Photo: Voice of San Diego covers the San Diego City Council. Credit: Adriana Heidiz, Voice of San Diego.
Just about every local news provider talks about the innovative work it’s doing on audience development. But how much talk has translated into meaningful structural change that is producing encouraging results for news consumers in this more demanding digital age?
We’ve got what looks like the first answer, and it brings both good and bad news.
The good news is that a year-long study of newsrooms in the U.S. and Europe by two Danish journalists has singled out 16 local providers in the U.S. who are meeting the researchers’ main criterion: structural changes “to forge closer ties and stronger relations to their communities and audiences”—with a special focus on journalism over commerce, technology, and business models.
The bad news is that only one major local newspaper—A. H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News—is on the select list. Absent are local dailies from big chains like Gannett, Tronc (Tribune), McClatchy, Hearst, Advance, GateHouse Media, and Digital First Media, all of whom have undertaken initiatives aimed at improving audience engagement.
Here’s the complete list of U.S.-based local news publications annoited by Per Westergaard and Søren Schultz Jorgensen in their new Danish book, “Den journalistiske Forbindelse” (“The Journalistic Connection”), which has not yet been published in English:
Berkeleyside, Billy Penn, Center for Investigative Reporting, Columbia (Mo.) Missourian, Dallas Morning News, The Evergrey, Geek Wire, Honolulu Civil Beat, Hoodline, KQED, Matter, New Brunswick (N.J.) Today, New Voices of New Jersey, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and West Seattle Blog.
Three national newspapers were also cited by the authors for making benchmarked structural changes—the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal—as well as the nonprofit investigative journalism site ProPublica, which says “The Next Frontier Is Local,” and New York magazine.
Westergaard and Jorgensen summarized their nine criteria for structural change in this recent article in Nieman Lab.
I asked Westergaard about audience development by major local newspaper publishers that did not meet his and his co-author’s criteria, like Gannett’s Insider audience membership program. About Insider, he said: “It was a marketing tool not connected to journalism in the Gannett papers, and therefore Insider is only briefly mentioned in our book as an example of a pure commercial membership program as opposed to those membership models that are based on creating close links between the media and its journalism on one side and readers, listeners, [and] viewers on the other side.”
Innovation at most large dailies focuses on “commercial issues, technology, and business models, not journalism,” Westergaard said, adding:
“These are important issues, and lots of people are talking, working, and writing about this. That’s good. But Søren and I choose from the very start, that the focus of our book—our contribution to secure future journalism—should be to challenge the classical journalistic dogmas and answer this vital question: How can we, by developing new types of journalism, create new relevance and value for the citizens and make media reconnect with their audiences, regain thrust, and prosper?”
Given that he and his co-author put journalism first, I asked Westergaard, where does that leave revenue? His answer: “In close to all of our cases, innovation has brought new revenue into the company. We picked among media companies that get positive results through defining and working with journalism in new ways—more reading, listening, viewing, more readers, listeners, viewers, more interactions between media and audience, more revenue to meet the costs, and in quite a lot of cases improving the bottom line of the company.”
One of the local providers singled out in Westergaard and Jorgensen’s book is West Seattle Blog, which “The New News” has written about several times, including in 2016 on the blog’s 10th anniversary.
West Seattle Blog delivers a diverse menu of hard and softer news, with lots of photos and maps, about its very citizen-active community of West Seattle. On a typical day, the site carries about 90 two- and three-inch-high display ads for local businesses only that are positioned on either side of the news items that flow down the homepage. These ads, old-fashioned as they may look, produce revenue that’s in the “six figures,” says Editor Tracy Record, who founded the site with her husband, Patrick Sand, who handles advertising and does some of the photography and videography.
Interestingly, Record says the blog, while it continues to publish its Facebook page, is de-emphasizing distribution on the social platform, “given their various horrible practices (algorithms, hounding page owners to pay to have their posts shown to more followers, etc.). And, funny thing, because we’re clear that our website is where we publish everything, our traffic is higher than ever.”
Another local provider on Westergaard and Jorgensen’s select list is the 13-year-old nonprofit Voice of San Diego.
