The entire time I have worked in the news media business, be it television, newspapers or online, the number one question people ask is not is print dying, but how long before it dies. Unfortunately s newspapers die off communities are left with what are called news deserts, in other words they have no local news. Sure you can get gossip on Facebook but without journalists who are objective verifying facts and interviewing local sources, those posts run the risk of being flagged as fake news, and with the rampant fake news epidemic facing our culture right now that’s best to avoid
I have been struggling with a way to combing traditional news media practices, beat news reporting, local human interest stories, covering local topics, holding local government’s accountable and generally doing all the things a typical print newspaper would do. Nobody I have met considers the local news station (broadcast TV) as any less important or legit as the local newspaper for delivering local interest stories. The problem there is broadcast news has to cover such a wide area to make money, and is facing such stiff competition from digital outlets like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc., we’re seeing local news stations struggle, close or consolidate in the same manner as the local newspapers. A democracy cannot flourish without news organizations informing the public what their government officials are doing, what their schools are up to, where their tax money is going, not without professionally trained journalists doing the work to get that information out to them.
It’s been a catch 22 for about 20 or so years for newspapers and local news stations alike. How do you produce expensive content on decreasing advertising dollars without deteriorating the quality of your product? If you make it available for free online you run the risk of giving away your product and not being able to make any money, or do you? I propose a different business model that will target the Millennials and their younger counterparts who are increasingly looking to digital as an alternative. Local TV news needs to give way to a locally produced newscast, distributed entirely on YouTube. Advertising dollars can be had via sponsors contained within the program, not traditional pre roll or post roll ads you have to share with Google. Yes, of course for the free web hosting YouTube provides let them get the pre and post roll ads, but you can take charge of the content with sponsored videos. However this only works for replacing the local broadcast affiliate, which I strongly believe is the future. It doesn’t do much for the newspaper. This is where I am proposing a new model that will combine the best of both worlds. You will get professionally produced content, delivered digitally for free, but packaged to a confined, hyper local market that is easy to sell to advertisers. Target your audience to the local shoppers and you can get the local shops to advertise with you.
In order for this model to work you have to keep your rates in line with what they expect to pay. It has to be cheaper than print but more expensive than Google or Facebook. The flip side is you can promise them you are targeting a local market instead of throwing a wide net for pennies in hopes of catching that one or two fish who swim through. Think of it like this. If you have a local wedding dress shop that targets young ladies in a specific geographic area, you can demonstrate to that shop owner that your website, a community newspaper online or a community news blog if you will, that will entice local audiences to browse content tailored for their specific tastes, then you can convince that dress shop to run her ads on your site instead of the local print newspaper.
In order to make a weekly newspaper you need a staff of at least 1-2 people. One person creating content, the other selling ads. Sometimes you run into a situation where there is just one person doing the newspaper as a solo project, more or less as a labor of love. Every local community needs it’s own newspaper. But times have changed. You no longer need to go down to the local super market to pick up a physical copy of that newspaper in today’s world. What works best now is you use social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, to target the locals in the area, use those links to get them onto your site and then provide content they cannot get elsewhere. Your job is to get them to trust you enough to spend a few minutes of their day on your site, reading up on local happenings, before heading out into the vast ocean of repeat content all the national sources are fighting over. In this world getting it first is the name of the game in national media. But getting it right is still the focus of local media.
That is why instead of investing money in a local print publication. I am going to build a series of local community news sites, newspapers or blogs that exist entirely in a digital space but treat them no different than if I was running a local newspaper. The difference is like night and day. First, you have more time to craft stories without being limited to a hard deadline. A weekly newspaper that has to print once a week has to make sure all content is packaged and done before the paper can go to print. This can lead to rushing out stories that are not quite ready but are also too old to be considered news. I ran into this dilemma all the time with our Friday newspaper. In order to get a newspaper out by Friday morning I had to send it to the printers Wednesday evening. That meant my Friday paper couldn’t have anything in it newer than, at absolute most current, 5 p.m. Wednesday. Most often I was writing stories about government meetings that took place on Monday so readers wouldn’t even know how their local politicians voted to spend their money until nearly a full week after the fact. What if something newsy was happening on a Thursday? I either had to ignore it, write about it after the fact as an after thought or try to get someone in the community to contribute to the newspaper. Sure, we did this but it was gut wrenching to learn about an event on Tuesday night that was going to happen on Thursday morning but it would be impossible for your newspaper to tell people ahead of time to go to because the paper came out after the fact but was printed before. I joked with my editor it was like writing stories in the past tense about things that haven’t happened yet. It was a juggling act.
A community blog acting as a digital newspaper wouldn’t face this problem. If news happens on Tuesday, you get your reporter there on Tuesday, snap photos, interview those involved and knock out an accurate, timely story by Wednesday morning. You then get the best of both worlds, timely and accurate news without the rush of getting that printer deadline. In today’s digital age it makes no sense not to run a local blog instead of a newspaper. The hang up old newspapers have are how to get digital advertisers. The trick is to have the same ads you always had, produced in house and tailored to their specific needs, not agency ads blanketing a mass market, not low CPM affiliate ads you make pennies on. The balance is to meet in the middle. I would set up something where an advertiser could purchase a display ad to run during a certain number of articles for a fair, fixed price. Then if they liked the results it would be easy for them to renew.
I believe the future of newspapers is digital but not the old model of make a hard copy, then upload the PDF behind a paywall. That model hasn’t worked at reaching a new audience nor is it appealing to advertisers that have left. Local news is coming back in a big way and its going to take pioneers to blend the old model with the new model and utilize tools that social media provides. In doing so an editor can provide their local community with current events and stories that interest a local market yet still attracting advertisers that target that local market without the headache of having to provide a printed product that may or may not reach the eyeballs it was meant to.