Betting on the success of local journalism

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If you work in local news, you know the misery numbers. Good things spiral down: more than a quarter million jobs lost over the past three decades; year after year of double digit percentage declines in print circulation; tens of billions of dollars of lost advertising revenue. Bad things spike: news deserts, zombie news enterprises, fake news, public distrust.

It can be hard not to despair—especially when folks like Jack Shafer at Politico pronounce “the newspaper industry’s coming death.” Do legacy local news enterprises confront unprecedented difficulties? Yes. Must the hard-working folks who show up every day to cover and communicate local news fall on their swords while hedge funds pick them dry of cash? No.

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It’s easy to point to serious disruptions, give up, and declare defeat. On the other hand, it’s tough work—and risky—to acknowledge shortfalls, then try to turn things around by betting on sustainable, high-quality local journalism. With the encouragement of Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s head of journalism Jennifer Preston and I kicked off what we call the table stakes effort in late 2015. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is also a major funder of CJR.)

Table stakes comes from thinking of business strategy as poker. If you wander by the $50 poker table at a casino and wish to play, then you must put down the $50 or you don’t get a seat at the table. Strategy-as-poker asks, “What are the table stakes—the minimum requirements—for any enterprise to be in the game?”

The Dallas Morning News, the Minneapolis StarTribune, Miami Herald, and El Nuevo Herald, and the Philadelphia Media Network (Inquirer, Daily News, and philly.com) participated in the inaugural effort. The results and progress in these four cities led Knight, along with Temple, the Lenfest Institute, and American Press Institute (API) to support a second round of major metro table stakes as well as launch two other table stakes efforts at Poynter and UNC. We are now midway through the third round of major metro table stakes, and have recently begun the second round at UNC. Poynter expects to start a second round in September; and, steps are in motion for a table stakes initiative for local TV to be hosted by ASU’s Cronkite School.

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All of which means that, 30 months in, hundreds of people from more than four dozen news enterprises across the US have participated in breathing life into a narrative of local journalism’s revitalization.

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Seven core table stakes emerged to guide local journalism’s path forward: As further delineated in Table Stakes: A Manual For Getting In The Game Of News and at Better News, local news enterprises can succeed through:

    1. Serving targeted audiences with targeted content. The days of being the general store for all general news content have passed. Instead, local news enterprises must identify and focus on target audiences with needs, interests, and problems that you can address and monetize. Use your local market knowledge, perspective, and presence to serve your chosen audiences far better than competitors.
    2. Publishing on the platforms used by your targeted audiences. Go to your audiences rather than expecting them to come to you. Publish and promote on the platforms used by each of your target audiences. Do so in ways that serve their needs and interests in using each platform and take best advantage of the particular features and dynamics of the platform—that is, approaches that are platform optimal rather than platform agnostic.
    3. Producing and publishing continuously to match your audience members’ lives. Organize to provide an “always on, always there” flow of digital-first content that matches the life rhythms and habits of your audiences, their time and attention availability—and their interests, needs, and problems of the moment—across the platforms they use. Get beyond either/or-ism of digital versus print. Use audience-centric approaches to do digital first, then print later and better.
    4. Funneling occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists. Guide your audience through the stages of a funnel from random or occasional use, to increasing use, to habitual use, to paying for content, products or services, to recommending your brand and content to others. In other words, get them to come, get them to stay, get them to pay and get them to stay paying—and at every stage, get them to recommend. Use the same step-by-step funnel approach to maximize the value of your audience to advertisers, and to increase turnout/revenues from events, eCommerce sales, and more. Succeed at this with actionable data and analytics, audience-serving content, technology and platform tactics, multiple types and approaches of “offers” and “asks,” and continuous testing.
    5. Diversifying and growing the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build. Innovate, test, and develop as many ways as possible to earn revenue. Do this by collaborating across all functions of your enterprise with a focus on innovating to grow consumer revenue and advertising as well as creating, testing and growing a range of new products, services, and businesses of value to your target audiences and communities.
    6. Partnering to expand your capacity and capabilities at a lower and more flexible cost. Use partnerships, third-party services, shared resource arrangements, and flexible staffing to expand your capacity and capabilities across all parts of your enterprise: content creation, marketing and distribution to target audiences, new services and products, access to needed skills, technologies, tools and data, and more. Do this in ways that lower investment requirements, reduce and add flexibility to your cost structure, increase speed, and better share risks compared to doing it on your own.
    7. Driving audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective. Require cross-functional “mini-publisher” teams and team leaders to use a general management perspective and strong sense of ownership and accountability for audience growth, satisfaction and economic results. Expand the scope of these teams’ responsibility beyond content creation to also include content distribution, audience development, revenue generation, financial success, and brand quality and growth.

 

Significant results and capabilities have emerged for news enterprises of all sizes and environments…

 

Large, medium, and small

The Dallas Morning News increased traffic by millions of users, raised engagement time by a third, cut the number of posts with less than 500 visitors fourfold and, after two previous failures, launched a meter. It now has more than 23,000 digital subscribers.