Here’s how Managing Editor Sara Libby describes VOSD’s mission: “It’s two-pronged. One prong is doing investigative work and uncovering information that readers wouldn’t otherwise know; the other is to take the news that is out there—announcements from politicians, new city policies, etc.—and make sense of it, offering crucial context and analysis that helps readers get a comprehensive view of what is happening.”
On the structural newsroom changes stressed by Westergaard and Jorgensen for maximum connection with the audience, Libby said: “One of the structural changes Voice of San Diego exemplifies is having a clear identity and personality—and that’s probably most clearly understood through our values statement. It’s a cliché, of course, to write off the media as biased, but everyone does have biases that influence how they approach a story. We want to be clear with readers that we come from a place of believing our schools could be better, our roads and infrastructure could be improved, our government could do more to be transparent and accountable.” (Two nights ago, VOSD investigative journalist Andrew Keatts was honored as “San Diego Journalist of the Year” for his series on the scandal-plagued San Diego Association of Governments.)
Libby also talked about how VOSD reaches out to its community—another major criterion for Westergaard and Jorgensen. “Events and meet-ups have always been a big part of our approach to journalism,” she said. “Tonight, for example, we’re taping a live podcast at a local bar, and most of our reporters will be on hand to talk with readers about what issues are on their minds. Being approachable and accessible is so valuable for journalists, because it means that when people have information or tips to share, they feel comfortable coming to you.”
VOSD has one of the longest-established membership programs in the local news industry. A majority of the site’s revenue—56%—comes from members, with 32% flowing from grants and foundations and 12% from corporate and community sponsors.
“We emphasize membership as a critical way to support local news,” says VOSD Chief Operating Officer Julianne Markow. “We appeal to readers to become members so that we can continue to do our work. But you don’t have to be a member to receive a newsletter. There is no ‘members-only’ content on our website. Readers can subscribe for free. Members do get additional benefits, such as invitations to special members-only events and special newsletters and messaging from the editorial team.”
Another site on the Danish journalists’ list of high performers is almost-two-year-old The Evergrey in Seattle. It’s part of the WhereBy.Us group, which has created several similar local sites that emphasize storytelling where the community shares the platform with the journalists. WhereBy.Us also has a central publishing-technology center that handles much of the sites’ marketing, promotion, business, and backend production.
A recent story-video headlined “Is the Seattle Freeze Real?” is the essence of what The Evergrey tries to achieve on a daily basis. Local residents, including newer ones, are interviewed, sometimes quite charmingly, about the city’s reputation for being a place where it can be hard to make friends because settled residents are often supposedly cold and distant. (Seattle’s often-gloomy weather inspired The Evergrey’s name.) With a thousand people moving to Seattle weekly, the question of friendliness takes on a special relevance. The “Seattle Freeze” story-video, which has a revenue-producing sponsor, has attracted more than 9,000 views.
The Evergrey was founded by two longtime journalists, Mónica Guzmán and Anika Anand, both of whom did stints at the city’s major daily, the Seattle Times.
In a recent feature on The Evergrey in the Times, Guzmán, the site’s editor, said: “People won’t necessarily feel invested in where they live until they find relationships—things that make them feel like the city is giving them something. Usually, that’s about people. A lot of The Evergrey is about that.”
Guzmán, a 2016 Nieman Fellow, knows what it can be like as a newcomer in fast-growing Seattle. She was one herself nine years ago. Anand arrived in Seattle in 2014.
It is arguable whether Danish journalists Westergaard and Jorgensen were too hard on daily newspapers by including only one – the Dallas Morning News – on their select list. But I don’t think there’s anything arguable about the other publications singled out. Using a variety of approaches, they seek to transform users and readers into members of a “club,” to use Westergaard and Jorgensen’s word. But the club is not clannish—it is open to everyone who cares about their community. And by dispensing with the traditional journalistic arm’s-length attitude and reaching out beyond their walls, the newsrooms comprising the select list are building a foundation for a “substantially deeper and more engaging journalism,” to quote Westergaard and Jorgensen again.
The “Fourth Estate” is beginning to lose its elitist original meaning, and that has to be a very good thing for local news organizations that want to go out of their way—quite literally—to serve their communities in this people-empowering digital era.