News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Local News

January 13, 2010

Community foundations invest in news and information

The Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge grants $4.3 million to 24 more projects that are sponsored by local foundations. Here’s an overview of the projects.

Earlier this week, Amy Gahran posted “Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations.” Knight Foundation just announced 24 new grants to that shed more light on the types of news and information projects Knight and local foundations think have value and may have legs. Knight and a local foundation provide matching funds for these projects. (Disclosure: I will work with some of these grantees as a consultant to Knight.)

Established news outfits in these communities might want to explore collaborations with these projects, perhaps giving wider distribution to some of their content.

The projects fall in three broad categories:

1. Professional journalism projects. These projects will employ journalists to produce professional news content. Several focus on state or regional issues such as statehouse coverage rather than on local communities. Examples: Connecticut’s ctmirror.org, news service for the statehouse, Florida Independent (Sarasota area), Health News Florida (Southern Florida), a public interest news service covering the New Jersey statehouse), WyoFile, Write for Arkansas.

2. Citizen contributor projects. These projects will engage citizens in producing news and information. Most are local and/or target a specific group, such as youth or seniors as major contributors and users. Examples: Gables Home Page (Coral Gables, Florida), Neighborhood News bureaus in six Detroit neighborhoods, TheDuSu (Duluth, Minn. - Superior Wisc.), Beyond Bullets (New York City,  Digital Media Center in Akron, Ohio. Also, the Chicago Community Trust will use its grant to give minigrants to projects that strengthen the news and information ecoysystem in that city.

3. Civic engagement projects. These projects provide information and actively seek citizen engagement outside traditional news frames. Some are issue specific, such as environment, and some are specific to a place. Examples of environmental projects: GreenSpace in Southeast Michigan, Envision Bay Area in California, and the River Partnership in several states along the Mississippi River. Place based projects: Data visualization in Massachusetts; We the People forums in North Florida; an education awareness program for Latinos in Boulder, Colo.; a public forum partnership with NPR in Rhode Island; Be Counted Be Represented to encourage Latinos to respond to the 2010 Census in Los Angeles, as well as projects in Chautauqua County, NY; central Pennsylvania; South Woods County, Wisc.; and Alexandria, Virginia.

Here are fuller descriptions of the projects.

April 02, 2010

New report examines public library’s growing role as online civic hub

In the past year, about a third of Americans age 14 and over (about 77 million people) accessed the internet at a public library. US libraries and librarians are assuming a fast-growing role as a lifeline that connects people to jobs, news, education, services, health information, friends and family—and also community/civic participation.

A new report in the US IMPACT series of studies, How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at US Libraries, examines in detail how libraries are helping people meet a variety of online needs. It provides particularly intriguing insight into who’s using library internet to engage with community life, and how they’re doing it. Keeping up with the news is a big part of that picture…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

Who’s using library internet? According to the IMPACT study, one third of the 77 million library internet patrons “used library computers to learn about politics, news, and their community. Among these users, 81% reported keeping up with current events, 80% reported learning about candidates or issues, and 25% reported managing a club or nonprofit organization.”

What kinds of people are most likely to use library internet to participate in civic and community life?

  • Lower income. People who earn $66,000 or less for a family of four (three times the current US poverty line).
  • Ethnicity. Hispanics are most likely; then Native Americans, African Americans, and mixed-raced individuals. Whites are least likely.
  • Youth. Users aged 14-24 led the field.
  • Gender. Men were 20% more likely than women.
  • Education. People with at least some education beyond high school were most likely.

Findings on civic/community engagement: The IMPACT report defined online civic engagement as “individual and collective actions using online resources designed to identify and address issues of public concern, including efforts to work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” 

I was intrigued that this study characterized keeping up with the news as primarily an activity associated with civic/community life—not as simply “media consumption,” as it often is in other studies about online use. This could indicate something unique about the perspective of library internet users, or simply the assumptions of the organizations behind the survey. (It was conducted by the University of Washington Information School and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More about the survey.)

The report also examined how people use library internet access to engage communities. One specific activity discussed was organizing and managing community groups. Many survey participants claimed this activity is important to them. About 4 million people learned about starting an online presence for a club or community organization at the library— and 35% of these people actually started a club or association. Specific activities included:

  • Scheduling or reporting on meetings.
  • Promoting activities or attracting new members.
  • Seeking grants or funding.

The report noted, “57% of library internet users who looked for funding (about 1.2 million people) indicated that they had applied for funding—and 68% who  applied (over 813,000 people) actually received funding. This is concrete evidence that libraries are providing necessary tools and monetary support for people to engage in community activity.”

ACTION STEP: GO TO THE LIBRARY. Earlier, this blog post series recommended that news organizations partner more with public libraries, since libraries are natural sites of media literacy. But the IMPACT report indicates that libraries are also an increasing hub for civic and community “literacy,” too.

Therefore, journalists and others involved in ventures that provide news, information, and connection about civic and community life should probably start hanging out at the local library. Get online there, and start to assess who uses your local library’s internet access—and why.

More importantly, volunteer at your local library to assist library internet users. Most libraries are eager to work with volunteers. Once you get start working with the library and its patrons, learning their priorities and needs from the inside, you can forge relationships and spot opportunities for partnership and collaboration between the library and your local news or information venue.

Library volunteering also could be a channel to reach people who are not only underserved by local media and internet access, but also who are especially likely to be community leaders in those populations. The report noted: “In society at large, typically only a small percentage of the total population are community leaders and enablers. The characteristics of library internet users who are more likely to engage in [starting or managing online communities] ...suggest that the library is providing a way for emergent leaders to help their community take care of itself—which could in turn provide a safety net for people who might otherwise lack support.”

ACTION STEP: FUNDING COLLABORATION. Recommendation 7 of the Knight Commission report says:

“Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.”

