Three emerging approaches to local journalism

It’s no longer quite right to say journalism as a whole is imperiled by the internet-age. In the last decade, powerhouse national outlets have made the business model leaps. Other important and influential national and global organizations gather and produce valuable information for the civic good. Their concerns are now with truth and partisanship and objectivity. These are heady issues but they’re not directly revenue problems.

This is different from publishers with a geographic focus; previous business models don’t comport simply with web-powered scale. Local journalism is very much in crisis. I know this personally and professionally, so I follow trends closely with an applied viewpoint

I’ve long thought that we at the news organization I cofounded a decade ago are something of an outlier, trying to approach local reporting through a for-profit, multi-local strategy. (I wrote here about why Technically Media is not a nonprofit). Recently though I’ve noticed that we may fit into one of three broad approaches I see tackling local news.

This is made clear by the strengthening of the country’s superstar national commercial journalism providers as the collapse of the dominant local forms continues apace. Web-powered scale has laid bare that national and local outlets are in entirely different categories. 

This, of course, is simply one framework that I’ve created to understand what’s happening in the moment. Of course it’s an over simplification. Of course, I’m seeking feedback to see if others track my thinking.

In short, I believe you could group the approaches I see emerging to produce something resembling reliable, verified local journalism in the web age into three rough groups:

CategoryInvestigative NonprofitsTown Square SitesLocal Niche Communities
Big Question they answerHow can deep, public affairs information be gathered?How can a local community maintain a common set of facts?How can smaller local newsrooms have deep technical expertise?
Common Revenue ModelsIndividual Donors; Membership; PhilanthropyMembership; Subscriptions; Advertising, Events, AdvertisingSubscriptions; Advertising; Events Data Insights; Business Services
Common Tax StatusNonprofitNonprofit; For ProfitFor Profit; Nonprofit
Prominent ExamplesVoice of San Diego; PublicSource; Baltimore Brew; Honolulu Civil BeatVTDigger; Berkleyside; Daily Memphian; Charlotte Agenda; Lookout Local; BoiseDevEthnic and hyperlocal media; Athletic; Curbed (Vox); Chalkbeat; Technical.ly; Generocity.org

They each position different central question as their top priority.

The first takes on the question of local investigative and public affairs  journalism and intends to fill it. These examples, including Voice of San Diego, Pittsburgh’s PublicSource, Baltimore Brew and Honolulu Civil Beat, are almost exclusively nonprofits, largely supported by a mix of memberships and philanthropy. Though I concede it could be its own category, I think of collaborative local organizations like Resolve Philly in this category, insofar that the acts of journalism they produce have an eye toward a wide-range of public affairs.

A second aims to confront the town square problem. These examples — like VTDigger; Daily Memphian; MinnPost; Charlotte Agenda and the prominent new forthcoming example Lookout Local in San Jose — mix in familiar journalism with other means for forming a local audience, familiar to veterans of the general interest newspaper model. Many are nonprofits, though several are for profits, and mostly the successful ones have revenue mixes ranging from native advertising, subscriptions and events, many with philanthropic and individual donation support too.

A third category prioritizes deep expertise in niche matters that other newsrooms might be unable to maintain. I think of this category being those community identities we hold in addition to a regional one. Classic examples would be many ethnic and hyperlocal media (though certainly depending on population size, some bleed into town square models). In addition to ethnic and neighborhood media, this includes vertical or topical-specificity inside a geography. Those include Athletic, Curbed, Chalkbeat and what we are doing with Technically Media, including both our Technical.ly and Generocity.org brands. Each of these have different revenue models and product investments made possible by centralizing investments across multiple local niche communities.