How Local Papers Could Out-Maneuver ‘Ubers’ in the Digital Space

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Newspapers on the keyboard of a laptop

Are local newspapers erecting paywalls on a foundation of sand?

As most papers have converted to digital subscriptions, they have baked the fees – on average about $10 monthly – into what print subscribers pay for their print subs. That means that virtually every print subscriber becomes a digital subscriber by doing nothing more than choosing “all access” for free.

Many papers raised their print sub prices when they added paywalls, so they captured some extra revenue through that legerdemain. But print subscribers, of course, are a dying breed — as Pew’s new State of the Media documents — so those baked-in digital subs will continue to shrink. McClatchy lost 6.5% of its print subscribers at its 29 dailies in 2014 and Gannett lost 8% at its 81 community dailies in the U.S. At some point in the not-distant future, print papers will occupy a publishing niche, like magazines specializing in knitting and other hobbies. The papers are hoping they’ll replace lost print subscribers with new all-digital ones. But, so far, that’s not happening fast enough. Digital-only subs constitute, at most papers, a middling single-digit percentage of paying readers.

Unless daily papers can reverse this trend, their long-term outlook is not good. When Newsonomics author Ken Doctor looks at the situation, he sees dailies as the publishing version of taxi cabs that are being disrupted by digital Ubers. He suggests that, to survive, papers need to “recreate themselves as centers of information.”

I would go further and propose that papers convert their “subscribers” into “members” who get special treatment with a digital page called “Rapid City Central” (or “Yellow Brick Central” or whatever the community’s name is). Rapid City Central would serve up, every day, something new and noteworthy that makes the community a better place to live and work, or not, based on reliable data and community feedback.

Wouldn’t more than a few residents be willing to pay 10 bucks a month to get a regularly updated, authoritative lowdown on the place they call home, plus total access to the rest of the site?

I tried to do something similar with my pilot Local America Charleston, but I made it too complicated. I also didn’t design it as a special page to be a members-only add-on to existing community news sites. (I’m now writing a book on “the bigger story” of Charleston that looks at the city through its racial past and present and what that legacy portends for the future, and Local America has been put in hibernation.)

There are tons of data points that index community livability, and can be pulled from the Web. Some examples:

How this data would be visualized is all-important. Comparisons with other communities would liven up the numbers, and performance up or down could be rated by a weighted algorithm with grade scores and arrows tilting up or down to emphasize current performance and colored green, orange and red to show longer-term trends. Here’s an example from Local America where I used the three basic performance colors to compare Charleston’s health and wellness to other cities it sees as competitors in its quest to create a “knowledge” economy. I used two shades of green to capture more nuance in upticks. When you have many subjects to rate and compare — like schools — color coding avoids a telephone-directory look to the data.

The 10 examples of livability cited above are just a start. An editor with good curatorial instincts could find many more data points, including ones native to the community. The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors produces monthly and yearly market reports broken down by sections of the tri-county market and covering median sales prices, days that homes have been on the market and other useful indicators. In my research to build Local America, I came up with more than 200 distinct indicators that define livability, many of which get updated at least monthly. So it would be no challenge to update Rapid City Central with at least one new indicator daily.

Deep data collection and its visualization are becoming much more meaningful about trends that could be worrisome for communities.  The Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative’s charts and maps of through-the-roof incarceration rates in poor black communities in Baltimore — including the scenes of the recent rioting — are a red flag for racial disparities and the conflicts and turmoil they can help to trigger. So is the New York Times’ recent documention of “missing black men” because of incarceration and early death from violence, disease and, least of all but often most prominently, in  interactions with law-enforcement officers. The same goes for these six recent charts at Vox on poverty and other systemic problems in Baltimore’s black communities. The Rapid City Central I envision could have the tools to do all this kind of highly visualized trending tailored to its community.

Except for teasers, Rapid City Central would not be available on the paper’s regular homepage. If non-subscribers wanted more than a teaser, they’d have to become members. To encourage signups, Rapid City Times would offer a month’s worth of Rapid City Central free so the occasional free-riding visitors could see what they were missing.

Right now, digital subscribers at community dailies don’t get anything much beyond unlimited access to computer, tablet and smartphone platforms. Rapid City Central would be a high-value extra. Done right, it could be part of the talk of the town, strengthen the paper’s connections with the community and give the daily a stronger defense against free “pure-play” competitors.

As Ken Doctor says in his column, newspapers are not ever going to recapture what they lost to Yelp and other pure-play disrupters. But I don’t see these publishing Ubers trying to drive into the space that Rapid City Central would occupy. They don’t have the editorial resources, anyway. But daily newspapers, even with all the budget slashing they’ve gone through, do have the resources – or could augment them by adding a handful of editors and a tech developer or two to oversee Rapid City Central. For chains of papers, the staff and tech costs per site would be minimal — probably less than the salary of one reporter — because the total bill would be allocated across all units.

If Rapid City Central succeeded, it would give the paywalls of local papers a firmer foundation than sand. Papers would be able to make a more compelling case for attracting advertisers to their digital platforms. They could charge premium rates for message inventory on Rapid City Central.

In a nutshell, papers could be creating their own publishing Ubers instead of watching rival ones drive away with their business.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history of Charleston, S.C.