Pressing Issues

Local News Is Dead. Long Live Local News

Patch is back. And so is LAist, Gothamist, and the DCist, thanks to investors from public radio stations. Can they survive this time around?

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If you are a media person of a certain age, this will mean something to you: Patch is back.

The hyperlocal juggernaut, heralded as the big fix for journalism back in 2009 when AOL acquired it, faded out in 2014 but it did not go away entirely. Investment firm Hale Global came in to save the day, purchasing a majority share in the business (AOL still owns just under 50 percent) and laying off more than 400 reporters and editors overnight. The company scaled back to just the few hundred most successful sites, predominantly in major cities (spots not in near as desperate need of local journalism), but has been adding new sites over time, reaching more than 1,000 in 2017. Its business model has shifted slightly from simply providing local news websites to using email and mobile alerts about local news to drive traffic and selling native advertising. The company claims to have more than 25 million unique visitors a month, who have led it to 15 straight months of profitability. On the backs of the 148 underpaid staffers keeping those 1,000-plus sites going, of course.

But while Hale Global execs attribute that success to their “hard reset” on the staffing front and investments in mobile and email technology, there are also broader forces at play that may make this time around different for the company, and for local news endeavors in general. While Patch has never exactly been a favorite of those who care about the treatment and pay of journalists, local sites like The LAist, The DCist and The Gothamist were beloved, and their sudden deaths mourned last year. So the news of their triumphant return—backed by investments from public radio stations in the three local markets (WNYC in New York, KPCC in Southern California, and WAMU in Washington D.C.)—has been hugely celebrated. And rightly so: It makes a ton of sense for local public radio stations, which are notoriously bad at digital, to simply acquire already-great community news websites, and for the two to feed stories and audiences to each other.

Meanwhile, the death march of local print papers and alt weeklies continues. Digital First Media, a company that, despite its name, owns several print community newspapers throughout the country, including the East Bay Times (formerly two papers—Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times—combined into one in 2016) and San Jose Mercury News in California, and The Denver Post in Denver, has been crushing its papers with buyouts and layoffs, cutting hundreds of reporters. That’s not because those papers haven’t been profitable, but because they haven’t been delivering high enough returns to the global hedge fund that owns a majority stake in Digital First. In a statement about the recent layoffs, East Bay Times’ investigative reporter Thomas Peele said “Our paper is profitable, it’s just not been profitable enough to Alden Global Capital.” In addition to the papers listed above, Digital First Media now owns multiple other large local dailies, including the Orange County Register and the Boston Herald, giving it a majority hold over the nation’s local newspapers (not unlike Sinclair Media’s hold on local broadcast news—recognize a pattern here?). To the extent that alt weeklies still exist, many are being snatched up by conservative investor types as well (see The LA Weekly).

So why all the interest in online local news again, and what’s changed since 2008? For one thing, demand has caught up with supply where digital local news is concerned. “Some of the early local news experiments that didn’t succeed are worth trying again and again because the market then wasn’t ready,” says Kristen Hare, who covers local news innovation for the Poynter Institute. “I think it is now. We’re seeing more of a willingness to pay for news and an understanding that it’s worth paying for.”

That willingness is being driven by a convergence of factors: the decentralization of news, coupled with the rapid consolidation in local news (with Sinclair gobbling up TV and radio stations, while Gatehouse absorbs multiple local newspapers); the fairly easy and inexpensive access to digital publishing tools; and the evolution of subscription models to more of a membership-style relationship have paved the way for small local news startups that are finding success in their communities.

And then of course there’s the “Trump Bump,” a reported increase in donations for many journalism and news organizations as the general public has begun to realize how important journalism is to democracy, particularly in light of recent scandals (from #MeToo to the weekly Trump administration controversies) that would otherwise have gone unexamined.

“What’s the solution for local news and the local news deserts that already exist? It’s not gonna be Gannett and Gatehouse going back into these communities and hiring. Even if they find a magic revenue bullet tomorrow that money is going to go to their shareholders,” says Matt DeRienzo, executive director of the Local Independent Online News Publishers organization (LION). “Communities have to take responsibility for their own local news needs, and so you’re seeing grassroots solutions emerging and communities supporting them, in a variety of models that include both for-profit and nonprofit, and niche and general interest, and public media.”

The most successful ventures, according to Hare, seem to be those that are “not trying to be everything to everyone, they’re focusing on the stories and investigations that newspapers cut.”

Most of this change is happening online. Many of these sites—whether they started during the first local trend and managed to stick around (like Voice of San Diego or The Connecticut Health Investigative Team), or are new projects (like ProPublica’s local reporting network or Where By Us or Seattle’s The Evergrey)—are also benefiting from a shift in the social contract between readers and reporters. Emily Goligoski, research director for the Membership Puzzle Project, says that while the relationship between newspapers and readers used to be purely transactional—you pay for the paper, you get the paper—it has evolved. Now several news organizations are developing membership models that not only rely on readers for support, but also make them feel like part of the organization. Members don’t just want to pay for their news, they want to support news that reaches a broad audience, they want to share their knowledge on topics, they want to feel like they’re supporting important work. “The membership model is one that optimizes journalism for trust, that looks for ways to deepen the relationship and respect and tap into readers’ expertise,” she says.

“For years we literally delivered the news to people’s doorsteps,” Hare says. “And one of the big problems in digital journalism for a long time was that organizations thought online news was no different, that only the distribution mechanism had changed.”

Now, organizations are understanding that digital fundamentally changed readers’ behaviors, and they’re beginning to adjust accordingly. “Now I visit local legacy newsrooms and what I see is not ‘how do we get people to change their behavior,’ it’s ‘what do we need to change to meet them where they are? That’s a huge shift and it’s been a painful one,” Hare says.

But that painful shift has also come with new opportunities. In the American Press Institute’s latest report on the different paths to subscriptions, Jeff Sonderman points out that news organizations today have multiple different audiences, which requires a multi-pronged communication approach but which also adds new funnels of potential readers, subscribers, or members.

What that might ultimately mean, according to DeRienzo, is a lot of brilliant but short-lived endeavors in community news … and that’s okay. “It’s a diverse ecosystem and that’s messy – they’re all different because communities are different, and things will happen faster and better in some than others because the nature of it is grassroots,” he says. “Things might start up and with two or three people instead of 50, and that means they might not be around for 50 years. But is it a failure for something to operate for five years and perform a great service and then maybe go away because their personal circumstances change?”

In other words, local news isn’t dead, but it is different now than it was a decade ago. Local news organizations—legacy and startup alike—have stopped fighting against, and even embraced, the changes brought by digital technology. And that’s a good thing because it’s only going to keep changing.

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