LMA in Big Push to Strengthen Local Journalism and Build Better Communities

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The local news industry is working furiously to engage its audiences. But is discovering how to do that enough?

The Local Media Association says no. It says the industry, first of all, has to get closer to the community where audiences exist. To do that, LMA is working to build a Business Model Accelerator that will chart sustainable revenue paths for local media and, in turn, enhance the vital role that they must play in their communities.

In this Q&A, LMA Chief Innovation Officer Jed Williams sketches out this far-ranging quest to give local news a central place in community and ensure the industry will be around for the long run.

What’s singular about the Business Model Accelerator?

This was not concocted hastily or without a great deal of thinking. It came out of a 14-to-15-month intensive strategic planning process with LMA’s board that included three different working groups that I led, and nearly a year designing what we think the Accelerator should be, and what it should deliver on behalf of the local news industry.

If you look at what LMA has done effectively in its history, there’s a clear focus on best-practice sharing, education, training, executive-level networking, experiential learning. The LMA mission has been intensely focused on helping local media companies “discover” sustainable business models. This is the pivot point for our new Business Model Accelerator. We continue to believe that discovery is essential, and we want to build a rigorous process and methodology to help the industry discover business models that will be sustainable. But we don’t believe discovery is enough. To discover a new sustainable business model is not to deploy and execute at scale, with efficiency, to transform segments of the industry or individual media companies.

How do you see what the Accelerator is charged to do?

Our charge here is to figure out a way to help media companies to continue to discover promising business models, and then expand our work to help them execute. How do you put the right conditions in place—the people, the strategy, the technology and data infrastructure, the marketing? What resources, what talent, what systems do local media companies need to operate in a way that allows them to take full advantage of emerging revenue opportunities?

I can’t emphasize rigor enough. We want to develop a purpose-built Accelerator that operates with unwavering discipline, with deep customer research at its core. There are many other efforts in the local news industry around media transformation.They’re all well intended. But what we are building here is uniquely robust in several important ways.

What isn’t the Accelerator?

It’s not an incubator for individual start-up companies, where they can find product/market fit and then get access to investment capital to help with go-to-market.

The Accelerator is also not focused on just one idea, like digital subscriptions or memberships or video. All of these things in multiple variations will be included in the Accelerator, but it’s much more than a single-topic entity.

What’s the “more”?

The Accelerator will research, track, vet and then actually prototype and test any number of business models in parallel, with clear KPIs to determine whether an idea should get continued investment. For those that do get continued investment, the Accelerator will build a variety of delivery vehicles to help bring tested ideas to market. Think: in-market training and workshops, turnkey playbooks, on-demand support, and more. This holistic, end-to-end process is the Accelerator’s biggest differentiator.

We can work with any local media company, not just LMA members. They can be big companies, small companies, public or private companies, for-profit or nonprofit. The Accelerator is designed to be fully inclusive.

If a business model idea shows promise, what happens to it?

As we fundraise and build this entity, we will staff it fully, and that staff will include research and data analysts who are working in alignment with the industry to understand which business models show the greatest promise and deserve the greatest resource investment through the Accelerator. As these ideas are identified, we will bring them to the market and find local media companies—newspapers, broadcasters, digital publishers, whoever it might be—who are interested and show a propensity to test ideas and to become true partners in that testing.

These local media companies have to be willing to dedicate some staff time, some marketing resources. But if they exhibit the right conditions and show an interest in an idea—it might be digital subscriptions, something in video, maybe something in native advertising, maybe something we haven’t heard or thought about—they have the ability to participate directly in the Accelerator and to work with this highly-skilled team to test ideas and then roll out actual products. They will benefit from access to this expertise and the early learnings from piloting an emerging idea.

What’s the Accelerator’s “call to arms”?

We’re not necessarily expecting media companies to come to us with ideas, though we’re certainly open to it. There will be a vehicle for companies to submit ideas. We’re putting a team in place, supported by an advisory council of industry and non-industry experts, to research and vet the ideas. Then we will bring them to local media companies to gauge their interest in participating in testing them.

This comes back to one of the industry’s underlying challenges. Right now, you have media companies that are trying to innovate in silos or a vacuum, and the likelihood that they will come up with truly game-changing ideas by themselves is pretty slim. That’s not their fault. That’s our call to arms. That’s why organizations like LMA need to come up with a more robust system for generating promising business model ideas—then vet and test them, and work directly with participating media companies to bring them to market. We believe it’s our responsibility to do this.

Where will the experts come from and what will they bring to the process?

The No. 1 thing that funding will go toward is hiring the right team of people with unique skills, many of which might be foreign to the media companies. We also want to hire people who have the aptitude and the passion for what we’re building. Let’s not just hire research and data analysts to examine business models, but let’s expand our scope to enlist design-thinking experts and user-experience experts, so, as you’re designing tests, you’re doing it in a different way from how we often test things in the media industry. Typically, we come up with an idea and build something from it quickly—“design in a box,” as I call it—without putting the customer at the center of the process. We must elevate the customer to the center of everything we’re doing.

We’re going to need data specialists to be able to synthesize and analyze everything that comes back from testing, including the trends that emerge. From that, we will leverage marketing, audience and revenue teams to translate data insights into learnings and best practices that media companies can implement.

We realize we will have to hire in stages as we get funding. But the key point here is that to staff this effectively, a lot of the roles will not be traditional. They are roles that are meant to elevate the customer at every point, and they are roles focused on helping us to execute on the end-to-end process, including bringing learnings, data and best practices directly to market.

If you achieve a good share of what you envision here, what will the local news industry look like, especially in relation to the community?

When we talk about LMA’s mission statement being focused on new and stable business models, we’re doubling down on that. Maybe we’re 10X-ing that. But for the sake of what? To build a stronger future for journalism. It’s in the first slide of our Business Accelerator presentation. The end result of the Accelerator is a stronger future for journalism in local communities. With that comes engagement, community connectedness—a two-way dialogue between media companies and the communities they serve.

We are dead-set on fostering this in the Accelerator. If we can create stronger, more sustainable business models, then local media companies will have a better chance to execute on their long-standing mission of community connectedness, of civic engagement, of empowering audiences—but doing so in new and robust ways. Secondly—and I believe we can test this in the Accelerator—are there business models that can blossom from interacting with your community differently and enlisting community members as key stakeholders?

You said the Accelerator will encourage ideas for a two-way dialogue between communities and media companies. Right now, media companies are mostly focused on audience engagement, where the community is subdivided into individuals who are primarily customers on a journey to making a purchase, like a digital subscription or an advertised product or service. That’s important, but meanwhile whole communities are developing “21st-century” plans to transform themselves, especially socio-economically and in livability, with equity as the thematic driver. Should media companies be involved in how this historic transformation of community unfolds?

If you look at the local news industry, so much of the focus of attention today is on digital subscriptions, conversion, paid content. I’m not saying that’s not a question to be asked, but often it’s being asked in the wrong way – “How can we get people to pay?” versus “How can we create a more valuable relationship? How can we help people with their most important jobs to be done? How can we help them improve their relationships with their community through local news providers and their content?”

If we ask those questions, then there are all kinds of possibilities for the business model beyond simply clicking the subscription button. There’s a real opportunity for local news media to reimagine its relationships with its readers. It can create vibrant, participatory communities around its brand, and, in turn, play a more vital role in the broader community – helping it to achieve equity and other new and newly defined “21st-century” goals. Doing both, local media can, in the process, guarantee its own sustainability and that of the industry at large.

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.