..Like all public institutions, libraries are facing a severe funding crisis. They’re also eligible for many types of grants and other funding sources beyond tax revenue. Look for opportunities where partnering with a local library in your program and on your grant applications would make sense. If it’s a good fit, both parties—and the community—could benefit.

However, be sensitive to the unique concerns of libraries. They face specific legal and political issues, and librarians also have their own strong culture. So before approaching a library with a funding partnership idea, start volunteering first to build relationships, credibility, and knowledge.

July 26, 2010

Debunking the Replacement Myth

The tired idea that born-on-the-Web news sites will replace traditional media is wrong-headed, and it’s past time that academic research and news reports reflect that. Jay Rosen, the New York University professor and media critic, calls them “replaceniks,” and it’s an apt term. Rosen is talking about people who insist on evaluating new, born-on-the-web news outlets as potential replacements for established news organizations, such as your local newspaper. As if.

As if the new online publishers are trying to replace the local traditional outlets. As if newspaper-centric standards of dailiness and comprehensiveness matter the way they did pre-Web. As if citizens can only turn to one or the other type of outlet amidst a vast and diverse emerging new ecosystem and only one type of news site will prevail.

As one online publisher, Timothy Rutt of AltadenaBlog, said in comments on a recent Time story about local news start ups:

I think those of us who run community news sites know that we’re not the only source of our reader’s news. I HOPE our readers are continuing to read newspapers for state and national politics, pro sports, etc. Our niche is covering the important parts of everyday life in a community that larger scale operations tend to ignore—for us, that means church fundraisers, local concerts and art gallery events, wildlife sightings (when a cougar is sighted in your neighborhood, you want to know!), etc.  Sometimes we’re your best source—recently the cops shut down several streets because a suicidal man was sitting in his car with a gun.  We covered that in real time, as people wanted to know why the helicopter was buzzing, why the streets were closed, etc. Readers on the scene—hunkered down on their floors—sent us dispatches.  We’re a small community without its own radio or TV station, but our site was able to keep people informed as it was going on live.

Steve Buttry, the Director of Community Engagement at the Washington, D.C start up TBD.com and recent Editor & Publisher Editor of the Year, offers a strong analysis of the shortcomings of one recent study, ““Comparing Legacy News Sites with Citizen News and Blog Sites: Where’s the Best Journalism?” from University of Missouri researchers in “Academics measure new media (again) by old media yardstick”.  (Post includes the Missouri study and a response from Margaret Duffy, a respected Missouri researcher.)

Buttry wrote:

For academics studying whether “citizen journalism” is going to “replace” traditional journalism, let me save you some time: It won’t. It’s not trying to. It shouldn’t.

Journalism is not, never has been and should not become a zero-sum game.

I share Buttry’s criticisms. I think such studies fail to assess other sources of news and information, and I think these all complement, rather than rival, traditional news media. Also, a traditional newsroom of any size is going to produce consistently better journalism than a lone blogger but I think overlooks the idea that it only takes one determined digger to uncover an important story that a larger outlet might miss.

I pushed back at a similar study, also from the University of Missouri, where I recently completed a one-year fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The Project for Excellence in Journalism invited my comments and I responded in February with an essay that said:

... the new news ecology is dizzying. As it develops in ways and with a speed we can’t predict, the requirements of academic research may leave out the context of a rapidly changing environment. As a result, this new research could be read to reinforce the out-of-date idea that citizen news and professional news are in competition.

If professionals and nonprofessionals were ever producing news and information as distinctly separate groups, this is becoming less so every day. They’re merging. They’re joining forces in exciting experiments that will help shape the future of news, information and civic engagement.

I also added my own community news research to my fellowship activities. I decided to evaluate as many new local sites as possible against a very simple set of criteria (drafted with Jay Rosen’s help) that included producing original news; attempting to be accurate, fair and transparent; and working on a sustainable revenue model. My research partner, Missouri PhD student Adam Maksl, and I reviewed more than 1,200 sites, including sites on which the Missouri study for PEJ was based.

The result was a list of what I called “promising” online news sites, ones that are starting to figure things out. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the sites on the list are run by or employ journalists, often working with citizen contributors, local nonprofits and foundation seed funding. At the same time, most put a very high priority on citizen engagement, more, I believe, than traditional news outlets typically do. That doesn’t mean these sites don’t struggle, especially with business and revenue aspects.

My point was to give us something specific to talk about rather than a replacenik either/or abstraction. I wanted to help us begin to understand what local news start ups may be able to accomplish and how we might help them do that. I also thought such a list might help some traditional news organizations think about how they might form local partnerships that would help provide better news and information to their communities. I reject the notion that there is only one solution for bringing news and information to communities. While established media may be an important part of any solution, I also reject the idea that effective ways of producing and delivering journalism must look just like what’s gone before.

My work bumped up against another replacenik offering last week, this one from Time magazine under the headline: “Are Hyperlocals Replacing Traditional Newspapers?

As if. Or as John Paton (@jxpaton), CEO of the Journal Register Co. and 2009 E&P Publisher of the Year, tweeted: “Interesting Time story but headline shows the zero-sum attitude of those who don’t understand the new news ecology.”

Apparently the writer also didn’t understand what I told him about my research. Or perhaps my comments had to conform to the replacenik frame of the story. The result: My research conclusions were misstated.

According to Time, I “concluded that 1 in 10 hyperlocal sites is producing “good” content, some good enough to give traditional journalism a run for its money—sometimes literally.”

My response in the comments-

To clarify: I did NOT find or say that only one in 10 hyperlocal sites are “good.” I never made such an assessment. 

First of all, I looked at a range of sites, not just hyperlocal ones. Out of more than 1,200, about one in 10 met a very specific list of criteria I developed, and I described them as “promising.” 
List: bit.ly/micheleslist. 
Criteria: http://bit.ly/sitecriteria 

I think it’s impossible to use a blanket characterization of “good” or not. Is a site good if it’s useful? Is it good if it has a large user base? Is it good if journalists think it is? You get my drift. That’s why I tried to be very specific in my criteria. 

