How to Rebuild the Business of Local News

April 30, 2014

Marc Andreesen, an Internet pioneer and venture capitalist, tweeted in early February that he’s bullish on the growth of the news business in the next 20 years. “Will grow 10x-100x,” he wrote. However, when it comes to local news, Andreesen is a bear. “I think main problem with local news is most people don’t care. Sad but true,” he tweeted.

This perception was recounted last Thursday night by Merrill Brown, director of Montclair State University’s newly-created School of Communication and Media, before the start of the school’s first-ever conference devoted to local journalism. “I wanted to share Andreesen’s views because it reflects an attitude held not just by Marc Andreesen but other Internet professionals: that people have lost interest in their communities,” Brown said. “I don’t share that view and I feel that people are not only as interested in their communities as ever, but more so.”

And how. This was evidenced by the enthusiasm and passion of more than 200 journalists, publishers, technologists, media executives, academics and funders who came from as far away as Seattle for the event, called Innovating The Local News Ecosystem. Not only did the conference tackle the big picture of how local news is changing, and what it needs to do to survive, but panelists exchanged real-world, practical advice on subjects ranging from “Think Like a Technologist” to “Perfecting the Visual Narrative.”

“I found the conference enormously useful and thought-provoking,” said Pem McNerney of Madison, CT, a former Patch editor who is writing a book about indie journalists. “The fact is that most of us do journalism because we love it and we’re committed to the idea that the best journalism can provide our beloved communities with the news and information they need to be connected with each other and to make responsible decisions about self-governance.”

Jeff Jarvis leads a Town Hall on the future of local news. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University
Jeff Jarvis leads a Town Hall on the future of local news. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University

Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, credited hipsters for a nationwide resurgence in all things local. “Everything local is hot,” she said in an interview. “Local food, local craft. Why not local news too?”

Shackelford was one of more than 70 panelists. The line-up ranged from well-known success stories like Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA Today and founder of CBS MarketWatch, to altruistic 20-somethings like Charlie Kratovil, co-founder of New Brunswick Today.

“It is really inspiring to see these sites, and there were alot of independent sites,” said Wendy Warren, who traveled from Washington, D.C., where she runs the digital platform of an NBC-owned television station, WRC/News4.

“It was an interesting mix of new independent sites and some sites that had done this for some time,” said Warren. “And they taught each other. It was very cool.”

Ken Doctor talks to Tiffany Shackelford, with Chris Daggett watching. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University
Ken Doctor talks to Tiffany Shackelford, with Chris Daggett watching. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University

According to Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, conference chair and director of the Center of Cooperative Media, which resides in the School of Communication and Media, the two-day event was sold out. Journalists came from California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Florida and the District of Columbia — though mostly the Northeast.

“The participation in this conference shows the passion and commitment across this country for local news,” Roberts said. “The headlines about the turmoil in local journalism have not deterred the many local media executives and journalists who are determined to keep pressing forward in this area.”

The conference also highlighted the work of the NJ News Commons, an initiative that had its roots in a conversation three years ago between Chris Daggett, president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and his neighbor Jeff Jarvis, a new media pundit and professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Both were concerned with the State of New Jersey’s decision to divest itself of NJN, the state public television network, and by ongoing layoffs and buyouts at newspapers like the Star-Ledger.

But as Daggett spoke at the conclusion of the conference, however, he was optimistic.

Pem McNerney. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University

Pem McNerney. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University

The Dodge Foundation, along with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Montclair State University, have all invested in strengthening the news ecosystem in New Jersey since that long-ago conversation between Daggett and Jarvis. “For me, democracy starts with citizen engagement at the local level,” Daggett said. “In the last three-and-a-half years we’ve developed the foundation. Now is the time to take that foundation and blow the doors off it.”

Despite optimism, speakers spoke of the need for local news institutions to change. Eric Newton, senior vice president of the Knight Foundation, who delivered the conference keynote. Thursday night, said in an interview on Friday that while local news will is “going to be great,” it hasn’t gotten there yet. “Journalism doesn’t need to be saved as much as it needs to be invented,” Newton said. “The future’s great, but the inventions all haven’t come yet.”

One reform — getting news outlets to share both content and advertising — may seem counterintuitive in the competitive world of journalism. But it was a theme revisited over and over at the conference, and praised by Jarvis. “It’s clear in New Jersey we are ahead,” he said. “The next thing is to grow the ecosystem. We hope to make this a model for the country.”

(L to R) Merrill Brown, Tiffany Shackelford, Larry Kramer. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University.

(L to R) Merrill Brown, Tiffany Shackelford, Larry Kramer. Photo: Mike Peters/Montclair State University.

No one is going to get this done on their own,” said Rusty Coats, executive director of the Local Media Consortium, which includes nearly 40 media companies driving more than two billion page views and 10 billion advertising impressions per month.

Broadstreet Ads, an ad technology company based in New Jersey, has focused on serving hyperlocal news websites, and has just begun packaging ads — such as a recent one sold to Harrah’s casino — to run across a variety of small sites. Because Broadstreet’s customers can sell into each other’s sites, “We’re unlike other sales networks,” said Kenny Katzgrau, co-founder of Broadstreet.

On the content side, Debbie Galant, associate director of the NJ News Commons/Center for Cooperative Media, spoke of a story exchange, powered by, which she started and which now includes more than 30 New Jersey media outlets, who have shared more than 20,000 articles for 4.5 million impressions.

Said Kratovil, co-founder of New Brunswick Today: “My philosophy is that we are better served by working together.”

In a session on “The New Normal” in local journalism, USA Today’s Kramer characterized Gannett’s integration of national and local news a success. “It’s our relationship with our local properties that’s driving growth,” he said. “They’re truly engaged readers; they’re engaged because of the local product.”

Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, which recently decided to end its Project Thunderdome experiment, pointed to mobile as as something news organizations will need to embrace, both in terms of content and advertising. “The rise of mobile traffic, I think it’s going to be massive.”

Ken Doctor, who writes Newsonomics, agreed with Brady’s assessment in an interview. “We’re already seeing more than 50 percent of the traffic coming to news sites being mobile,” he said, predicting that, within the next few years, local news outlets will become “mobile aware” and learn how to “customize and personalize” news for their readers.

Hundreds of tweets flew back and forth throughout the conference, which was livestreamed, under the hashtag #innovatelocal. See more photos from the conference here, here and here.

The audience. Photo:Mike Peters/Montclair State University

The audience. Photo:Mike Peters/Montclair State University