Austin Beutner is the former Publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He was dismissed this month by the Times’ parent company, Tribune Publishing, in a management dispute. He served as first deputy mayor and jobs czar under L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and founded Vision to Learn, a nonprofit that provides free eyeglasses to children in low-income communities in California, Delaware, and Hawaii. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN)Veteran reporter Bob Schieffer was recently asked what he thought posed the greatest threat to the future of journalism. His answer, surprisingly, was not the hostage-taking of journalists by ISIS in Syria or the polarizing programming on Fox News or MSNBC, but the death of local journalism.
He said that, “unless some entity comes along and does what local newspapers have been doing all these years, we’re gonna have corruption at a level we’ve never experienced. … So many papers now can’t afford to have a beat reporter. … To cover city hall, you have to be there every day and … know the overall story, not just report what happens on a particular day.”
I agree. Without the beat reporters who know the ins-and-outs of the stories and communities they live in, local readers will lose important coverage. But I disagree when he says we need a new entity to come along to replace or centralize local papers. That view overlooks the broader role that local papers now play in connecting their hometown communities to the world around them.
In California, for example, Dodgers fans don’t only live in Los Angeles. Diners in Santa Monica restaurants, shoppers in stores on Rodeo Drive, concertgoers at Staples Center and home buyers in San Marino aren’t all local residents; many of them are tourists from China and elsewhere in the world. And, for every Angeleno interested in national education policy, there’s someone elsewhere in the nation who wants to know what is actually happening at schools in L.A.
Interest in the stories of Los Angeles and California extends far beyond the physical boundaries of our community. And, the interests of those who live within those physical boundaries extend beyond the stories of Los Angeles and California.
We exist in interest communities just as much as we exist in our geographic communities — our newspapers should too.
People now curate their own virtual publication from a variety sources. But, we have lost something of the newspaper experience along the way: Stories no longer find us. An average newspaper reader spends about a half-hour with a print paper. They open it for baseball scores, or analysis on the presidential debates — and they find it. They also find a wonderful story about Mark Bradford, an artist in their community, or a hard-hitting piece on corruption in Bell, a city in Los Angeles County. There’s a serendipity to print journalism that has not been replicated online.
Online, an average reader spends less than 10 minutes with any one source and they read fewer stories. If they read a story about the drought in California they can be directed to another story about the drought in California. But if they want variety they’ll have to look for it; it won’t come to them as easily. A reader can’t search for “expand my world” or “an interesting story to talk about at dinner.” The online experience doesn’t yet serve the reader — or the advertiser — as well as it could.
As Bob Schieffer noted, the need for local journalism has never been called into question. But these papers have to adapt to this new reality and change, rather dramatically, how they do business.
Cost-cutting alone is not a path to survival in the face of continued declines in print revenue and fierce competition in the digital world. New sources of revenue will have to be developed and no single one will be the answer.
Newspapers must recognize that their strength lies in high-quality content developed by world-class journalists who have the tools they need to be successful. Successful digital media organizations will have fewer managers and corporate executives, and choose instead to invest in journalists and technologists.
If local papers unbundle their coverage, they can extend beyond their physical community to countless virtual communities and find a new way to succeed. My vision for the future of my hometown paper was one where our stories were read in Los Angeles and around the world, on every platform, by anyone who had an interest.
It’s a vision that involves taking calculated business risks, not with the quality of the journalism, but with everything else. It’s a vision that requires patience and investment to build these new revenue streams. That could mean publishing restaurant reviews in Mandarin or finding new platforms for distribution.
When the Los Angeles Times covered the Mayweather-Pacquaio fight, we created a guide titled “The Fight of the Century,” and published it on Flipboard in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. It was viewed by a million people around the world — many times the Times’ website viewership on the fight.
When we started building our digital house, we knew the foundation needed to be the story of the community in which we lived. We created Essential California, an email newsletter to share the pulse of California. We gained nearly 100,000 subscribers in just a few months. We built newsletters for other communities of interest, including restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and food, political editor Christina Bellantoni and California politics, and many others.
The high percentage of subscribers who read these newsletters each day showed we were meeting the changing needs of our readers. Equally important, we showed the business model could work — creating a high-value, targeted community advertisers could reach with more than just banner ads.
Using the convening power a local paper holds, we produced events for our community. In our conversation about the drought, Gov. Jerry Brown had a platform to answer questions with more than a 20-second soundbite, our most engaged subscribers got to witness history, our sponsors invested in a connection with the audience, a TV audience of 1 million households across California learned about a complicated policy issue, and the Times created content for print and the web which was read by more than 1.5 million customers.
Quality journalism must be at the heart of any local paper. Owning the conversation in Los Angeles about issues in our community and how it connects to the rest of the world started a virtuous circle. As we began to re-engage the community, the community began to re-engage with the Times — as subscribers and advertisers.
For a newspaper to regain its business standing, it has to regain its community. Smarter and deeper journalism combined with community involvement will lead to new revenue streams.
That is the future of local journalism — high-quality journalism that engages the community, reaches interested readers everywhere, and generates the revenue to support the enterprise.