As well, I did not say these sites give traditional media a run for their money. I don’t know that. I think it would vary from community to community and depend on a variety of factors that I did not study. 

I also have said that IF nine out of 10 local news sites are not very good, as other research has asserted, then I think it’s valuable to study the other 10 percent to learn what they can teach us and support them. That’s what we’re doing at Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010 in September. Link: http://bit.ly/BlockByBlock

Ironically, the article cited the West Seattle blog as its example of “giving traditional media a run for their money”. As it happens, the West Seattle Blog has a content partnership with The Seattle Times.

The article also refers to the Knight Foundation as a “a nonprofit journalism organization,” which is sort of like calling a Mazerati “a car.” (Disclosure: I do consulting for the Knight Community Information Challenge, which funds community news start ups, and for the Knight journalism program.)

I e-mailed the Time writer, Gary Moscowitz and flagged my comments about how I was quoted. Here’s his response:

Thanks for the heads up, and thanks for posting your comment. The 1 in 10 comment got much debate from me throughout the editing process, but they seemed to be intent on keeping it. The “give them a run for their money” I know are not your words verbatim, just us paraphrasing.

So there it is. While I don’t buy into replacement thinking, indulge in this comparison: Many fledgling news sites do a better job of accuracy than Time managed on this story.

August 10, 2010

Emerging models for local news: Charlottesville Tomorrow partners with the daily newspaper

In an unusual and promising partnership, an independent Virginia nonprofit site produces land use, water and transportation news that is published in the local newspaper. One year into the content partnership, Charlottesville Tomorrow sees link traffic increase and looks ahead to the dual promise and challenge of sustainability.

As we gear up for Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010, I’m getting acquainted with many publishers of born-on-the-web online news sites - the people who are pioneering the new local news frontier.

I first read about Charlottesville Tomorrow nearly a year ago on Nieman Lab. I wanted to catch up on its partnership with the local Charlottesville, Va. newspaper, The Daily Progress when executive director Brian Wheeling contacted me about Block by Block. (Wheeler will attend, along with more than 100 other online publishers.)

Charlottesville Tomorrow specializes in land use, water and transportation issues and covers those issues in depth and detail, from regular coverage of local supervisor and planning board meetings to stories such as this data and link-rich exploration of an important dam proposal. Another interesting project is a Wiki, cvillepedia.

It’s the kind of work many of us did when we came up in local newspapers - helping people understand key community issues and alerting them to ways to engage by asking questions and giving their views. It’s also the kind of work that many newspapers, including The Daily Progress, no longer do - at least not at as much depth.

Enter CharlottesvilleTomorrow, a two-person site founded in 2005 that runs primarily on donations.

The partnership began when Daily Progress Managing Editor McGregor McCance approached Wheeler, in spring of 2009. At that point, the four-year-old site had established a record of accurate and impartial coverage, as McCance told Nieman Lab: “It was a case where I was able to review them over a long period of time and personally get comfortable with what they were producing.”

“It was a real endorsement of our approach;  nonpartisan, impartial and focused on quality of life issues that we think impact Charlottesville,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the newspaper had enough confidence even though Wheeler was both a primary reporter for the site and a member of the local school board. It was a balancing act, Wheeler says, and sometimes the newspaper would carry a story citing him on the school board and another on another page under his byline. But as long as he stuck with growth and development issues and took care with overlap, the line was pretty clear. Recently Wheeler left the school board to concentrate on the site.

“We wanted more exposure,” Wheeler said. “It was great to hear from the daily paper that he thought our content was that good… That was an eye opener for us and a unique opportunity.”

In exchange for CharlottesvilleTomorrow stories, the newspaper prints the nonprofit’s voter guide but no money changes hands.

The nonprofit’s contribution to the newspaper is significant: By April, 50 percent of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s stories appeared on the Daily Progress site or in the print newspaper.

Until a few weeks ago, The Daily Progress was co-publishing complete stories in print and online. The stories carried a Charlottesville Tomorrow byline and logo and linked to the site. But Wheeler said he found traffic to Charlottesville Tomorrow declined. Since July, the newspaper site links to the nonprofit site’s original content and Wheeler said the increase in traffic is already noticeable. For example, unique weekly visits have nearly doubled.

Weekly page views:
2009 average: 5100
2010 co-publishing: 4600
2010 since linking: 7500

Weekly unique visits:
2009 average: 1600 a week
2010 co-publishing: 1500
2010 since linking: 3000

(Local population is about 130,000, Wheeler said. UPDATE: The newspaper’s daily circulation is about 22,00, according to owner Media General. Previous version said 28,000, according to MondoNewspapers.com.)

Wheeler has a rich professional background as a college government major who has worked in IT, with foundations, and as an information officer for a local company. He helped start the site with two co-founders, Michael D. Bills and Rick Middleton.

Now the nonprofit is turning its attention to staffing and investments in the platform that will improve both what the site publishes and how people engage with it.

As with most local online sites, revenue is also a key challenge, and Wheeler says he’s exploring options, including advertising and grants, that will take the site beyond its donor base.

He also believes the Charlottesville Tomorrow model can work with other topics such as education or social services, where segments of the community want to drill deeper than a local, general interest newspaper may be able to do.

So far, the site has focused on content and community, building an audience that cares about land, water and transportation issues. Wheeler says more people are showing up at local board meetings, and Charlottesville Tomorrow may be part of the reason.

“We are seeing a much bigger level of participation in public meetings. I don’t think we can take all the credit for that but we can take some of it,” Wheeler said.

“That is one of our big goals,” Wheeler said. Not just to have people “read stories but to get engaged and come to meetings and speak up.”


