What will it take to build a sustainable model for local news?

Five media organizations we’re learning from.

At The Discourse we’ve been focused on what it’s going to take to build a sustainable model for in-depth local news. We’re learning a lot by closely watching experiments happening south of the border.

Here are five lessons we’re taking from news outlets that offer us both hope for the future and cautionary tales.

Lesson 1: Content is queen

The Athletic, focused on “smarter sports coverage for die-hard fans,” has broken 500,000 paid digital subscribers. It’s profitable in all but only a couple of its 50 markets. How has it done this? By hiring up great sports reporters and editors who really know their teams and communities. 

Lesson 2: Great content alone isn’t enough

As journalists turned entrepreneurs, it’s easy to think if we just produce the best possible content, of course we will be successful. But producing impactful journalism about issues that matter is not a business plan.

A lot of outlets producing great work have had to scale back or close entirely. In this recent post, Jodi Jacobson of Rewire News, a non-profit outlet focused on issues like reproductive and sexual health, talks about painful cuts at their organization. They rely on foundation funding and simply can’t find a way to bring in enough of it for the work that they want to do. “No matter how valuable or how important an issue or a body of work may be, no matter how excellent a project, paying for it requires someone to give you money,” she writes.

Lesson 3: Build an audience and people will pay

So if you have great content, how do you build a successful business around that? First you have to build an audience. More and more journalism outlets are focusing on email newsletters to do just that. Outlets like Syracuse.com are succeeding in growing strong email newsletter followings. And most successful outlets will see between 5 and 10 per cent of email subscribers become paying readers, according to the just-released results from an earlier version of the Facebook Local News Accelerator. Syracuse produced big results: 300 per cent growth in just nine months. 

Lesson 4: Getting paying readers in the door isn’t enough

Take the L.A. Times. Despite great content (and a Pulitzer this year) they’ve had disappointing results when it comes to their subscribers. Poynter obtained a memo sent to Times staff which explained that though the paper added 52,000 digital subscriptions there were “significant cancellations during the same stretch.” These cancellations left the Times with a net increase of only 13,000. Results like this show that it’s not just about getting people in the door, it’s about continuously providing value to your audience and communicating that value to them. 

Lesson 5: Being valuable to people doesn’t mean taking up all their time

Local news outlets need to figure out how to be part of people’s daily habits in a way that genuinely provides value. But we need to figure it out for the digital age — because more and more print newspapers are closing down. every day. “One of the biggest challenges in digital news is replicating a print-newspaper level of customer loyalty by getting more visitors to adopt a daily digital habit,” writes Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative. But having a lot of touch points with people doesn’t mean sharing one long article after the next. “You don’t have to read this whole story if you’re tracking this issue of Trump and whatever—here’s what’s new about it in two sentences.” 

We’re still figuring out how to apply all of these lessons to The Discourse. Right now we are doubling down in Cowichan for the summer, in our quest for sustainability. We’ll have updates to share about Urban Nation and Scarborough before the end of the summer. [end]

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