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The journalism industry is in freefall. Advertising revenue has cratered. Private equity gutted once-profitable newsrooms. The American landscape is blighted by news deserts. Facebook deprived publishers of vital traffic. Craigslist decimated newspaper classifieds.
Those are just some of the narratives that have dominated coverage of the media industry over the past decade. And while nearly every news sector has been hit hard, the blow to local news has been particularly devastating. Depending on which study you rely on, up to 1,800 local newspapers have closed over the last 15 years, while many thousands more reduced their editorial headcount significantly in order to stay afloat.
But as a journalist who covers the media industry closely, I can’t help but feel that we’re not capturing the full picture. That’s because most stories about the decimation of local news focus almost entirely on legacy newspapers, the kind that were producing print issues stretching back since before the rise of the modern internet. While this coverage will sometimes make passing reference to the hundreds of digital-only news startups that have sprouted up over the last decade, there’s been little effort to quantitatively measure their size and impact on local journalism.
Over the past several years, I’ve interviewed dozens of local media entrepreneurs, many of whom told me astonishing stories about how their lean-but-robust outlets defied advertising trends, expanded coverage, and reached sustainability.
Have they completely replaced the reporting infrastructure once maintained by thriving legacy newspapers? I doubt it. But that’s in part because the industry is still adapting to the new economic climate. As traditional print newspapers continue to retreat, we’re going to see more and more entrepreneurial journalists take advantage of news vacuums that open up.
To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to walk you through nine examples of thriving local news operations. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list; rather, I’m focusing exclusively on news outlets I’ve featured in my own podcast and newsletter. For each outlet, I’ll include a link to a much longer case study/interview in case you want to dive deeper into that outlet’s business.
Ok, let’s jump into it:
Of all the media outlets I’m covering here, Buckeye Talk is the only one that is run under the auspices of a traditional media company, but I’m including it because of how it behaved as an entrepreneurial offshoot of a legacy newspaper.
The podcast Buckeye Talk was launched in 2015 by three sports writers for the Cleveland Plains Dealer. Covering Ohio sports, the podcast grew a devoted audience quickly, but its hosts had trouble monetizing it through advertising. “It was virtually impossible for us,” Doug Lesmerises, one of its founding hosts, told me in an interview.
Then the Plains Dealer’s parent company approached the Buckeye Talk hosts and asked if they wanted to experiment with a brand new tool called Subtext. The approach was simple: if a listener signed up and paid $3.99 a month, they could send and receive text messages directly to the hosts. They eventually incorporated the tool directly into the show by using Subtext to crowdsource questions for the hosts to answer on air. “I hope people listening [to the podcast] felt like they were missing out if they weren't on the texts,” Lesmerises explained.
The experiment worked, and thousands of Buckeye Talk fans chipped in to support the podcast. Lesmerises told me he could see this same model working for any podcast with a popular fan base, regardless of whether it covered sports, local politics, or other topics of intense interest.
Remember Patch? At its height, it employed over 800 journalists who covered local news all across the U.S., and though the site never quite lived up to its editorial ambitions, one of those journalists, Tom Sofield, saw the potential for what it was attempting to accomplish. In 2013, he quit his job at Patch and launched Levittown Now, a site that covered Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Sofield kept the site lean, relying on himself and a handful of freelancers for most of the site’s reporting, but his aggressive coverage allowed him to quickly establish credibility and traction within the community. “Within the first month, we sold our first ads,” he told me in an interview. “It took about 1.5 years to fully monetize the site and cover all our costs.”
Today, Levittown Now monetizes through a mixture of ads, events, consulting, and membership. “Our site has been averaging between 700,000 to 1 million pageviews per month with about 180,000 readers who live within or within a few minutes’ drive of our coverage area,” said Sofield.
Chicago Public Square
By the time Charlie Meyerson launched his newsletter Chicago Public Square, he was already a decades-long veteran of Chicago media. He got his start working for local radio stations and later landed a job writing the Chicago Tribune’s main newsletter.