(Medill journalism student Scott Rosenfield contributed to this post.)

September 21, 2010

Users report high satifsfaction and trust with local online news start ups

A survey of more than 1,000 users of community sites shows that traditional news outlets in some communities no longer have a corner on respect and credibility. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in our poll of users of new local news websites said they are more satisfied with that site than with their local mainstream media source. The survey is the latest part of my Reynolds Journalism Institute research project.

The survey also found:
- Users responding to the survey place a high degree of trust in their local sites, suggesting many find the new sites more credible than traditional media sources.
- Users go to the sites for original local news but they also see sites as important places to engage in community.
- More than a third of those responding say their local site is their primary local news source.
Read more about the findings at www.rjionline.org
Full summary here, courtesy of Adam Maksl, my research partner who led this part of the project. The work echoes what I am seeing in many communities around the country as an advisor with the Knight Foundation‘s Community Information Challenge.)
My RJI project culminates later this week with Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010, a gathering of online community news publishers. You can follow the live stream and live blog here. We’re also inviting participants to post summaries here.

September 23, 2010

Audience engagement and business sense are essential to success of local news start ups

Do local online news sites fail because there is no revenue model?  I suggest an alternative explanation: Online start ups often struggle because their leaders don’t know enough about running a business or making money on the Web (and some don’t want to learn)

I wrote this essay for “Realizing Potential, What Chicago’s Online Innovators Need,” a report by The Community Media Workshop. The report was commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust, a foundation I work with as a consultant to the Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge. The Trust will be releasing a series of fascinating reports on the news media landscape Thursday afternoon. Visit communitynewsmatters.org for details.

We’re seeing an explosion of local online news startups across the United States.

Key drivers: Jobless journalists start independent sites. Technology is easier to master. Community leaders and organizations step up to help fill gaps.

This is very evident in Chicago, where dozens of sites and blogs are providing news and information, and The Chicago Community Trust and other organizations are working to support the emerging news ecosystem.

Even so, sustainability is a key challenge for most online news publishers.

Mainstream media sources often suggest sites fail either because it’s just too difficult to make a go of independent online news or because there is no obvious single source of revenue for news (like there used to be—advertising).

I suggest an alternative explanation: Sites struggle because their leaders don’t know much about running a business or making money. Often, the leaders are journalists who are downright uncomfortable even talking about selling ads or raising money.  Worse, they pin hopes on a single stream of revenue rather than planning for multiple sources and fail to plan for the time when they have enough people using their sites that they have something to sell.

Absent obtaining a grant that guarantees their independence and reinforces the idealistic notion that journalism is a public good rather than a product in a market, journalists can be just plain lost when it comes to making money from online news.

Still, many online news publishers are working on revenue and are optimistic that their local sites can be sustained.

As a fellow earlier this year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I developed a list of promising local news sites—both for-profit and nonprofit. We surveyed their publishers to identify best practices and key challenges they face.

Many publishers told us that engagement and community building are central to their sites.  While their top priority is creating original news content, engaging and building community is a close second.

Some see community engagement as key to business success.

Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent said community has been the core mission of the nonprofit site. “We cultivated a community. We’re a journalism-driven community.”

Engagement may be a particularly strong factor for sites that chose to develop a membership or individual donations model, like that of National Public Radio.

Other sites are making money by hosting events and selling syndication rights to their content to other sites and publications.

Sponsorships are another vehicle that both for-profits and nonprofits can exploit. They may look like advertisements, but the buyer is paying to be associated with the site, rather than for potential click-throughs to the product advertised.

Still, our survey found that online local news sites rely most heavily on advertising for revenue. On average, advertising accounts for 45 percent of site revenue. Nearly half of the sites reported that 75 percent or more of their revenue comes from advertising.

Grants are the second largest source of revenue, followed by donations.  Other sources such as sponsorships, subscriptions, memberships and services account for miniscule amounts.

While most of the sites report revenue and about one-fourth said they were profitable in 2009, three-quarters of the publishers said they are trying to increase revenue.

It’s clear that this will be a process of trial, error and experimentation around revenue. In Chicago, a couple of examples of exciting ideas are evident: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com just won a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to develop Real-Time Ads. The Chicago Community Trust is facilitating learning and discussion among local sites about forming an advertising network.
Chicago is not alone as a local news innovation space. In Seattle, for example, many neighborhoods have competing news websites, entrepreneurs are creating advertising and content networks, and the major traditional news organization, The Seattle Times, is partnering with local sites and bloggers. One of those partners is West Seattle Blog, a site that shows that the right combination of location, community, commitment and advertising know-how can create a profitable and valuable news source.

The story is the same all over the country. Patch.com, America Online’s entry into the micro-local marketplace, is evidence that an organization that is primarily about revenue and the web sees dollar signs in local advertising.

Whether an experiment fails or succeeds, the generalizations that seem to dominate mainstream media coverage do a disservice to important learning about the new local news landscape. Most of the field is still about trial and error. Until we define effective practices, how can we say whether a given model works or not?

Eric Newton, vice president for journalism programs at the Knight Foundation, describes a three-legged stool of the expertise needed: journalism, business, web.

I would also note the three roles overlap in ways that require reinvention of the church-state division of journalism from revenue generation.

That doesn’t mean every journalist should now be selling ads between reporting assignments. But clearly, the journalist must focus on engagement and value—as defined by the community—and must understand web culture and how to connect within it; the web specialist must not only build websites but must see technology through the prism of user preferences and community building; the business specialist must aggressively generate revenue in ways that are consistent with the brand, which is another way of staying consistent with how the site’s community sees it.

That approach ultimately will create diverse paths to sustainable community sites.

(Revenue and sustainability are key topics on the agenda of Block by Block: Community News Summit 2010 which starts Thursday evening and runs all day Friday. Find the live stream and blog here, follow bxb2010 on Twitter, or check out an informal conference blog here.)

