LMC Chief: Local News Pessimists Are Missing the Big Innovations

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Is the outlook for local digital news as gloomy as a spate of recent reports indicates? Or are the forecasters looking in the rear-view mirror?

I took this issue recently to Rusty Coats, who is executive director of the digitally focused Local Media Consortium. The LMC’s 75 local media companies include newspapers, broadcasters and “pureplays.” Its newest member is Tribune Publishing — recently rebranded as “tronc” — whose nationwide chain of dailies includes the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. 

Coats, with his wife, Janet, also still operates Coats2Coats, a consulting firm which shows publishers, big and small, how to succeed in the relentlessly challenging world of digital local news. Here’s our Q & A:

One sobering outlook for local news — from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016 — did include an international survey in which both men and women ranked local as their number one category of news. So readers apparently are still interested. Are recent published outlooks perhaps too gloomy?
These reports measure the news media — particularly local — from the perspective of what it was rather than what it is becoming.

The business model for local news was easy when there was one newspaper and three television stations in a market, and there was no internet, no mobile, no social media. It’s more challenging today (putting it mildly), but new business models are taking hold, smart newsrooms are focusing on core topics rather than buffet-style content offerings, and the revenue side is evolving into something a lot more interesting than the old ads/subscription binary (for newspapers) or the spots-and-dots mantra of television.

It takes real grit to succeed in local news. In “The Martian,” the protagonist vowed to “science the s##t” out of his problem. Media companies are innovating the s##t out of the evolution of how to sustain quality journalism.

Is the LMC concerned about the new changes that Facebook has made to the algorithm for its News Feed giving more weight to subscribers’ personal events (e.g., baby taking first steps) and less to publishers’ news?
Yes and no. The answer to content distribution and how local media interfaces with the big platforms always is going to be yes and no. We recently released a white paper on content distribution, guiding our members on the many options and strategic choices to be made regarding Facebook, Apple News, Google Newsstand and others. The LMC doesn’t have one opinion about it. We are 75 media companies and more than 1,700 local titles, so there are a lot of opinions in that mix. Our members get a lot of traffic from Facebook, some have moved heavily into Instant Articles, some have avoided it, some are still figuring it out.

What Facebook does with its algorithm is theirs to decide. Worrying about algorithms is like worrying about Florida weather in the summer: Give it an hour, and it’ll change.

With its 1.5 billion users, Facebook gives publishers the potential for tremendous reach on promoted stories. But traffic to news sites from Facebook is not typically as engaged as users who go to the sites directly. Are there risks in going for the big numbers from Facebook and other social platforms?
Of course. The best analysis of this was John Herrman’s piece “Online Media Is Tested When Social Platforms Come to Town,” in The New York Times. It reflects the double-edged sword of big platforms.

Some outlooks for local news see ad blocking, which got a recent boost from Apple with its 5.0 iOS for its smartphones, continuing to increase. What’s the LMC’s assessment of this issue?
In late 2015, we released a white paper on ad blocking, covering its effects across our membership and some tactics for publishers. I believe it will increase and that the NAA is right to call for an FTC investigation on the ad-blocking companies that are basically shaking down publishers to be white labeled — which is the digital publishing equivalent of wannabe mobsters shaking down grocers for protection money.

But, as our white paper pointed out, publishers bear some responsibility in why users are downloading ad blockers. Many sites are cumbersome, slow loading, and sometimes infested with data-sniffing third-party programs. We need to clean up our sites, make them load faster and deliver valuable, contextual advertising. We also need to be clear with users that, one way or another, you have to pay for content.

What’s the most important feature that LMC has added recently to get more attention from media buyers?
Data. We are layering a data structure over all of our inventory so buyers can buy more selectively for premium audiences.

In two months, LMC will be three years old. What are your benchmark accomplishments?
We started in 2013 with 32 media companies in our membership and have grown to 75. According to comScore, we now reach 151 million unduplicated unique users per month and are the fifth largest news entity measured. We started with zero partners and will finish the year with more than 20, providing best-of-class platforms and capabilities to all members — from large media companies to very small. We’ve grown the LMC Exchange to a multi-million-dollar concern and look to double in 2016 what we saw in 2015.

We are working on significant content and advertising innovations to better serve our users, and we’re hearing from international concerns about how they can either join us or duplicate our model. But the LMC’s greatest benchmark accomplishment is proving that local media companies can work together, to innovate together, to share best practices and leverage their collective scale to create new opportunities — and do all of this under the inclusive spirit of “one company, one vote.” As someone who’s been in local media for 25 years, that’s kind of remarkable. I think that’s something the studies cited earlier miss.

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, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.