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.
Startups that live for the present have a few key characteristics. More often than not, they have an employee with business experience—which means they have revenue projections and five-year plans and realistic fundraising targets. Their attempts at revenue generation are usually highly labor intensive—and would thus be out of reach for most sites that do not have a dedicated business employee. These include high-volume, direct-sale advertising; constant fundraising; and offering non-journalistic services such as social-media training for local businesses.
Sites that live for the future are no more or less committed to journalism than sites that live for the present—they’re just less likely to be able to practice journalism for very long. Journalists founded the majority of these sites, often under the assumption that they could juggle both editorial and business responsibilities. Once the site is up and running, they find that the demands of the editorial operation are more than enough to keep them busy. They neglect their present environment and instead hope that the value of their work will lead to staying power—a fallacy that might sound familiar to many newspaper publishers. Sadly, the startups with hopes most pinned on this faith that good work will be rewarded monetarily are often the ones in underserved media markets. They rushed to fill a news vacuum and now find themselves in a void of a different kind.
One of the most common criticisms we receive of our work on The News Frontier Database is that we define news organizations by the standards of the past. Is it necessary to pay so much attention to conglomerations of reporters and editors who publish news items alongside display advertising? Should we, as Clay Shirky suggested, devote our attention to entities such as WikiLeaks that have no clear antecedent, or to promising phenomena like the NPR social-media strategist Andy Carvin’s Twitter account, which he has turned into a sort of twenty-first century news wire? Does the next best hope of journalism lie in something not yet possible or even conceivable on the local level?
The types of organizations we’re documenting are undeniably an intermediate step. For that very reason, it’s crucial to study them. The low entry barrier for news startups provided by the Internet means that they are going to be part of local journalism for the foreseeable future. And the best of them (even the ones that will die once their editors exhaust their savings accounts) are providing vital information to their communities. This is why the people who run them need to trade their optimism about the future for a hard plunge into the present.
Some of the most impressive startups I’ve encountered aren’t particularly innovative—not in the way I usually think of the word. Innovative, to me, is an artist who died fifty years before his heirs ever sold a painting. If journalists are going to venerate innovation, we need a more helpful understanding of the term.
News startups might be more successful if they thought of innovation not as a race to be the first around the next curve, but as a creative response to their present environment. The Big Five are innovative in this sense. They haven’t invented something radically different. Instead, they seized an opportunity given them by declining newspapers in their respective markets, and managed to convince foundations concerned about the future of news that they were the best near-term solution to the problem.