 

March 04, 2011

Turning local news into a service business

Increasingly, it looks like relying too heavily on advertising isn’t such a good long-term prospect for established daily local news organizations. So what’s next?

It’s always been easier and more lucrative for news organizations to sell services (primarily advertising) than content. Some new research from Pew, and the new Community Information Toolkit from the Knight Foundation, might point the way to new types of services that news organizations might help create and sell. But this would require a radical rethinking of what the local news business means…

By Amy Gahran

In his Feb. 27 post, The Publisher’s Dilemma, media consultant Frédéric Filloux offered a sobering analysis of the revenue prospects for online and print advertising for the Washington Post—and he pointed to the general challenge of running an ad-based daily print business in the digital age. Toward the end, he noted:

“As the failure of advertising-based models sinks in, the paid-for model is gaining traction. It is not likely to work on the web but it is finding its way on mobile devices where payment is (slightly) more natural and easier to implement.”

The question is, what kind of news would mobile users pay for? Paywalls have been an almost-total failure for general-interest news, especially at the local level. And while the jury’s still out on paid news apps for smartphones and tablets, or subscription-based offerings such as News Corp’s iPad-only The Daily, I’m skeptical of their revenue potential.

Meanwhile, newer ventures have taken a different approach to providing local news and context: rather than paying journalists to report and write news stories, they automatically collect and present geographically relevant local public data (example: Everyblock), or they aggregate local headlines, blog posts, and social media updates (examples: Outside.in and Fwix).

Today, a ReadWriteWeb post is pretty down on tech-based local info services—calling them “lightweight” and “uninspired.” I think that’s a matter of taste. Also, compared to mainstream news venues, the far shorter history of tech-based local ventures is amply peppered with premature obituaries.

But against this backdrop, this week in Miami, at its Media Learning Seminar, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the first draft of the Knight Commission’s Community Information Toolkit.

This document outlines how community members can assess the quality and availability of local information, build an information scorecard against which they can benchmark progress, and create an action plan to improve local information and civic engagement. This process seems to have more in common with how services like Everyblock work than with how news organizations have traditionally functioned—although it isn’t quite like either.

Also this week, the Pew Internet Project debuted a new report, How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems. Here are a few of the report’s findings that should interest news organizations:

  • Print and broadcast news organizations still get the highest marks for being people’s most important source of local information.
  • “Those who are avid news consumers are more likely than others to be civically active.”
  • “Broadband users and library patrons are more likely than others to feel good about their ability to gather information to meet their needs. Those who have found helpful government information online feel better than others about their own ability to make their communities better.”
  • “Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life. That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens.”


In addition, Pew noted: “Many of the local leaders who attended community workshops for this research initiative argued there was another variable that mattered in understanding the effectiveness of local information systems. That variable related to the flow of information—to citizens’ capacities to search for, aggregate, process, and act on information that is relevant to their needs. The community leaders reported that it was often the case that their stakeholders were not aware of the most useful information in the community and not certain how to act effectively on the information they did have. They also noted there were times when local governments were not effectively communicating to residents what information was available.”

To me, that sounds like a market opportunity—especially if you have a strong brand in a community.

All of this got me thinking: News organizations often are the major trusted brand for community information, and in many cities the local governments and agencies are not doing a stellar job of making local information available and useful (what we call in Oakland, CA, for instance: “Government 0.0”). So maybe there might be room for local news organizations to focus less on stories and ads, and more on making information useful, relevant, findable, and actionable through services for the mobile devices almost everyone has in their hands right now.

These services could be delivered on the freemium model—basic info for everyone, and more specialized premium services targeted at people who are especially engaged on local issues. The goal would be to help people understand what they need to do to help their communities. This is a natural fit for mobile media, which people approach with a generally active mindset.

Would this model support a newsroom of hundreds in big office buildings, as in the golden days of the daily news business? Certainly not. But if you weren’t paying for daily (or any) print or broadcast production, that could make better economic sense—and better serve communities. And if people came to see these trusted brands as active, useful partners in their efforts to improve thei communities (rather than detached observers), then they might be willing to pay for these services.

This requires a radical change of mindset. Honestly, I don’t think most news organizations could manage that. But some might.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

September 13, 2011

Patch by the numbers 2: Advertising

By Anna Tarkov
When it comes to advertising, the four Patch sites I reviewed in August all relied heavily on national advertising, while three were also attracting a significant amount of local ads. Patch local business directories also figure in the revenue mix.

Last week we took a look at Patch’s content and audience engagement. Now it’s time to talk turkey, as the old expression goes. In other words, show us the money. After all, content and everything else will be for naught if Patch can’t financially sustain itself. Since Patch content is online only and is free to read for all visitors, revenue comes solely from advertising. Though, as we’ll see, that can take different forms.

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As with content, my approach was to take note of the ads that appeared on portions of four different Patch sites. A California site (Hermosa Beach; launched 3/8/2010), a New York site (Rye; launched 12/22/2009), Florida site (Brandon, launched 12/15/2010) and a Midwest site (Northbrook; launched 9/9/2010).  (Note: I reside in Northbrook.)

I defined “Local” as an advertiser actually in the town that the Patch site covers; “Metro” as an advertiser a nearby town or in the general metropolitan area. National advertisers are national companies. Patch includes house ads promoting advertising on Patch or Patch daily deals. (More on methodology at the end of this post.)

It’s important to note that this was a scan of only four Patch sites out of a network of 861. So draw your conclusions if you must, but do it carefully.

What does Patch offer advertisers?

At first glance, when looking at a Patch site page like this one, it might seem like display ads are the only thing on the menu for advertisers. After talking to Patch President Warren Webster, I discovered that Patch offers more.