Chicago Public Square, when it launched a few years ago, took a Drudge Report-like approach to news aggregation. “Links provide tremendous editorial insight that so many wordier services leave on the table,” Meyerson told me in an interview. “Newsletters that provide long, linkless passages miss out on cues that indicate which words, phrases, and subjects the audience finds most intriguing.”
Meyerson leveraged his Chicago contacts to help spread the word about the newsletter, even serving as a regular guest at a local radio station. He sells a few ads, but has monetized the site mainly through memberships. Despite offering no paywalled content, he’s convinced 15% of his subscribers to pay $7 a month. And he thinks his barebones model would be easy to replicate elsewhere. “I recommend any person or team looking to launch a news organization for any place or subject begin with an email newsletter, and build out content from there.”
The Bristol Cable
Some of the most interesting work in local news is being conducted by nonprofits, with many outlets structured as cooperatives. While some co-ops are worker-owned, The Bristol Cable took the consumer-owned approach. “We’d heard of a few examples of worker-owned initiatives in the UK and looked at models that existed elsewhere,” Alec Saelens, one of the site’s co-founders, told me in an interview. “We decided to flip the pyramid of ownership to make it much more inclusive. We adopted the multistakeholder model so that community members could become legal shareholders of the publications that served them.”
This meant meeting with dozens of community leaders before even launching the site. Membership started at $1 a month, and each member was afforded one vote. Because it placed so much emphasis on underserved communities, it immediately began making an impact with its reporting, which went on to be cited in Parliament and sparked criminal investigations into its story subjects.
The site launched in 2014, and though its writers needed to keep their part time jobs in the beginning, it eventually amassed over 2,000 paying members and enough private grants to support a full-time staff.
ARLnow is a great example of how a lean digital operation can enter an underserved area and experience rapid growth. When Scott Brodbeck launched the site a decade ago in the suburbs of Washington, DC, his only competition was a handful of print weeklies. “I started out covering things that were probably more in the shallow end,” he told me in an interview. “There were some big snow storms when I started out. We covered things like crime reports. If there was a fire, I'd go to that fire. Eventually we started getting tips. We started doing more in-depth county and government coverage. If we weren't covering it ourselves, we were linking out to the other news sources that might've been covering it.”
His early growth was fueled by Google searches for local news items, but many of those readers stuck around. Within a few years, Brodbeck launched multiple new sites in other surrounding DC suburbs. His company also sells ads for a popular DC blog that he doesn’t own himself.
Brodbeck monetizes his sites mainly through local advertising, with a special emphasis on native ads. “Our [native advertising] clients have had some really significant success because it's providing useful information to readers in a format where they know it's an ad, but they don't care because they're getting useful information that’s relevant to them, whether it’s lists of open houses in the area or it’s our local beer columnist who runs a local beer and wine store,” he said. “I think the sponsored content, when really done in partnership with local advertisers -- rather than keeping them at arm’s length -- I think is a great monetization method for local news online.”
What I like about 6AM City is that the company basically took the framework of national newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and theSkimm and applied them at the local level.
6AM City runs daily, city-based newsletters in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida. Each newsletter has two editors, and they’ve collectively amassed over 230,000 subscribers.
The newsletters curate news from local newspapers, but they also rely heavily on crowdsourced tips sent in via social media and email. “We started calling them engagement editors because they are the ears on the ground,” Ryan Johnston, the company’s co-founder, told me in an interview. “Typically we're in a coworking facility in each market and all they are supposed to do is really pay attention, listen, and engage on our social media, and generate the newsletter for that day. So each day, one editor is on social and the other is generating the newsletter. We get hundreds of emails every day to our inbox in each market. The editors go through that. We try to operate at inbox zero and get back to anybody and everybody that's written in.”
The company generates most of its revenue with ads that appear within the newsletters. “We built a branded content studio that surfaces 100% of the content that we create for brands,” said Johnston. “Sometimes we're creating that content from scratch. Sometimes we're acting as a distribution partner to spread content companies are already making. So they might already have a blog and certain posts that they really like and we're just polishing or repackaging it to ensure the highest level of engagement.”
