100 days and a lesson: There IS a business model for local news

Posted on January 26, 2012 by Janet Coats

I’ve heard it over and over and over again: There’s no financial model for intensely local news.

The group of 12 independent community news publishers we’ve been working with at The Patterson Foundation are demonstrating just how untrue that particular little truism is. And I want to say that it has been nothing short of thrilling to watch these publishers succeed.

Let me back up a step and bring the rest of you up to speed.

More than a year ago, after The Patterson Foundation had enabled the first Block by Block Community News Summit, I began thinking about how we could make a difference when it came to financial sustainability.

After all, no other topic had drawn as much impassioned conversation at Block by Block. It was clear that this was a network of publishers who had strong journalism skills and a deep understanding of the communities they wanted to serve.

What they lacked was a stable, reliable financial footing. And the message they were getting was that no such footing existed for publishers who wanted to provide intensely local coverage.

Offered as proof were the spectacular failures of past “hyperlocal’’ models and bemusement at the business model of Patch, the latest entrant into the field from AOL. The problem with all of those models – from Microsoft’s Sidewalk right up to AOL’s current approach – is that they aren’t really local, especially from a business standpoint. They are business networks, built around the idea that you can scale local markets by aggregating lots of them and then selling national advertisers into them.

That’s a bit of a simplification, but you get the gist. What if, I wondered, instead of saying there is no financial model for local, we looked at the very real value local publishers are creating and focused on helping them to unlock that value from a financial perspective.

After several months of thinking and lots of and lots of listening to how local publishers described their business challenges, we set out to begin responding to what we’d heard.

The result was a partnership with Vikki Porter and Knight Digital Media Center to put together what we called “Super Camp,’’ an effort to help improve financial performance among a group of local publishers while also testing what we’d been learning about the needs of that community.

Here’s how Super Camp has worked: We brought together 12 community news publishers, folks who had been at it for at least a couple of years, who had developed strong content models and had at least a basic business plan in place. Our program designer, Rusty Coats, walked these publishers through four days of intensive work to refine their business plan and then design a 100-day implementation plan intended to begin making a difference in their financial performance.

But some of the feedback we’d heard before was that training programs like this aren’t enough; the follow-through is what matters. So we provided each of the publishers with a business coach. These coaches began their work at Super Camp, helping the publishers develop their 100-day plans, and then stayed close during the implementation phase, providing feedback and suggestions for resources and tools.

The coaches also provided both perspective and support. They had enough familiarity with the publishers’ business to provide relevant feedback, but enough distance to provide dispassionate analysis of what was working and what wasn’t.

The 100 days just ended, and we brought all the publishers and coaches back together to talk about how they’ve done.

What I heard was that the results have exceeded our hopes. There has been real, concrete, measurable improvement in financial results for most of the publishers. They have made fundamental changes in how they approach the business aspect of the sites, changes that can make a difference over the long term.

Beyond that, they are just more confident that they have what it takes to make this work.

The publishers used words like “transformative.’’ In a sentiment that was echoed over and over again, one publisher said, “This was the experience that turned the light bulb on.’’

I don’t say any of this to pat us on the back for this program. I say it to make this point: There is a financial model for intensely local news. It doesn’t take some secret recipe to create it. But it does take coaching, collaboration and follow-up to help get there.

We’re so encouraged by what we’ve seen happen with this inspirational group of publishers. Now we’re thinking about how to apply what we’ve learned, and that’s what I’ll be writing about here during the next week.

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