Time to Take a Deep Breath — Local News Isn’t Becoming ‘Extinct’

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Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post media columnist, typed an SOS in a recent, widely circulated piece: “It’s not exaggerating to say that all kinds of local reporting — from day-to-day city hall coverage to world-changing investigations like the one celebrated in the movie “Spotlight” — is faced with extinction.”

I sent the quote to Matt DeRienzo, executive director of the Local Independent Online Newspaper (LION) publishers’ association. Did he agree? His answer; “Of newspapers, yes, but not of local news.”

DeRienzo is getting ready for LION’s biggest-ever annual summit in Chicago on Oct. 26-28, about which he said:

“We are on track for attendance to be up by about 50 percent this year, and the programming is close to double what we’ve offered in past years. New this year will be a half-day “boot camp” for new publishers and idea-stage entrepreneurs that will cover how to craft a business plan, basics of local advertising, reader revenue and other revenue streams, the tech stack a local online publisher needs, and how to stay out of trouble by being on top of legal issues, insurance, bookkeeping, etc.

“This year will also feature one-on-one business coaching, and a lot more presentations and workshops on membership programs, subscriber revenue and native advertising/sponsored content.

“As usual, publishers from many successful and innovative local indie sites will be speaking, including Jim Brady of Spirited Media and Ted Williams of Charlotte Agenda.

“LION has grown from about 110 members two years ago, to 140 members last year, to more than 170 members presently. They are operating in 39 different states.”

I went to Mike Shapiro, founder and CEO of the TAPinto network of 65 digital community sites in New Jersey, which this week is celebrating its ninth anniversary. He said:

“I disagree with Ms. Sullivan’s assessment.

“Online local media is growing, both in readership and revenue, and reporting on some of the most important stories of our time.

“Well-written and well-managed print publications, like those that have partnered with TAPinto to utilize our platform, are succeeding and through digital, creating additional revenue streams and audiences for their content.

“Print publications that have refused to adapt to evolving technology and, in particular, mobile, are struggling, as are print publications that lack objectivity or quality or solid management.

“But overall, local media is strong and with the correct digital strategy, poised for even more traffic and financial growth in the years ahead.”

I also went to Carll Tucker, founder of the 79-site Daily Voice network in North Jersey and the Westchester and Hudson Valley suburbs of New York City. He said:

“In most parts of the country, as I understand, what Margaret Sullivan says is correct. But not in the eight counties covered by Daily Voice (We just added three sites in Orange County, New York, a month ago.) It took us almost eight years to figure out how to make money doing this.

“It’s not easy. Now that we’ve figured it out, we’re “expanding, hiring, eager to talk to young hungry journalists who care about community news. Our 79 sites cover 4.4 million folks; Google Analytics says we have 1.8 million monthly uniques and 8 million monthly pageviews — and we’re making money.”

I don’t think the Washington Post’s Sullivan is completely wrong. But crying wolf is not the way to solve the problems – very real ones – in the local news industry.

Many LION publishers are doing creditable job covering their communities. I have looked at the seven-site network Home Page Media in metro Nashville, and it is doing quite well, both journalistically and business-wise. I know Shapiro’s TAPinto network is doing quite well too. Daily Voice is figuring out how to cover its many intensely governed local communities, and with much smaller staffing than it had just a couple of years ago.

Patch, with its 800 to 850 full-service sites is much improved not only over what the network did under AOL but also in the last couple years under Hale Global, and it too is providing better coverage with fewer journalists. (I’ll be writing more about Patch next week.)

Technology and vastly more and better community metrics and other source-provided information are big reasons why all these pure-plays are succeeding. But more important, I would emphasize, is that the editors in charge of the slimmed-down newsrooms know how to leverage technology, data and other information to produce coverage that, in some cases, is superior to what was produced in the so-called “golden” age of print.

In three to five years, there should be many more pure-plays that have adopted the best practices of local news today. The big question is what will happen to the local newspaper chains that are trying to make a transition from print to digital with very mixed results.

Most of the major chains have introduced metered paywalls. But in a classic cart-before-the-horse analogy, they’re trying to sell digital subscriptions that don’t offer enough value. On top of that, they’re overloading their pages with ads, in many cases the super-annoying videos that require only a rollover to be activated. This and other “viewability” issues are driving many local news consumers – especially the ones advertisers especially want to reach – to ad blockers.

Local newspapers are also struggling with their Facebook relationships, where their content makes the giant distribution platform billions of dollars in profits but delivers revenue crumbs to the publishers. Facebook’s new Local News Partnerships initiative is correcting  some of the problems, but some publishers are pressing for more action.

What the local news industry needs – pure-plays and daily newspapers, corporate and non-corporate – is an entire new ecosystem that 1) protects the privacy of users and gives them a positive online experience, 2) gives advertisers access to rich but privacy-protected profiles of users and 3) captures for publishers revenue down to the individual click, without all the annoying friction of present metered paywall systems.

This ecosystem would require all publishers to come together under an independent nonprofit entity that would ensure that every member had equal access. I’ve written about, arguably, the most advanced and do-able proposal for this ecosystem – here and here. It’s called ITEGA (for Information Trust Exchange Governing Association), and it’s already approved by the IRS as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. Longtime journalist-publisher Bill Densmore, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, conceived the basic ITEGA idea with his Clickshare system many years ago.

Densmore is seeking to get stage-one funding from a core group of founding members, in particular publishers. If ITEGA proof-of-concept trials perform the way the system did in preliminary testing, the Washiington Post’s media watcher Margaret Sullivan won’t be hitting her SOS button so hard again.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.