Most of the other products have to do with the directory of local businesses, schools and other neighborhood spots that each Patch site has. With its obvious importance to the bottom line, the directory is prominently featured as one of the top level categories on each site (here’s an example).

Webster billed these directories as a vital resource for the community as well as to area businesses. He also stressed that they aren’t purchased from a third party, but hand-built. Webster said that every business or place listed has been visited in person by a Patch staffer and all information such as hours, parking, etc. has been verified. Photos of the business are also taken and in the end, it looks something like this.

Patch hopes to make money on these directories by having businesses claim the listings Patch has created for them. Claiming one’s listing doesn’t technically cost anything. But once a business claims its listing, Patch will pitch the idea of producing a video commercial to appear in the listing like this one, putting the listing on different areas of the site, adding a message from the owner, being added to the Patch directories of neighboring towns and very likely buying display advertising. For many of these local businesses, it will be their first foray into having a web presence and that’s just what Patch is banking on.

How is the sales operation faring?

As with traffic stats, Patch will not release numbers on how it is faring in selling their various ad products or how much they are charging for them. A leaked ad rate card appeared in July, but a Patch spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny its accuracy.

Webster predictably dismissed the disgruntled Patch salesperson who is quoted in the link above. “It’s easy to dig up the people who aren’t happy or they weren’t the right fit,” he said. He went on to add that he considers the person an outlier within the Patch sales organization and not representative of other employees. In other communications with Patch spokespeople, it was hinted to me that the person had already been slated to be fired. Again, there is no way to confirm or deny this claim.

I tried to get a sense of the general satisfaction of Patch sales staff by asking Webster what the degree of turnover is among sales reps. He asserted that it is on par with every other sales organization he has seen and that as it naturally happens, some people are a good fit while others are not. Nevertheless, he seemed to acknowledge possible challenges by citing Patch’s fast pace of growth over the course of the last year. While Webster didn’t link this directly to any specific problems, it’s not difficult to imagine that it may be difficult to effectively oversee an ever growing sales staff.

So how many people are we talking about?  The ad sales arm of Patch employs nearly 300 people. Each individual sales rep is responsible for covering a cluster of sites based on things like population and number of businesses in the area. That means the number of sites per sales rep can somewhat vary, but Webster said it ends up being 3-4 sites on average.

Are advertisers happy?

Answering this question is almost as difficult as trying to determine whether Patch is making money on its ad sales.

Advertisers haven’t been extensively sought out for comment so there are few independent accounts to go on. Business Insider cited one Patch advertiser who hadn’t yet seen big gains in his business, but was optimistic.

Meanwhile, optimism is available in abundance on Patch Sales’ YouTube channel, which features video after video of blissfully happy advertisers. All of them state that their business is up as a result of advertising on Patch.  It’s a convenient echoing of what Webster said when we spoke. “Our goal is to get customers in the door,” he stated and according to these video testimonials at least, it’s happening. How many current or former Patch advertisers might not share this view? There’s obviously no YouTube channel for that.

What there seems to be no doubt about is Patch’s dedication to advertisers and local businesses in general. Sure, readers need to be happy too, but it’s clear no one is forgetting who foots the bill. “We want to make the community stronger and we see businesses as a crucial part of that,” Webster explained. He then took it a step further when discussing whether Patch is developing long-term relationships with advertisers and spelled out the commitment to businesses in no uncertain terms: “We see the advertisers’ info as being just as important as the news.”

Truly local?

Some of the criticism laid at Patch’s feet has been that its sites aren’t truly local; that they are “local lite” if you will. For instance, a group of independent online local news publishers call themselves Authentically Local; the implication of course is that companies like Patch are neither one nor the other.

Where ads are concerned, independent publishers like Howard Owens (whose site is listed on Authentically Local as one of the founders) have stressed that they must be local and local only:

“Do you accept only locally owned businesses as advertisers? If you don’t, you should. You should make it part of your publicly known mission that your goal is to help locally owned businesses grow….  If your site currently has ad network ads, including Google AdWords, you need to remove that code from you site right now.  If you’re going to be beat Patch, you need to be all about local and only local.  And beat that drum as loudly and as often as you can.”

With that in mind, I asked Webster whether Patch was striving for a certain amount of local versus national ads on its sites. The answer seemed to be yes and no. “We don’t have a specific mix in mind, but we ideally want half or the majority of our advertising to come from the local community,” he said.

Looking at the four sites I surveyed, we can see that this goal is somewhat being met. If we only look at the local ad percentages (again, they are 0%, 20%, 34% and 43%) then the 50% mark certainly looks distant. However, if we consider both local and metro ads to be “local,” then the picture improves a bit and we would now see percentages of 41%, 56% and 49% on the three sites that have local ads (Note: I am uncertain why I saw no local ads on the Hermosa Beach site as its launch date is not the earliest of the four. There could of course be any number of explanations.)

By the way, I did ask Webster if he was aware of Authentically Local and how he felt about independent news sites in general.

Taking a conciliatory tone, Webster said that Patch didn’t begrudge any of their companions in the local news space. “We want them to succeed,” he went as far as to say, though it’s unclear whether Patch’s definition of success would match that of the indie site operators’.  “We look at everyone trying to solve this [local] problem as a partner. We may just be taking a different approach. We believe that we can serve our markets better by having a large organization behind it while still having the site run by an editor who lives and works in the town. I think there’s room for all of us to help figure out what the model will eventually be that works for local news.”

Independent publishers weigh in

To get an idea of how the ad numbers I collected looked to people who had experience selling such ads, I turned to some independent publishers.
Mike Fourcher of the Center Square Journal and other community sites in Chicago neighborhoods remarked that the Patch rate card seemed incredibly expensive in comparison with his. He wasn’t sure how Patch’s financial picture would work if the numbers I collected were in line with other Patch sites. For example, Fourcher charges $500 (corrected from $400) per month for his best ad placement, a left sidebar on the front page. The most closely comparable Patch placement runs $1,200 per month, a huge difference indeed.

