If you’ve been thinking about launching a local news site, there’s never been a better time. Tools, resources and business opportunities for ground-up ventures are proliferating, even as need for community news and information becomes more acute.
Innovation is coming from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, in line with Clay Shirky’s 2008 prediction that “for the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases.” Meanwhile, hedge funds continue to acquire struggling legacy newspaper groups, typically followed by cost-cutting that desiccates once-fertile news environments.
In the for-profit sector, Axios snapped up The Charlotte Agenda, and put its founder, Ted Williams, in charge of its local network that now includes four other cities. Williams’ distribution strategy was simple – a newsletter and Instagram account – and advertisers followed. (Jim VandeHei, founder and CEO of Axios, spoke about the opportunity for local news on #KnightLive April 29).
In Santa Cruz, media business analyst Ken Doctor has launched an ambitious local news site, Lookout, incorporated as a for-profit, public benefit corporation.
The most action, though, is around the humble newsletter. A number of elite writers have found a way to make a living from individual subscriptions. It remains to be seen whether this approach can scale, but a number of companies are investing to find out.
- Substack launched an $1 million initiative to help up to 30 independent writers build local news publications on the Substack newsletter platform. After the first year, they will be expected to make it on subscription revenue.
- Facebook, after years of resisting letting anyone else earn revenue from content, said it would start testing a platform that allows independent writers to build and monetize websites and newsletters.
- Letterhead, a newsletter platform, was launched by a group of local news entrepreneurs. Another newsletter company, 6am city, deployed in six southern US cities with plans to expand.
- Patch, the perennial hyperlocal news site, built new software that allows local reporters to publish their own websites and newsletters.
The nonprofit sector may be even more exciting, and no document captures the moment more completely than the Google News Initiative Startups Playbook, created in partnership with LION Publishers and a host of other Knight Foundation grantees that are pioneering the future of local news.
The Playbook breaks down the steps and pitfalls to starting a local news operation, with case studies and actionable advice. It builds on guides by sector leaders such as the Institute for Nonprofit News. It does not just apply to a city-wide news operation – it’s a playbook that civic leaders can deploy to bring news to their specific communities.
Platforms that are generating excitement include Tiny News Collective and Newspack for WordPress, which are designed to support great journalism, build audience and generate revenue. Meanwhile, the philanthropy-funded American Journalism Project is scanning the field for emerging leaders and promising startups, and help them strengthen their business operations.
Place-based and national philanthropies are an important force. They are investing in local news, because they recognize that news and information allow people to coalesce around goals and move them forward – and that the absence of trusted news and information holds back all the programs they support. (Knight Foundation developed a tool to help local funders assess their local news ecosystems).
Lines between for-profit and nonprofit news are blurring, as newspapers recognize they can form nonprofit arms to fundraise for specific areas of coverage, and nonprofits become adept at generating revenue to support their newsgathering. That’s good for news entrepreneurs, the communities they inform and engage, and ultimately for democracy.
Andrew Sherry is vice president for communications at Knight Foundation.
It takes a village to build an informed community. Here are resources for individual and institutional funders, community leaders, journalists and social entrepreneurs to build a sustainable future for local news.
Media organizations around the world face a crisis in building sustainable business models and building audiences. Nonprofit news ventures in the public interest are on the rise, often filling the gaps left by traditional news organizations with diminished resources. At Knight Foundation, we explore how local journalism is changing in a globally connected world, supporting new approaches and models that help meet the information needs of communities.
EPISODE 22: THRIVING OR SURVIVING: HOW LOCAL JOURNALISM IS HOLDING UP IN 2021 (THURSDAY, APRIL 29 AT 1:00 PM ET) Businesses across the world are changing their models because of the pandemic. How are local for-profit newsrooms shifting with the times? On Episode 21 of “Informed and Engaged,” Knight Foundation’s Paul Cheung will speak with […]
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