Community news organizations, whether newspapers or websites, traditionally have one-sided relationships with their readers. Reporters go out, write the stories they feel are important to the community they serve and hope their readers will enjoy, appreciate and somehow benefit from their work.
Josh Stearns and Molly de Aguiar of Local News Lab, an initiative of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, embarked on an 18-month project to find out ways to not just help newsrooms better engage with their communities but find new economic opportunities to keep themselves afloat.
They wanted to “see what sustainability looks like for local journalism,” de Aguiar said. “This report takes a deep dive …on revenue streams and community engagement, documenting all the business experimentation we’ve done and the community engagement projects we’re piloting.”
The work focused on six newsrooms in the New Jersey-New York City area, ranging from a one-person hyper local news website from a former reporter for the Star-Ledger newspaper and a husband and wife team with video and filmmaking experience in Brooklyn to a site focused on watchdog accountability reporting that publishes online in addition to a bimonthly newspaper in Spanish and English and an online community for news created by a fourth-generation Newark resident who returned to serve her hometown after graduating from the journalism schools at Columbia University and the City University of New York.
Among the lessons learned: There’s still money to be found in traditional advertising for online or print newsrooms focused on the communities they cover.
One key opportunity is to take a step back and look at the skills in a given newsroom and find new ways to utilize them, Sterns said. One organization is capitalizing on video skills and creating a new revenue stream.
In another newsroom, Brick City Live, creator Andaiye Taylor worked with the local Small Business Administration Office to host trainings on digital marketing.
“People were paying to take trainings from her on how to do digital marketing, how to take advantage of the tools she was using for journalistic purposes, in terms of getting her content out there, but helping them reach their audience too. At one point, that would’ve been seen as undercutting your own advertising revenue … but in this case, the local news site becomes a service provider, not just to the community but local small businesses. It helps build trust and engender a sense of connection across all audiences.”
And speaking of breaking with tradition, de Aguiar hopes newsrooms will become more open to the idea of co-creating content with readers.
“Journalism first ought to understand the issues and information a community cares about by inviting people in from the beginning,” she said. Readers get annoyed at the way news is presented, focusing only on death and crime. “We believe that there’s a real missed opportunity in a lot of newsrooms to understand what people want first and then deliver that to them.”
In this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, producer Michael O’Connell talks to Molly de Aguilar, the program director for media and communications, and Josh Sterns, the director of journalism sustainability, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. They discuss a newly-released report about their 18 months at the foundation’s Local News Lab, an initiative exploring new ways for local news outlets to engage with their readers and identify new streams of sustaining revenue.