Community News’ Fight to Succeed: ‘Sustain Local 2016’ Put It All Together

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Local news sites have encountered a big disconnect in the digital world. Readers browse the sites’ content, but too often don’t get very engaged with it. In response, local businesses are increasingly seeking out alternative ways to connect with consumers more directly — like Facebook and other social media — and they generally say they’re more satisfied spending their ad dollars on those platforms.

Seeing their very survival at stake, local news sites are starting to revamp their models and sometimes scrap them for new ones. Some of the best of what’s happening in the besieged industry was put on display at the recent “Sustain Local 2016” conference sponsored by the resourceful, agenda-setting Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair (N.J.) State University. (Videos of the entire conference are here.)

I talked about the conference with the Center’s recently appointed director, Stefanie Murray, who, when she was executive editor of Gannett’s daily The Tennessean in Nashville in 2014-2015, was directly involved in one big corner of  the emerging transformation of digital local and community news. Here’s our Q & A:

Your panel on new models for local news was focused on the user experience, with an emphasis on relevance and value. Jumbo traffic numbers, as a goal, were either ignored or de-emphasized and even harshly criticized. Do you see these attitudes reshaping community news?
Yes, I do. Despite our industry’s obsession with traffic, volume doesn’t always correlate to success, and that is especially true for local news outlets. It’s a relief to see people finally understanding that chasing pageviews isn’t the only — or best — method to growing a sustainable business. Community news has always been built on local relationships and trust. In today’s world, that absolutely means a focus on a great user experience, as well as a focus on being relevant, providing value and showing impact.

We now hear a lot about broader kinds of service by local media companies, newspapers and “pure-plays” alike. What’s the significance of this?
Media companies used to almost exclusively offer the service of advertising. Now they’re are creating products to sell based on all kinds of other things they do. They are are essentially creative agencies — in many ways, selling social media services, SEO services, advertising services, audience analysis, events, etc. Media companies have dramatically widened the scope of what they do that has value and can be monetized, aside from our journalism.

The recent “Reality Check” study out of UTexas questioned the strategic decision by local newspapers to go all-in with digital, concluding that it’s been mostly a bust. Did this get explored at the conference?
No, it didn’t; the discussion around that study really bubbled up after the conference was over. However, a topic of conversation at Sustain Local was how so many news media companies, to this day, are still trying to apply their print-platform-centric business models to today’s digital landscape — and how that’s just not logical, not to mention unsustainable.

That’s the reaction I’ve heard following the discussion of “Reality Check” — that it’s true that going “all-in with digital” was a bust if you’re measuring it against the old business model and old platforms. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison and it doesn’t take into consideration how people consume news and information today.

The events panel featured speakers who presented a variety of new ways that local sites can connect with their audience. Revenue is not always a big part of new events strategies. Is this another trend taking shape?
I would say it’s a mixed bag. Many news organizations are pursuing events strategies on two levels — for audience engagement and for revenue. There is a way to balance both; that’s what we’ve seen so far out of Billy Penn, which was represented at Sustain Local by editor Chris Krewson. There are events targeted to audience engagement only, events meant to generate revenue primarily, and those that do both. Most local news organizations simply can’t afford to do events that don’t make revenue, however; they have to strive for the balance.

Stefanie Murray
Stefanie Murray

What was the buzz that you heard as the conference moved from the meeting rooms to the bar room? Are we entering any distinct new and important period in local news?
What I heard more than once was how encouraging it was for journalists to talk to other journalists about the revenue and business models that underpin the industry. It’s not a no-no topic anymore. We were heavy on attendees who had a writing or editing background, rather than an advertising sales or marketing background, so that was part of it. But overall, it’s refreshing to hear journalists talking about how they can positively impact the business.

Is there one long-tailed insight that you think community news publishers and editors should take from Sustain Local 2016?
I think the top insight would have to be that there are all sorts of different ways to build a sustainable news business today — which is both a frustrating and exciting realization. There just is not one model that fits all markets. We talked a lot at Sustain Local about how to diversify revenue, so I think you could consider that the “business model.”

Some outlets are finding that the nonprofit route has fit them best; others have made deep inroads into local sponsorship or native advertising; others are betting on membership or raising money from invested readers. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s rosy for local news now — it’s not. It’s a hard struggle for many news outlets, both independent and corporate-owned entities.

Diversifying revenue sounds nice on paper, but in reality it can feel like you’re adding a bunch of work without adding the money to fund that work up front. I hope we’re starting to turn a corner in some places where the public is realizing the value of local news (especially coming off a political cycle full of fake news) and how important it is for a community to support its journalists.

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.