly-GilfillanKelly Gilfillan, CEO and executive editor, Home Page Media Group in suburban Nashville:
It certainly hasn’t been my experience that community news is digital’s “orphan.” It’s our bread-and-butter and the backbone of our existence. Many of our readers already have been “trained” to read us online. Today at lunch, a friend in her mid-70s told me the first thing she does in the morning is brew her coffee and log onto Franklinhomepage.com. She loves the fact that we cover stories that other print and online publications neither have the time, staff, space nor inclination to cover. I get stopped at the grocery store, football games, luncheons – all want to say how good a job our reporters are doing and thanking us for our work. The community here gets it – they hunger for community news.

As we approach a new year of coverage, we will continue to hone our news product and coverage, and thus our readership numbers as well. I fully expect us to exceed our current record of 77,000 hits on one story at some point during 2015 because our editorial staff is constantly working, pushing to be the best. There is a competitive drive there that is only superceded by the desire to be ethical and credible.

As far as investors go, I’m not looking. Never say never, but right now, we are doing just fine on our own. I can foresee working with investors only if I went in to a new market or created a new product out of the community news wheelhouse.

Breakthroughs in users and revenue were our top goals in 2014 and are definitely on our radar for 2015. In 2014, we started sending an afternoon email in addition to our normal morning email and as we hoped, it increased readership in all sites. In Brentwood, our legacy site, we increased readership overall this year by 29% and in Franklin, our two-year-old site, we had a 25% increase. All of this while having two new fledgling sites come to life and fill a need for daily news in those cities. We’ve introduced new advertising products this month that will activate in 2015 and should bring an increase of 15-20% in revenue. We are excited about the possibilities we are providing our advertisers to reach our readers in new ways.

Randy-Bennett1Randy L. Bennett, first director of entrepreneurism and partnerships at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications:
I see no indication that 2015 will be a breakout year. I would expect community news publishers to continue to find new ways to effectively produce content, but revenue challenges are likely to remain and competition for news consumers time is likely to intensify. Jim Brady’s effort in Philadelphia – focusing on large communities of interest and native advertising – is certainly worth watching and, I hope, will spark some new thinking about community news development and distribution. Again, not an expert here and there are likely some innovations and success stories that I’m not aware of. I do think that we may see more traction in very vertical sites – e.g. Syria Deeply – that may attract some new funding. I don’t know how that will play out with smaller community publications.

michele-mclellanMichele McLellan, writer, editor, consultant and founder of Michele’s List, “building blocks of the emerging local news ecosystem”:
I think progress in community news will continue to be incremental rather than one big breakthrough. We have seen this in the past few years in the lean start up field. Sites have gone from operations that don’t produce much revenue to ones that are more stable financially, primarily through ad sales. The next challenge for them is to diversify their ad products (beyond banner display ads) and offer other paid services, such as events or membership or products that are still to be invented.

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 rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.