There are hundreds of local and regional online news startups in America, but only about five that media observers discuss with any frequency. The names will be familiar: Voice of San Diego, The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the Chicago News Cooperative, The Bay Citizen. All are well-funded, big-city nonprofits backed by large foundations and staffed by veteran journalists. In other words, thinking of them as providing a glimpse into the future of local journalism is a bit like saying nasa shows a way forward to municipal space programs.
It’s not that the Big Five aren’t worthy of attention. Each provides hard news where it is desperately needed, and each is experimenting in fruitful ways with how to fund local news without big-league philanthropy. If and when these experiments pay off, smaller news organizations can adapt them to their own circumstances.
I suspect, though, that the primary reason these organizations are discussed so frequently is that their success validates a deeply held optimism that many feel about the web’s ability to sustain local news. It’s an optimism based more on faith than reality, and the Big Five are the cherry-picked slices of reality that anchor that faith. Their existence contributes to a vague sense of hopefulness among practitioners of local online journalism.
Most founders of local online news operations I talk to are simultaneously optimistic about the future and frustrated by the present. They have a strong sense that building a digital news source for their communities puts them on the right side of history, but little concept of how to keep their operation afloat long enough to be vindicated. Longing for a (hopefully) not-too-distant future when everything scary about the world of journalism economics becomes somehow less so, they too often neglect to engage present financial challenges in order to press forward confidently with their journalistic vision. The result is a field full of promising journalistic institutions with anemic and at times nearly nonexistent business models. Ironically, the future might look a lot brighter if news startups shed their futurism and instead ask: What can I build today?
Last January, CJR started a project called the News Frontier Database, with the goal of building a comprehensive resource on the editorial and business practices of digital news startups. Each entry includes a profile and a data set with information on revenue sources, staffing levels, coverage areas, and other particulars of the news site. We’ve profiled more than two hundred sites so far. About fifty of these are national in scope and the rest provide state and local coverage.
The vast majority of journalism startups cover local news, and, considering the diminished quality of local news in recent years, this makes sense. The organizations themselves vary greatly, from large nonprofits like the Big Five to for-profits backed by venture capital to sites run by a lone journalist. Depending on how narrowly one defines journalism, there are either many hundreds or many thousands of these startups.
Online local news sites struggle with the same economic environment as the rest of the media industry, but with the additional challenges of a small audience base, a reliance on financing from local foundations with unstable endowments, and a need to convince cautious small-business owners to embrace online advertising. Not surprisingly, then, the local news startup world is marked by an extreme lack of resources. A large majority of the local sites we’ve profiled have fewer than six editorial employees and fewer than three business employees; more than a third have no business staff at all, relying on someone from editorial to also run the business operation.
As a result, business strategies are frequently incoherent. Some sites operate in a manner indistinguishable from a freelancer scrambling for his next assignment. It will take a few more years before we have hard data on the average life span of the sites we’re following, but current indicators are not promising. We once assigned a reporter to profile a startup, only to discover it had gone out of business during the couple of days it took to file the piece.
In other words, no one is getting rich off of online local news. The important distinction to draw, then, is not between sites that are profitable (or sustainable as nonprofits) and those that are not, but between sites that live for the present—attempting every day to sustain their operations through a rigorous and reasoned response to their local market—and those that live for the future—dabbling in revenue-generation but pinning their hopes on a more favorable online news environment that doesn’t currently exist, and may never exist.