The related problems of declining relevancy of local news coverage, lack of effective civic engagement, and impediments to local economic development can be solved by rethinking the role of journalism and devising a new business model that recognizes economic value from citizen engagement.
Here are some symptoms of the problems:
- Local news coverage–for small to medium sized towns–is almost completely non-existent. It survives only through the personal efforts of a few remaining newspapers and hobbyist websites like my http://westwoodblog.org and other hyperlocal sites.
- Large media efforts to solve the local news problem have failed, most recently with AOL’s Patch.
- Town governments want to communicate with residents, but most web sites are inadequate. Nearly every public meeting, after YEARS of discussion, results in at least one resident who asks, “Why were we never told of this?” Residents are frustrated and suspicious and crave greater transparency. Towns attempt to provide this, but find it difficult to reach everyone.
- There is a perception that the economic development process–in the form of residential and commercial real estate development in small to medium sized towns–is fraught with “NIMBYism.” Small groups of vocal residents block some projects while others “slide under the radar.” Neither town planners nor residents are happy with the level of communication and quality of information being shared.
I believe that:
A well-informed and engaged citizenry is a vital component not only of governance, but also of economic growth. When residents know what is going on, they recognize the needs of the community and can appreciate the costs and benefits of proposals and will, collectively, make better choices. When this civic ecosystem is healthy, the community can grow in a way that benefits everyone.
Achieving a healthy civic ecosystem is a lofty and idealistic goal with great public value, but who will pay for that value? It used to be part of the mission of most independent local newspapers. Freedom of the press is the bedrock of democracy. But today there is no local press. The purpose of most newsprint publications is to deliver advertising to homes with some content to get people to turn past the first page. Web-based news organizations are driven by advertising placements, pop-up ads, and syndicated, hypersensational content.
For at least a decade, local news has struggled with the problem and failed. Local papers were consolidated. Reporters were spread out over multiple communities and paid subsistence wages. Local media was rolled into big regional websites. Whether it was Gatehouse Media or Patch, the basic idea was to use technology to minimize costs. For a time, Patch was able to throw money at putting good editors in charge of local sites, but ultimately the financial pressures prevailed. Advertising is no longer a sustainable business model for local news because the convertible leads are not worth the cost of paying an editor.
When my web site was popular, a number of residents suggested I charge a subscription fee. Perhaps some people would have paid $120/year to keep the Westwood Blog going? Unfortunately, that model is not sustainable for me. Part of what makes a local site effective is that the editor IS local. In order to really make my site work, I would need it to be a full time job. Did I mention I have three kids and own a house in Westwood? To quit my day job and run the blog full time…I believe I would need to gross at least $10,000 per month. Is there a way to make a blog that is relevant to perhaps 6,000 households worth that much? You can do the math and if you are very optimistic, you could perhaps believe some people would pay $10 a month. Would 1000 people sign up?
But wait a minute…this is not a fraction of the value of the service. It is not just a way for me to make some money. It solves problems that have proven intractable for big media companies and thousands of communities. The solution will be revolutionary and extensible to every small and medium-sized community. It’s not a side job.
I think the following principles could drive the development of a successful model:
1. Local news must be reported locally by people with a stake in the community. The local sites I envision are run by community “partners.” They are not just PR agents for towns, but stewards of information, helping facilitate discussion of issues. They are more “embedded” than reporters. These editors retain independence and strive for fairness of viewpoints, but they are not charged with holding government accountable. If they serve their role appropriately, the transparency they facilitate will allow traditional media and an active citizenry to perform the accountability function.
2. Advertising is not a component of the offering. Every other form of media provides ample opportunity for commercialization. A huge differentiation for this service is that it will never be beholden to advertising dollars. This is not just a goal, but a fundamental difference with some accountability tradeoffs. Distrustful residents and “traditional” journalists will question the independence of the editor and accuse the editor of trying to “sell” the town’s agenda. The editor will be under pressure to “spin” things in a favorable light for the town. The editor’s job IS in fact to promote ideas that help the town. The check on this bias will be in the online participation component below.
3. Free to all. There will be no subscription fees and no premium memberships. There will be no paywall. All content and participation shall be available for free to everyone. The mission is not to sell content but to make our communities stronger by informing and connecting all citizens.
4. These sites are funded through a partnership between business and government. Towns will pay for the service and develop a funding mechanism that includes contributions from business. The business model will be closer to community access television; where a user fee is collected and transferred to an independent entity to ensure independent funding but retain oversight of operations. An example would be to include a surcharge on all permit applications, in addition to a line item contribution from the town, plus a fundraising component undertaken by the local editor.
5. The model must “scale down.” In a town or small city of 50,000 people, there is no shortage of news. In a community of 5,000, it is not realistic to expect a site to have daily updates and advertising/subscriber models fail for lack of audience. But the model must still find a way to hire a full time editor. In smaller communities, the need is even greater, the problem solved even more valuable.
6. The model cannot depend on optimistic expectations of online citizen participation. The people who have the information that needs to be shared have not already done so and no amount of “ease of use” will change their behavior. We serve an uninformed and passive citizenry. If we achieve a somewhat informed and occassionally active citizenry, it will be a gamechanger. But the idea that everyone will start blogging and commenting intelligently on posts needs to be put in perspective. Simply reading articles is an action we can enable because we start from a paucity of news and information.
7. The check and balance on the role of the editor will be in the form of online citizen participation. This is the hardest component to manage because, since the inception of the internet, online “community” has been dominated by bad behavior from anonymous people. Closed community sites have some success, but in this model, we must find a way to keep the site open and allow anonymity.
So what might this idea look like in practice?
- There would be a technology and publishing platform that requires minimal maintenance and is configured for each community in an initial design phase. There is no magic bullet here; no secret sauce of community engagement, just a core functional offering with a clean, simple design and a focus on the workflow of the editor; to allow a single person to create and publish content without technical wizardry. There would be add-on components–e.g. mailing lists, video integration, social media integration, etc.
- There will be a well-defined process cookbook for communities to set up workflow.
- The editor will be a reasonably well-compensated position; e.g. $50-75K/year and typically a person with experience in business communications and management.
- The company that creates this offering will be a small startup consisting of a web development and infrastructure team and implementation experts. The web developers will use an open source platform like Drupal 7/8 to create the core offering. The implementation experts are more than just account managers; their job is to ensure the success of the editors by designing the best platform configuration and then assisting in the ongoing management of sites until they are up and running successfully.
- The medium-term business model for the company would be based on licensing fees. Every town site would pay a monthly fee to use the platform. Every engagement will include an initial design phase that breaks even in terms of implementation costs.
- The long-term business model is brand-equity and content-licensing. I am not sure exactly how this works yet, but as this idea develops traction, I believe it can disrupt and displace traditional media. If we can deliver on the promise of a well-informed and engaged citizenry, we can do anything.