Of all the media orgs I’m profiling here, Village Media has the quirkiest history. It started as a struggling coupon website in a small community in Ontario, and it wasn’t until the site hired a full-time reporter that it began to take off.
It’s since expanded to 16 owned-and-operated sites that are based in small-to-mid-sized towns and cities across Ontario. It also has advertising and tech partnerships with over a dozen other news websites. “We’ve purposely stayed away from major markets,” Jeff Elgie, Village Media’s CEO, told me in an interview. “There are a couple reasons for that. Part of it is competition, but another part is just the nature of the community and how it feels about itself. We kind of say that one criteria is that it’s not a commuter community.” The company’s ideal reader lives, works, and was born in the community.
Most the owned and operated sites have a community editor, a full-time reporter, and a salesperson. “You would ideally launch in a smaller market with three full-time people, and then add as you go along and compliment with freelancers,” said Elgie. And because Village Media built almost its entire tech stack from scratch, it’s able to benefit from efficiencies of scale. “Our licensing costs are effectively zero because we built it all.” Elgie estimated it takes about two years for a newly-launched site to become profitable.
TAPinto also has seen success building news sites outside of major metro areas, and it has an interesting expansion model. It was founded by a lawyer named Michael Shapiro who started a site in his own New Jersey town. After it saw success, he tried to launch sites in neighboring towns, but it soon became difficult to manage them all simultaneously.
So TAPinto pivoted to a franchise model. In exchange for an upfront fee and a cut of advertising revenue, someone can launch a TAPinto site in their own community. They’re responsible for the journalism and ad sales, while the parent company takes care of the technology, hosting, and ongoing training of franchise owners.
The company has been particularly innovative in developing advertising solutions for local businesses. Advertisers can upload press releases, author local blogs, sponsor newsletters, and buy classifieds, all within the platform’s self-serve system. “The key is that not only are our readers seeing that content, but because our site gets very good search engine optimization, it helps them organically with SEO,” Shapiro told me in an interview.
At the time of our interview, TAPinto had expanded to over 81 towns, most in New Jersey, but a few scattered through Pennsylvania and even Florida.
What I like about Technically Media is that it proved you can monetize niche content at the local level. In the wake of the Great Recession, three Temple University grads struggled to find newspaper reporting jobs, so out of desperation they launched Technically Philly, a news site that covered the burgeoning local tech scene. “We just launched a Wordpress template, started showing up at events with stenopads, and performed textbook journalism [on the industry],” co-founder Christopher Wink told me in an interview.
After struggling to sell ads to local businesses, it found success selling tickets and sponsorships to local tech events. “About two years into the business we developed a fairly unique idea called Philly Tech Week,” said co-founder Brian Kirk. “Because we had developed strong roots in the Philly community and were emerging as a group that was helping shape the conversation about tech in Philly, we put together a model that allowed us to essentially ask the community to help us organize a week of live content.” It also rolled out a paid jobs board.
The model was so successful that the company launched similar sites in Brooklyn, Delaware, Baltimore, and DC.
So what do all these organizations have in common? Well, most are much leaner than legacy newspapers, partly because they don’t need to maintain expensive print operations. They rarely waste time recreating the journalism of their competitors, choosing instead to link out to other news sources. They rely heavily on sponsored content over display advertising, as there seems to be a greater demand for the former from local businesses. Most are bootstrapped and expand to new locations only when the market has proved itself to exist.
Have all these organizations completely replaced the reporting infrastructure left behind by retreating legacy newspapers? I sincerely doubt it, but I also think they’ve picked up a good portion of the slack, with more comprehensive coverage on the horizon.
In short, I’m not prepared to write off local news as a dying industry. It’s a changing industry, one in which new entrants face large-but-not-insurmountable hurdles. Will legacy print newspapers play a continued role in its future? Of course. But I don’t think their profit margins or head counts should solely define the health of local news. The sector is much more resilient than the doomsayers would have you believe.
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