The aforementioned Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, was unsure if the numbers showed any strategic vision on Patch’s part far as ad sales were concerned. “To build an advertising business you need to know what you want to accomplish, which is more than ‘sell a lot of ads’ or ‘become profitable’—those are by-products of solid strategic business goals, not the goals themselves,” Owens said.  He also sharply questioned the selling of national ads alongside local ones and asserted that one is not compatible with the other. “They’re trying to serve two masters—one that is entirely metric driven and another that is much more about relationships and the contextual environment.”

Methodology

As with my earlier post on Patch’s content, I studied ads on the four sites I tracked on four weekdays each in August. I counted ads on the homepage, the other top-level categories that have ads on their main pages (News, Events, Places, Marketplace, Q&A) and also the Local Voices and Announcements sections under the News heading.
Since each viewing of a given page doesn’t necessarily display the same ads each time, I refreshed each page I looked at five times. If an ad appeared on more than one refresh, it was only counted once. However, ads for the same advertiser appearing on more than one category page were counted separately each time.

If you have a question about the methodology or anything else is unclear, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to address it.

Previously: Patch by the numbers 1: Content

Anna Tarkov is a blogger and journalist obsessed with media and politics and especially passionate about reforming the news business. Find Anna on her blog and on Twitter.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

December 14, 2011

Where do people get local business info? Pew report, plus 10 ideas for publishers

The holiday shopping season is generally a revenue-booster for ad-supported news venues—but new Pew research indicates that more people are turning to the internet than newspapers when seeking info about local businesses.

How might this insight help local news publishers update their revenue strategies for the coming year?...

By Amy Gahran

Where people get information about restaurants and other local businesses is a just-published report compiled by Pew’s Project on Excellence in Journalism and the Internet and American Life Project, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A few highlights from the Pew report:

Local restaurants, bars, and clubs. 55% of U.S. adults say they get news and information about local dining and nightlife—and just over half (51%) go online to get this information. In contrast, a total of 31% turn to printed newspapers (26%) and news sites (5%) for this info—even though news venues tend to publish local event calendars, dining/nightlife guides, and annual local “best of” ratings.

“Specialty websites” (probably such as Yelp, although the report does not name any specific sites) are a more popular source of local dining and nightlife info: 38% of adults use them. Furthermore, 23% rely on word of mouth, 8% turn to on local TV, and only 3% use social networking services.

Other local businesses. According to Pew, 60% of adults say they get news and information about local businesses besides restaurants and bars. Here the internet is still the most popular resource, but not quite as popular (47%). Specialty sites (again, think Yelp) are less popular here, cited as a resource by just 16% of adults. And social media is used by only 1%.

For the local general business sector, newspapers are the next most popular resource—29% of people look to printed copies for this info, but only 2% turn to news websites. Word of mouth: 22%. Local TV: 8%. Local radio: 5%.

Demographics. The Pew report contains charts showing the demographics of people who seek each type of local business information. In general, these consumers tend to be wealthier and more upscale.

But there are some differences between the sectors. Pew notes: “The 55% of adults who get information about restaurants, bars, and clubs are more likely to be women, young adults, urban, and technology adopters. The 60% of adults who get information about other local businesses are also more likely to be tech users.”

Local news “junkies” are especially likely to want info about local businesses. According to Pew: “Heavy local news junkies are considerably more likely than others to get material about local restaurants. ...When it comes to restaurant information, 71% of those who used at least six platforms monthly got news and information about local restaurants—compared with 34% of those who relied on just one or two sources.”

Also: “72% of those who used at least six [local news/info] platforms monthly got news and information about [other] local businesses, compared with 39% of those who relied on just one or two sources.”

This kind of data could be a reason for local businesses to advertise in local news venues, compared to search advertising or other marketing.

Mobile has become a leading way for people to get local news and info. This could have profound implications for local advertising.

Pew noted that 47% of U.S. adults get local news and information on their cell phones. “These mobile consumers, who were younger and more upscale in terms of their household income and educational levels, were even more likely than others to get material about local restaurants: 62% of mobile local news consumers got information [about local bars and restaurants], compared with 48% of others.”

Also: “65% of mobile local news consumers got information about other local businesses, compared with 55% of others.”

LESSONS AND IDEAS FOR NEWS VENUES

1. Make local business information easy to find, especially to search for, on your website, in your mobile offerings (mobile site as well as apps) and through your print or broadcast offerings. The staggeringly low number of people who currently turn to news sites for local business information indicates that this info either isn’t there, or it can’t be easily or reliably accessed.

2. Search-friendly repurposing. If you publish a local business directory, “best of” ratings, or an event calendar that lists venues, explore ways to surface this information in general searches of your site. Ideally, each listing could become a basic mobile-friendly landing page. This could be a simple database, and it might be seeded by scraping data from regular search engine queries for local business info. (An upsell service might allow business owners to update or expand their own listings, at will.)

3. Realize who your competition is: paid search ads. SearchEngineLand reported on a recent study which found that paid search drives $6 in local sales for every $1 in online sales. News publishers will have to work hard to demonstrate that their ads can compete with—or at least complement—that performance. So…

4. Create links between your content, ads, and local business info. This could be a key advantage of news publishers, and it should be multidirectional. If you maintain a database of local businesses and events, you might be able to automatically augment each listing with links to stories and upcoming events which mention that business, as well as current ads that business may be running in your site or paper. Then you may be able to adapt your content management system to link stories and ads back to your database listings, making it easier for people to get more info, context, and targeted exposure to advertising.

