Your tax dollars at work

How local governments could help create new media companies rather than footing the bill to keep zombie newspapers alive


Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Over the last decade, waves of hyperlocal blogs and other digitally native local publications have come and gone. Who doesn’t remember the demise of a beloved site, from Chicago’s Windy Citizen to the snarky Fucked in Park Slope to the Catskills’s sweet Watershed Post?

Local publishers’ heroic trade group, LION Publishers: Local Independent Online News, boasts just over 150 members. Most of them are one- or two-person shops. There are a handful of projects a bit larger, with professional sales operations that bring in meaningful advertising revenue, including Spirited Media’s sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Denver; BKLYNER (which one of us runs), and Berkeleyside.

The one truly ambitious, venture-backed local project, Patch, is still kicking, but is mostly remembered for nine-figure losses that ensured no venture capitalist will ever touch local again.

 

There is probably no better place to hide a shady deal than the inside pages of a fading community newspaper.

 

Part of the explanation for the failure of local digital media is the same litany of woes faced by old media: a struggling display ad business; the complete dominance of Facebook and Google, which have absorbed most of the growth in digital ads; and the inherent difficulties in building the scale that powers many digital media businesses through deep coverage for a niche audience.

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But we would suggest there’s another uncomfortable and underreported reason for the struggles of new community news startups, as well as the survival of a kind of zombie community print press that soldiers on increasingly without an audience: the major, quiet subsidy to print community papers, which comes in two basic forms — legislation requiring that legal notices be published in print, and advertising by government agencies.

Local governments now face a pressing choice: As they move their communications online, they can bypass the fragile new local news outlets and go straight to Facebook and Google, which will distribute their content without hiring journalists (who are, after all, a nuisance to some public officials). Or they can realize that journalism is a public good, part of the fabric of a thriving community, but that it now exists largely online, and not in the legacy print publications that have long dominated.

One category of advertising, public notices, has long been a staple of newspaper revenue, jealously guarded by publishers’ lobbies in state capitols. Their trade group, the Public Notice Resource Center, has estimated that public notices make up between 5 percent and 10 percent of community newspaper revenue, according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission.

The original intent of the public notice laws is clear and laudable: To make sure taxpayers see how their money is being spent, and to prevent officials from hiding corrupt deals. But these days, there are print publications that exist, essentially, to carry those notices. Have you read the Brooklyn Eagle lately? It was a great paper in Walt Whitman’s day. But if you picked it up at the courthouse a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen three of its 12 pages entirely covered by government-mandated small print advertising. There is probably no better place to hide a shady deal than the inside pages of a fading community newspaper.

If you want to reach local residents, and alert them to something of civic interest, online community publishers, with their engaged audiences, can do this far better than their print counterparts—and provide fodder for search engines on the side.

Some local officials have begun to take note. In New York, state representative Nily Rozic is drafting legislation aimed at ensuring that government notices use online publishers, not just print. “State laws should reflect changing times,” she told us. “When posting notices about government or private sector activities, important information should expand its reach to local digital media, meeting readers where they are.”

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

A member of the New York City Council has also pushed to move legal notices online, but suggests the city host them directly, going around publishers and their engaged audiences.

Then there is straightforward advertising from city agencies—from health PSAs to school information. States and municipalities have always been among the biggest spenders in any local ad market. The state of Pennsylvania, one study suggests, may spend as much as $25 million on newspaper advertising alone. The state of Arizona spends about $1.4 million.

According to a study out of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, New York City spends about $18 million a year on its own advertising—enough to employ a couple hundred community journalists. But the city operates under a massive, long-term contract with two private firms, which control nearly all of its ad spending. The CUNY study found that the agencies almost totally passed over the city’s vibrant ethnic media in favor of collapsing print publications. A tiny fraction of that advertising goes to the digital publications where New Yorkers increasingly get their news.

There are obviously major concerns about the reliance on government advertising, and it frankly sounds like a terrible idea on a federal level. As the FCC recommended in 2011, “It would be imperative that policy makers come up with a system that would guarantee as much political neutrality as currently appears to exist.”

In these local markets, the government remains a massive advertiser, a tradition that has probably bought it goodwill through the years from print publishers. Now city governments face a choice: keep subsidizing fading print publications, or seek to reach a vibrant online audience in the new online media.

If states and cities continue to ignore their nascent digital publishers, their communities will continue to make do with what they have: a mishmash of Facebook and Yahoo groups, whose members often lack the time or training to hold officials accountable, and occasional features from a city-wide or national publication. You generally don’t run into New York Times reporters at community board meetings. The alternative is using government advertising budgets to reach an authentic audience, while restoring support for a classic public good.

Anyone who has read and loved a local site knows that this could be a golden age for community media—richer and more responsive than ever, faster to give voice to a community’s concerns. That will only happen if we, and our local governments, invest in it.

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Liena Zagare and Ben Smith are the authors of the article. Liena Zagare is the publisher of BKLYNer, a Brooklyn news site. She also founded Brooklyn news sites that were acquired by Patch in 2011, and then worked as Patch’s director of special projects. Ben Smith is the editor in chief of BuzzFeed. They are married.