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Village Soup’s hot pursuit of a hyperlocal model goes cold
The Maine online/print hybrid was acclaimed for its revenue model and a Knight News Challenge winner, but in the end, it couldn’t keep the doors open.
By Adrienne LaFrance @adriennelaf March 13, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
It wasn’t that long ago that Maine’s Village Soup was being lauded as a model for what a print/online hybrid strategy for local journalism could look like. That optimism took a big hit late Friday with the abrupt closure of Village NetMedia’s newspapers and their related websites.
Fifty-six Village Soup staffers got word on Friday evening, via email, that the Bar Harbor Times, Capital Weekly, Village Soup Gazette, Village Soup Journal and the Scene would immediately cease operations. The papers’ websites had been taken down and replaced with a message from Village Soup owner Richard M. Anderson about how “profound changes in the newspaper publishing business, a weak economy and our investment in new products created severe financial challenges” that made survival impossible. Employees were told that a deal that could have saved the papers — some of which were launched in the 1820s — had unraveled.
“[Anderson] got the word at the close of banking hours on Friday that this negotiation was not going to proceed, and I imagine he probably spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out how to tell us,” Shlomit Auciello, a former reporter and photographer for Village Soup Gazette, told me. “We are a little bit of a petri dish here right now.”
Anderson didn’t respond to my attempts at an interview. (His blog, Sustainable Journalism, was last updated in September.) But yesterday the Bangor Daily News found Anderson and quoted him saying he felt awful about the closure, adding, “Nobody did anything wrong.”
In the latter part of the last decade, he was a frequent speaker at future-of-news conferences, promoting the Village Soup model, which relied on getting local advertisers to pay for the right to post press releases and other messages alongside news content, along with a heavy focus on aggregating citizen content. Village Soup’s peak moment probably came in 2007, when it received a $885,000 Knight News Challenge grant to create an open source version of Village Soup’s underlying software.
Anderson began his experiment in local news in the late 1990s, when he launched a website that would eventually become VillageSoup.com. The idea was to facilitate online interaction between members of the community, including giving advertisers a way to interact directly with potential customers. Here’s how Anderson explained it in a 2007 piece for Nieman Reports:
If we didn’t get their buy-in and support, we knew we wouldn’t have a sustainable way to share news and information for people who live in these places. So we created browser-based tools to help the business people answer simple, frequently asked questions, such as: What are your specials today? What waterfront property is on the market? What are your business hours? Are you available?
Gary Kebbel, now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, was Knight’s journalism program director at the time of its grant. He says Anderson was way ahead of his time even in 2007. “In terms of the development of online community and social media, 2007 is like 1990. It was just so long ago,” Kebbel said. “The grant was made based on the fact that Village Soup had a business model that we hadn’t seen anybody else have.”
It was a time when “hyperlocal was sort of the ‘in’ word,” he said. “They were very local and close to their community, so we thought they would also have particular expertise in advertising. That’s still the Holy Grail that has not been found: How do online news sites get community advertisers?”
Anderson’s model also involved taking advantage of print. First, that meant creating two print newspapers to republish some of the material produced by Village Soup websites in Maine. Then, in 2008, he purchased six struggling weekly newspapers in the region to put more of the ad market under one roof. As he told CJR in 2010: “Print plays a very important role. It does something for advertisers that online will never do. And print does something for readers that is going to be hard for online to ever do.” Whatever the motive, the timing was terrible, buying flailing weeklies on the eve of the recession. But at least one Maine journalist, Down East magazine’s Al Diamon, has doubts there was ever much of a business there: “In retrospect, Anderson’s ever-changing vision of what he wanted to accomplish never coalesced into a viable business plan. Managing by mercurial changes rarely results in progress, no matter what the economy looks like.”
Kebbel says he’s not sure whether anyone actually used the open source software that Village Soup produced with the grant money. (It was last updated in 2009; the most recent release has been downloaded less than 200 times.) But Kebbel praised the company for finding an additional revenue stream by also offering a premium iteration of the platform. A Village Soup website lists nine sites that use the premium service. The publisher of one such site, Delaware’s Cape Gazette, says the “folks at Village Soup” had assured him that the service would continue, even with the closure of the Maine newspapers. “My understanding is that it’s not going to affect the outlets that are using the Village Soup platform,” Dennis Forney said. “They tell me that I shouldn’t worry about our platform, and so far I’m taking it at face value.”
Filling the news hole
In the statement he posted online, Anderson says he’s “confident that others will step forward” to fill that void that Village Soup leaves behind in Maine. And it appears that’s already started to happen.
Nathan Greenleaf, the owner of a Maine-based commercial refrigeration company, launched a website called Pen Bay Today on Sunday as a way to help the community “move forward” post-Soup. He says the site has had more than 14,000 hits since it went live (and is quoting Shakespeare to rally support). Greenleaf told me he’s willing to invest about $35,000 in the project, but that his understanding of journalism comes primarily from “noir books and movies.” He’s hoping to find reporters who will “work for nothing” at first.
And it appears the president of another Midcoast Maine weekly newspaper will purchase Village NetMedia’s assets and revive most of them. Reade Brower, founder and president of The Free Press, has signed a letter of intent and tells the Bangor Daily News he plans to revive two of the newspapers as soon as next week, closing the others.