I’m a sports fan and media nut from Silicon Valley and I have some thoughts to share about local journalism.
Episode 233 of the “This Old Marketing” podcast is titled “Can Media Companies Survive Coronavirus?” Friends Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose (“PNR”) discussed a BuzzFeed News article titled “The Coronavirus Is A Media Extinction Event.”
While the title paints a broad brush (“Media Extinction”), the article and PNR’s discussion center around local newspapers. Robert notes that local newspapers had fundamental business challenges well before the pandemic. Robert says, “I’m hopeful that local news gets picked up by other funding models.”
That’s what I’ll focus on in this post — how local newspapers might pivot.
Keep the news, ditch the paper
Local newspapers should move 100% online and monetize their audience via subscriptions. Yes, ditch the entire print operation and ditch the sale of advertising.
This could be a challenging move, since print and advertising were the building blocks of the company from the very beginning. It may require layoffs — or at minimum, lots of people to take on new roles.
We’d have to stop calling them “local newspapers” and call them “local media companies.”
From now on, you’re no longer selling to local businesses (e.g., advertisers). You’re selling to all content consumers in your region — and to global consumers who have an interest in your region (e.g. expatriates).
It pains me to say it, but you’ll need to write off a segment of your audience: the Baby Boomers and Gen X who prefer the printed paper delivered to their driveways. While a percentage of this base will opt for the digital subscription, your focus is now on millennials and Gen Z.
Find a local benefactor
One could argue that when Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post, he turned around that company’s fortunes.
Here in Silicon Valley, there’s a large collection of wealthy tech founders and venture capitalists.
There’s a chicken-and-egg problem with successful media companies: you need to hire staff to attract an audience. In the first several years, you’re probably running the business at a loss. Maybe you want to trim costs a bit, so you let a few journalists go. But then your audience leaves, too.
A wealthy benefactor could turn this tightrope into a wide alley. They invest millions of dollars into the business and pay journalists the salaries they deserve. No one worries about making payroll. Like Bezos, it’s best if the benefactor steps aside and lets the publishers and journalists run the operation.
Be the leading voice in each (local) category
Sports, politics, business, technology, etc. Be the leading voice on these categories for your local market.
In the Bay Area, I used to read the local newspapers for coverage of the Golden State Warriors and San Jose Sharks.
The Warriors and Sharks sportswriters that I read? They were hired away by The Athletic. I signed up for an annual subscription to The Athletic.
It’s great. For a single price, I get access to all of the markets they cover. I can also read about two New York teams I root for, the Yankees and Giants (I grew up in New York).
I still have a paid digital subscription to The Mercury News. I read their reporters’ coverage of the Warriors and Sharks, but it’s tough to keep up with the roster of writers covering these teams at The Athletic.
If you follow sports, you might be familiar with Adam Schefter, who covers the NFL for ESPN, or Woj, who covers the NBA for ESPN.
A local media company needs to find their “Woj” for the Warriors, their “Schefter” for the Sharks and comparable experts for the Giants, A’s and 49ers.
Reporters for the same teams at The Athletic will put up a good fight, but beat them at their game and Bay Area fans will pay for subscriptions.
Similarly, find the “Woj” for Silicon Valley companies, who provides breaking news and investigative stories about Google, Facebook, Tesla and Apple. Beat the national publications to stories happening right here in your backyard.
Subscribers will pay for it.
Laser focus on Gen Z
I’m no expert in Gen Z, but my daughter is part of this generation. She and her peers seem inclined to pay for subscriptions to Spotify and Netflix, but less so to content sites. The primary goal of local media companies should be to drive subscriptions from Gen Z.
During Democratic presidential primary season, my daughter saw The Washington Post produce humorous TikTok videos featuring the candidates. She found them hilarious and would come show them to me.
Here’s a serious suggestion:
Hire seasoned TikTok performers as full-time employees. Generate TikTok videos to connect with Gen Z.
The idea is to build a brand using members of your target audience to reach your target audience. Build a large enough following and some will convert to paid subscribers. The model is similar to how The New York Times’ “Daily” podcast drives subscription sales.
I hate to see local newspapers go out of business. The reality, though, is that a shift away from print and advertising may be the only way they survive. I’ll close with a related thought: perhaps local journalism will emerge from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
Here’s what I mean:
Individuals who have deep or “insider” knowledge of a topic (e.g., a Warriors fanatic who can analyze NBA Draft picks or break down the real reason the team lost last night). They’ll use subscription platforms like Patreon or Substack to build a paid audience (e.g., $5 a month). Get enough of these domain experts with paying customers and perhaps that’s your “new local journalism.”
I’d love to hear from you. What do you think?