Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Business Models for Local News

Many New Englanders were distressed to see the Boston Globe on the list of most endangered newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It’s a proud local institution, although it hasn’t been locally owned for a number of years. Other major urban areas share the angst of Bostonians, as their newspapers fail or are on the verge of failure. In an excellent article yesterday discussing issues across media types, Bob Garfield revised his “Chaos Scenario” description of the situation of mass media to “Apocalypse Now.” The mass media downturn of the past several years has been accelerated by the recession and has spurred the search for other models. Newspapers, in spite of their successful online operations, are especially threatened.

I wrote about one interesting experiment about a year and a half ago. BostonNow offered a hybrid print and online model that seemed to have promise. Unfortunately, its venture funding came from Iceland and it was one of the first casualties of the looming recession. Earlier this month Michael Learmonth described a number of local news experiments. All of those have one journalist assigned to the project but draw much of their news from local bloggers and journalism students. According to Learmonth’s article in Ad Age (subscription required) the New York Times has this type of local blog in suburbs including Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, New Jersey. Patch is a startup that has a series of local news blogs, also in New Jersey.

I've been watching the growth of online local news on Cape Cod. The traditional newspaper that covers the Cape is suffering along with its larger brethren. Gatehouse Media owns many of the local newspapers across Massachusetts. Their Wicked Local websites report on local news and have a heavy component of blogger content. Wicked Local Cape Cod Twitters each of its news items. I get the one from the Provincetown Banner on my Tweet Stream.

There’s another model here, one that is independent of print media. eCape is a series of online properties , with Cape Cod Today its local news site. CCT actively encourages people to create their own blogs on the site. I counted about thirty blogs on the active list (have posted in the last 7 days) and there are probably a hundred more that haven’t posted so recently. The editors do their Op-Ed columns on their own blog. Additional news items are submitted by local agencies and organizations.

My experience has been that it’s easy to start a blog on these sites. It’s less easy to integrate an existing blog into this type of site. BostonNow was trying to write a feed that would automate posting from outside blogs to their site, but to the best of my knowledge that never happened. Cape Cod Today makes it more straightforward, and maybe a little more controllable. If your blog lives on another platform, you have to repost to CCT.

Our wildlife center blog is celebrating its second-week anniversary on CCT today and we’re delighted with the visibility. They seem to like our content because we’re regularly making the home page, which is an editorial call, and being on the home page certainly affects visibility. (We're Wellfleet Audubon, down near the bottom. Posts move down and eventually drop the home page off as other posts are made. Each has it's own page where all its posts are displayed.) Our blog is a little over a year old and the content comes from naturalists, both staff and volunteer. Its primary aim is to keep in touch with our members. It has an average of just over 22 visitors per day although we can have spikes to 150+ when it is mentioned in our other publications or those of related organizations. On CCT our posts are generally getting 2-300 views, a total of 1.140 over the two weeks. For us, that’s a huge increase in visibility.

We also get comments on the CCT posts at a rate astronomically higher than we get on our own blog, so it’s an engaged audience. It’s local news, after all. These are things that affect us on a daily basis—we should be engaged! From the standpoint of the wildlife sanctuary it clearly says that we are reaching a new audience.

Does this represent the direction of local news? It seems to me that it is. Does that mean that the quality of local news is going to decline? Not necessarily. I see teachers, musicians, even a journalism professor in Boston writing blogs on CCT. Some people write about their area of professional expertise, some about their personal passions. Many of them write with skill and insight. And they are certainly close to their subject matter!

“Citizen journalism” has already changed the news forever; if you don’t believe me, watch a couple of hours of CNN or spend some time on their site. I hope that doesn’t mean that the profession of journalism will go into decline. We need the professionals. One future opportunity for them may be leading the march of the citizen journalists.

New business models like that of eCape are going to point the way!


positdesign said...

I think acquiring http://universalhub.com is probably the Globe's best bet for continued relevance.

MaryLou Roberts said...

Thanks--I wasn't aware of the name change and what they are currently doing. Looks like a similar model!