Local-local journalism is not a dead-end

by Jason Preston on June 6, 2008

Jon Talton, a journalist of 27 years, writes that local-local journalism is an exercise in stupidity. I’ve already made my case for hyper-local news coverage here, but Jon makes some good points and I think it’s worth clarifying why he’s wrong.

He uses the Washington Post‘s ill-fated LoudounExtra.com as an example of why local-local is not worth your time (I could just hold up MySeattlePets as a counter-example, of course, but what fun would that be?).

If you really see hyper-local journalism the way the WSJ describes it:

It embraces the idea that a high-school prom is as newsworthy as a debate over where to build a hospital, and that Little League deserves major-league attention. And it promises to let visitors to the site shape the news through blogs and photo and video submissions.

then yes, you’re going to run into a few problems. The fundamentals of what is interesting to people and what is important to a community have not significantly changed. What has changed is that as a newspaper you need to find a community to engage with.

Hyper-local coverage, to me, means that you cover what matters to your local audience, which may or may not be the same thing as what score the high school football team got.

If everyone in Seattle is obsessed with an obscure tax code violation in Arkansas, then the seattle media would do well to cover it, regardless of the fact that it’s nowhere near Lake Washington.

I think that any newspaper going forward that wants to be a national paper needs to own a kind of “niche,” the way the New York Times is known for tech and international coverage, the Washington Post for government, and the Wall Street Journal for finance. It gives people a reason to read their coverage.

Talton blames the current state of the newspaper industry on a failure in the business model, and he is absolutely correct:

The failure has been the business model, not real journalism. Technology can enhance news coverage; it can’t substitute for serious reporting and great writing. Yet year after year, publishers did a beat-down on newsrooms to fix a problem outside their control. They did nothing to market their products or recruit the world-class talent to fix the ad meltdown. Such is the consequence of an industry that had created monopolies and thought the confiscatory ad-rate cash would never stop flooding in the door.

Companies can get lazy in a monopoly, and newspapers need to stop bringing a plastic fork to a gunfight.

But the answer is not just to blindly hire more journalists, but to look at the market to see what new business models are possible, which means a re-evaluation of your customers.

Newspapers need high readership to make money from advertisers. Customers are turning away from classic print en masse, which is where the big ad money comes from. Oh, and the subscription money.

Whoops.

Also, papers no longer have a captive market: nothing prevents a Seattleite from reading a Denver paper.

So as a newspaper, what is your value proposition? Why would anyone read your stuff over someone else’s stuff?

You have a few options:

  1. Have big names (Mossberg, Friedman, etc)
  2. Cover things relevant to your audience
  3. Be where people are reading news (make your content easiest to find)

I am sure there are more.

Then you need to figure out how to pay for producing the content going forward. The prevailing wisdom is that people will never pay much for creative products going forward, because it is so easy to reproduce digitally.

I agree, although I think some people will pay for convenience and features. (This is another topic entirely that I will be tackling next week).

But internet advertising will never draw as much money as print advertising, because it will never be a monopoly in the same way.

So you have to make up for that high margin with high volume, which right now means you have to boost your page views.

This is why news sites split their stories into multiple pages whenever possible. Every time you click “next page” to keep reading, they make more money.

You know what else generates a lot of page views? Active communities. Forums, comment areas, wikis, photo galleries, calendars, and active classified sections.

You know where those tools work best? When they are provided to foster existing communities.

That means getting good journalists to listen to readers and to cover topics that are relevant to the local audience, and essentially, moving the local debate and conversation online, to your site.

Talton is 100% correct about one thing: newspaper companies face a grim future unless they put forward the capital to hire talented journalists and support new initiatives to find a new, profitable business model.

I will be surprised if any newspaper gets a new tech offering exactly right on the first try. Most tech companies doesn’t get tech products right on the first try. The internet provides the luxury of a fast-paced, forgiving, quick-feedback environment. It’s easy to throw something out there, measure it, tweak it, and try again.

In this, I applaud the Washington Post for putting something out there, trying something daring, learning from it, and sticking with the project. Newspapers need to innovate to survive, and you don’t innovate by giving up.

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NYT reports: Newspapers across the country are going local : Eat Sleep Publish
07.21.08 at 5:25 pm

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