warning KDMC resources are archived here. We are no longer updating this site.


Thinking about the future of local news? Start by setting Patch's troubles aside

by: Janet Coats |

Sometimes it seems that the entire conversation about local and community news for the last five years has been framed with Patch in mind. I guess it is only appropriate with Patch’s dying gasps, local news is back at the forefront of conversation about the future of news.

Steve Waldman discussed Patch’s failure directly in a thought-provoking post asking why local innovation struggles for funding while national journalism has become an investor sweetheart.  And the nugget in Marc Andreessen’s tweets about media business models that the “problem with local news is most people don’t care” has launched a thousand Storifies (ok, well, at least a half dozen).

Patch aside – and please, let’s set aside, because it really tells us very little about the challenges and rewards of community news – the conversation about the future of local couldn’t come at a better time. There are encouraging signs that independent local news is entering a new phase, and that funders are testing methods of funding that might more closely match both the need and the opportunity.

The interest in local, I think, is driven by the idea that it is such a tough nut to crack and that the reason is scale. Folks keep looking for “the model” that will help point the way forward.  I think what funders, The Knight Foundation most notably, are realizing and acting upon is that there is no model. Promising practices that can be shared, lessons that can be learned to help clear the way forward – sure. But there is no model.

We got lulled into the idea of a local news model by chain ownership of newspapers during the last 30 years of the 20th Century. But as a veteran of that particular battle, I can tell you that was never a local news model – it was a cash delivery system to corporate, focused rarely on what was in the best interest of local readers and advertisers and almost always on what was in the best interest of margin and ROI.

So setting aside the scale question is really just a return to local news models that did work in the pre-chain era – models built on the modest idea of serving particular communities from both a news and a market point of view, while providing a decent living to the publishers who provided that service.

In that spirit, the new micro-funding initiatives from Knight that focus on innovation give considerable reason for hope for two reasons: they aren’t looking for scale, and they are right-sized for the task.

The two programs – the INNovation Fund and the 2014 Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education – are built on the same chassis. The idea is to provide micro-grants of up to $35,000 that act as a spur to innovation. The INNovation Fund has its core the goal of helping build financial sustainability. The Challenge Fund includes the key element that the projects help not just students but create valuable local news coverage for the community beyond the classroom. There’s an engagement and community-building aspect to both programs that speaks to the true mission of local journalism.

The grants themselves are small – up to $35,000. That means it isn’t enough money to entice recipients into risky ventures that aren’t core to mission, but it is enough money to test that idea they’ve been just itching to try.  Providing enough funding to permit smart risk-taking and business development, while not so much that it is a disincentive to building a true sustainability path, is the key. 

These micro-grants are an effort worth watching because of their emphasis on sustainability, on innovation and on community building. That last aspect is key, because if there is any one truth about local news it is that it’s not something that can be defined from a corporate suite or even a news meeting. It requires knowing your audience, your community. 

True local journalism – the kind people do care about – is based on a relationship in which journalists listen and then respond.

Janet Coats

Janet Coats is a partner in Coats2Coats, a consulting firm she operates with her husband, Rusty. Coats2Coats works with clients
Read More

Newspapers under siege as 65 percent of digital ads go to tech companies

By Nancy Yoshihara
6/14/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

Newspaper revenues and circulation, print and digital combined, continued to decline in 2015 while both cable and network TV enjoyed...

The Diversity Style Guide: Important resource updated and expanded

By Nancy Yoshihara
6/5/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

Anyone who dismisses or ignores this guide should not be working in journalism. The updated Diversity Style Guide is one...