A new report from the Shorenstein Center delves deeply into how local newspapers failed in their leap from print to digital. The report’s author, George Washington University journalism professor and Internet analyst Matthew Hindman, offers many good and practical suggestions on how to create “stickier” content — but doesn’t address one very basic, structural issue: How can newspapers build a model for digital community news that will excite audiences and advertisers?
Yes, local papers’ digital platforms have to load content quicker and feature better design, as Hindman says. And articles, overall, should be shorter, more frequent, topped with better headlines and feature multimedia. But these suggestions don’t answer what kind of community news will create exciting, conversations with audience and transform that engagement into digital dollars. Until local papers dare to make an Evel Knievel-style leap, they will remain stuck with the grim statistical judgment that Hindman presents so forcefully: newspapers and other local news sources capture only crumbs of one small slice of total local digital traffic – 16% of the 3% share that goes to all news.
There is huge growth in local media’s digital revenue, but it is mostly bypassing community news. The winners are commercial sites like Trulia, Zillows and Yelp. Not one major local newspaper publisher grew its digital revenue by at least 15% in 2014, according to Borrell Associates’ forecast for 2015 . That threshold is crucial for local papers to offset their continuing revenue and circulation losses from shrinking print products. Only Lee Enterprises came close to reaching that in 2014, and it was a couple of percentage points shy. The two biggest local newspaper chains — Gannett and McClatchy — grew by only single digits in 2014, and two other major newspaper chains — Tribune and Scripps — actually saw their digital revenue decrease in 2014.
While the chains are flailing about, look what’s happening to the newest entrant in the local digital news space — location-based Yik Yak. In its less than two years of existence, the mobile-only platform with a 1.5-mile radius has spread across the country, mostly at communities centered around college campuses. It’s true that a lot of Yik Yak content is sophomoric — lame jokes and pointless discussions. But I think that will change, based on a new pilot that the service has launched with the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
The pilot is called “Swamp Juice.” Instead of contributions going directly online, they’re emailed to the college’s Innovation News Center. Two journalism students at the center filter out the weakest musings, including the sophomoric jokes. The end result – presented as Yik Yak “Peeks,” available only to users who have signed up for the service at the UF location – is content that often grabs the attention of the audience, which includes 50,000 students on the big research campus. One example: A report on a UF professor who was arrested in Abu Dhabi for taking photographs of buildings while he was in the capital of the United Arab Emirates attending a conference.
Very quickly, Swamp Juice has attracted a wider and more engaged audience than the UF Innovation News Center had built with its original and more conventional news service. “It’s a real town square,” Matt Sheehan, director of the INC, said. The contributions, more frequent and urgent, are pulling in a bigger audience of millennials (in the 18-24 age range), and a healthy percentage of them –10% — are contributors. Under the old service, “we were targeting an older segment,” Sheehan said. Newspapers, searching for a content model that produces cost-effective information on a faster-paced cycle and trying to connect with a younger audience that buys into Yik Yak’s “change the world” mission, will want to pay attention to the Swamp Juice experiment.
Swamp Juice uses the same not-so-secret sauce that Yik Yak uses at its other sites – contributors don’t have to identify themselves. Pre-publication screening adds a layer of moderation that filters out rumors and other gossip. Yik Yak screens hateful rants and other objectionable expression before publication with sentiment software. But a lot of objectionable content that the software doesn’t stop gets published before it can be flagged by offshore and in-place moderators and downvotes from contributors.
I asked Yik Yak spokesperson Hilary McQuaide what the service might do if the UF Swamp Juice pilot meets expectations. Might it seek to partner with newspapers and other community publishers who haven’t figured out how to fully meet the challenge of digital news? McQuaide said it’s too soon to say.
Fair enough. After all, Yik Yak is less than two years old. It still has a pile of money from its $62 million in funding to burn through, and can spend some of that trying to coax more responsible contributions out of its audience of mostly college students. But for newspapers, struggling to find a better model for editorial so they can pick up more than crumbs in local digital revenue, it can’t ever be too soon.
Tom 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 last year.