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Local news entrepreneurs test new ways of engaging with their communities

by: Michele McLellan |

In local news, people looking for a magic model might do better by appreciating the mess.

Yes, it’s a messy news ecosystem out there. Unclear from day to day who is up and who is down. Unclear whether enough advertising and subscribers will migrate online to support traditional news organizations, which still do the lion’s share of local reporting. Unclear whether the feisty, independent  news start ups that area cropping up in towns and neighborhoods can develop into stable businesses.

But experimentation, messy as it is - is necessary part of the evolution in local news.

Eric Newton, Senior Advisor to the President at Knight Foundation, spoke to the issue during a recent talk: “The very idea of a model sounds to me like a very 20th Century mass media notion. What if in the 21st century the local news model is that there is no single model?”

Instead, Newton said at the opening of the Innovating Local News conference, we are in an era of customization and change. Something that works in one community may not work in another, or may not work in the same way.

For those of us who value experimentation, no magic model was evident in the crowd of 200 at Montclair State University, many of them publishers of local news start ups. Instead, publishers spoke of how they are testing ways to connect with community and grow revenue.

A common thread is the relationship the publishers have and seek to develop with their communities. Theirs is very much a ground-up approach, rather than the top-down model that Patch attempted. It also is starting to look very different from the relationships traditional news organizations have with their communities.

Watershed Post, which covers a five-county area in the rural Catskills region of New York, is a case in point. Editor and co-founder Lissa Harris said she and her partner, Julia Reischel, launched the site because they saw a need for information in their community.

“There are a couple of different ways to approach this,” Harris said. One way is to pick a community with an optimum chance of success - the right population size, a strong retail base, etc.

“But for us, it’s not ‘What community can I pick?’ It's ‘I have this community that I live in. How can I revive it?’ “ Harris said. “You have to ask what works for the community? What kind of news outlet does the community need? Do that and you will not end up in a Patch-like place.”

Other publishers also focused on the importance of the relationship with the community:

- Charlie Kratovil of New Brunswick Today said he hoped to apply his background in community organizing.

- Andaiye Taylor of Brick City Live in Newark said she’s been able to sell advertising because she’s selling to people who know her in the community.

- Mike Shapiro of The Alternative Press noted that he’s progressed from a templated model of multiple community sites to one in which resident owners are franchisees.

- Susan Mernit of Oakland Local noted that her organization has become increasingly involved in efforts to improve economic innovation in Oakland with projects like Hack the Hood and Live Work Oakland

Any of these models might appear fraught with risk to those with traditional journalism backgrounds. They would ask questions like: “Community organizing - isn’t that advocacy?” “Journalists selling advertising - isn’t that a conflict?” “How can you assure editorial quality with resident site owners who aren’t journalists?” “Does supporting economic improvement make you pro-business?”

What’s exciting about the new breed of independent start up publishers is that instead of turning away from these challenging questions and leaning on tradition, they are eager to find experiment - to find new answers and new ways to make journalism meaningful in their communities. Mess and all.

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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