5. Sell USEFUL local mobile advertising units. Position mobile ads as an actionable information service that adds value, rather than just space to display a banner. Recently SearchEngineLand published a good guide mobile marketing guide for local businesses, as well as an overview of social-local-mobile marketing, and a guide to small business advertising planning for 2012. Read these, and consider how your venue could fit into this picture—from the local advertiser’s perspective.

6. Geocode local business info and ads with latitude/longitude and street address data. This can support “search nearby” functionality, which you can add to your main site search engine, and possibly even support via GPS in mobile devices.

7. Support user bookmarking, sharing, ratings, and comments/tips of local business info on your site. These features can either be a matter of personalization for registered users (visible only to individual users), or a source of additional public content or context for your site. For bookmarking, an option to forward a business name, address, and phone number to your cell phone via SMS text message might be especially useful—especially for the majority of mobile users who still use feature phones.

8. Monitor search requests for local info on your site, and user activity (such as bookmarking, sharing, link clickthroughs, click-to call phone numbers), to spot opportunities to fill in information gaps or meet emerging local market needs. This can be used as feedback to advertisers, or as selling points for prospective advertisers or upsells.

9. Regularly publicize in your print or broadcast channels all the options you offer for finding local business information, and explain how people can use them—and benefit from them. Consider this an ongoing marketing/education effort, and dedicate space and time to it. Don’t just expect people to find these services on their own.

10. If you cannot feasibly build or maintain your own database of local businesses, and connect that to your content management system and ad delivery tool, then consider partnering with (or at least linking to) relevant local business listings in places like Yelp, Google+ brand pages, public Facebook pages, and Bing.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

April 17, 2012

Local news enthusiasts: Pew research hints at opportunities for ethnic, community media

By Amy Gahran

The vast majority of U.S. adults are really into local news, Pew research shows. How might ethnic and community media outlets capitalize on this as more media goes digital and mobile?...

Over a year ago, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 72% of U.S. adults say they follow local news closely most of the time, whether or not some important local news is happening. Today, a new Pew report takes a closer look at this group of “local news enthusiasts.”

According to Pew, local news enthusiasts are more likely to be female, age 65 or older, and retired. “Politically, they tend to be conservative in their outlook (although they do not differ from others in party identification) and they also attend religious services more frequently than others. They do not differ from other adults in terms of household income, but are less likely to be college graduates.”

In terms of ethnicity, the vast majority (69%) of local news enthusiasts are white, Pew found. Black and Hispanic adults each comprise 13% of local news enthusiasts—roughly equivalent to the representation of these ethnic groups among the U.S. population at large.

Interestingly, adults with the lowest annual household income ($30,000 or less) were by far most likely to be keen on local news: 32% describe themselves as local news enthusiasts, compared to 22% in the highest income bracket (over $75,000). People with $$50,000-$74,999 annual household income had the lowest representation among local news enthusiasts (12%).

This finding indicates that ethnic and community news and media might be especially likely to gain traction in poorer communities and low-income demographics within communities—a point that might interest local advertisers and sponsors wishing to reach those communities.

Local news enthusiasts don’t all have gray hair. Fully one fourth are age 18-24. However, according to Pew this is the only age group where “other adults” outnumber local news enthusiasts—by almost two to one. This hints that right now is probably a crucial time to engage younger people in local news and information.

Digital media, including mobile and social media, might be particularly valuable in engaging younger people in local news and information. Pew noted: “91% of younger local news followers are internet users, compared with 71% of local news followers age 40 and older, and 82% of adults who do not follow local news closely.”

For contrast, another recent Pew study found that 20% of U.S. adults—mostly those over age 50—still don’t use the internet at all.

Also according to Pew, 73% of younger local news enthusiasts use some kind of social networking service (such as Facebook), compared with 35% of older local news followers and 53% of adults who do not follow local news closely. Twitter is not quite as popular—only 16% of younger local news followers use Twitter, but that’s far more than older local news enthusiasts or other adults. This indicates that using social media to complement your local news and information offerings on the web and in other media might be an especially effective tool for engaging younger community members.

Mobile devices represent a huge opportunity for ethnic and community media. Overall, 84% of local news enthusiasts have a cell phone, and 7% have a tablet computer—slightly less than penetration among all other adults. Also, Pew found the highest penetration of both types of mobile devices is among the youngest local news enthusiasts (under age 40).

This Pew report did not explore how many local news enthusiasts currently use smartphones. However, this year marks the tipping point when smartphones take over as the majority of U.S. handsets in use. Also, most simpler, cheaper “feature phones” are capable of browsing the web and accessing e-mail—and virtually all cell phones can send and receive text messages.

This means that a robust, inclusive mobile strategy (ideally one that includes text messaging alerts or interactivity) can help any local or niche news outlet connect with its community via the devices that most people already carry with them everywhere they go. Also, since social media is one of the most popular things that younger people do on their cell phones, social media can help jumpstart your mobile strategy.

Online media is definitely not the leading source of local news for local news enthusiasts—which may put online-only ethnic or community news and info outlets at a bit of a comparative disadvantage. According to Pew, enthusiasts’ most popular sources of local news are broadcast TV (80%), word of mouth (57%), radio (52%) and print (48%). In contrast, 41% of local news enthusiasts use search engines to find local news, 23% turn to the websites of local newspapers (TV stations sites, 20%), and 12% get their local news from social networking sites.

This points out an opportunity to leverage partnerships for cross-media promotion. For instance, online-only ethnic or community news outlets might provide some articles or other content to run in local newspapers, in exchange for the print outlet providing information about how to find the ethnic/community news site or do other cross-promotion. Similarly, providing simple, short, broadcast-quality audio or video news segments or community updates to local radio or TV stations could help broaden your audience. Many local stations are eager to run such content.

Finally, ethnic and community news sites with a strong mission to improve local communities may be encouraged by this Pew finding: “Slightly more local news enthusiasts than others think they can have a big impact on making their community a better place to live (33% vs. 27%).”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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