The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina generated more than $800,000 of new revenue through newsletters, podcasts, audience verticals, sponsorships, and digital subscriptions fueled and led by mini-publisher teams.

The Daily Dispatch in Henderson, North Carolina shifted from being a traditional newspaper that had a website as an afterthought to finding as many ways as possible to partner with local audiences and businesses in person, online and, yes, in print. Challenges certainly continue—but today the Dispatch has larger, more loyal audiences and local business supporters, along with growing, more diversified revenues.

 

Urban to rural

Michigan.com and its affiliate Detroit Free Press spawned hundreds of thousands of dollars through double-digit growth in the number of events, tickets sold, and other event-related revenue raised.

The Durango Herald’s staff and board in Durango, Colorado challenged themselves to thoroughly revamp how they engaged with local audiences and enterprises, including through new verticals, editorial board outreach, hosting events, joining local community organizations, partnering with the library and others, improving the digital experience, and using solutions journalism approaches. They got themselves out of the either/or print versus digital trap by using their newfound audience focus to be digital first and print later and better. The result: In a year, they more than doubled digital subscriptions while increasing print subscriptions by a third.

 

In healthy local economies as well as struggling ones

The Seattle Times moved from being the paper of record to chronicling Seattle’s transformation. Among other steps, they used a blend of increased video, Facebook live events, newsletters, direct-to-digital publishing, some new verticals and desk-level data and analytics to drive up traffic, mobile app users, and engagement. They built a smoother subscription process with better payment options and tracking to serve digitally motivated as well as print motivated consumers—which, combined with all the rest, grew digital-related subscriptions by over 20 percent and digital-related audience revenue 50 percent.

The owners and staff of the News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina had a powerfully simple challenge: to stay in business. In rural Columbus County, poverty, joblessness, an aging population, and a severe opioid crisis bedevil an ailing economy. The News Reporter changed nearly every aspect of its enterprise by adding new video, social, and mobile capabilities, building a marketing group from scratch, shifting the two days each week the paper is printed, simplifying ad offerings, holding events and contests, and partnering with others to spawn solutions oriented, community wide understanding and approaches to opioids and mental illness—all of which produced an operating profit.

 

Corporate-owned as well as independent

Like others, when Gannett’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel started table stakes, reporters and editors focused on print, on filling news holes, and on A1. Editorial meetings pivoted around print. Ad sales sold print. Circulation fought to sustain print subscriptions. Over the course of 15 months, long-tenured journalists became audience/digital enthusiasts. “Did you see how my story did in traffic and engagement?” replaced “I got on A1!” They stopped doing a lot of stuff—overcoming a bane of newsrooms everywhere that always add, and rarely give up on things whether they work or not. And they doubled digital subscriptions in addition to finding new revenues through experimentation with new and/or expanded efforts aimed at niche audiences, funders and foundations, and better collaboration with Gannett’s network of Wisconsin news groups.

The independently owned Minneapolis StarTribune converted its print-centric newsroom to one driven by audience and committed to getting news to folks when and how they want it, which made the print product better as a consequence. They crafted a highly disciplined events business that yields over a million dollars annually, dramatically enhanced their presence and performance on social (overtaking other local news enterprises), closed huge gaps in time of day postings, launched and refined new beats, and grew digital subscriptions by a double-digit percentage.

 

In addition to the for-profit news enterprises described above, non-profits also made significant progress

UNC-TV began transitioning from a traditional public TV broadcaster to an audience-first, digital public media company. They organized around audience verticals and mini-publisher teams, crafted actionable data and analytics, embedded a performance focus in their extensive partnerships, showed up in communities across North Carolina and reached out for support in new and different ways. The number of donors, size of donations, and sources of funding all grew in ways that yielded many hundreds of thousands of new dollars.

About the time they joined the initial table stakes groups in late 2015, the Philadelphia Media Network’s Inquirer, Daily News, and philly.com were just coming off a decade of revolving door ownership and zero direction. Philly participated in both the first and second rounds of major metro tables stakes. They used their table stakes challenges along with the resources and focused help of the newly established Lenfest Institute to reinvent themselves. With all the new capabilities, attitudes, technology, workflows, and leadership in place, Philly launched their first ever meter in September 2017. Nine months later they have 95,000 subscribers who pay either for digital only or for digital access on top of print.

Local journalism is not dead. Indeed, citizens and enterprises that serve them depend on—and have clear demand for—local journalism that simply will never be offered by mega-players such as Facebook and Google. This means there is a path to sustainability. It takes a lot of hard work to embrace—and a maniacal focus on audience. But it surely beats surrendering to defeatism.

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Douglas K. Smith is the architect and founding director of The Sulzberger Program as well as co-founder and architect of the table stakes programs, and co-author of Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News plus several other books.