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What Will It Take To Build A Sustainable Model For Local News?

Aug 4, 2019 | Letters to Editor, News | 1 comment

Hi Catherine

Since sharing this news last month, we’ve been focused on what it’s going to take to build a sustainable model for in-depth journalism. We’ve learned a lot by closely watching experiments happening south of the border.

Here are five lessons we’re taking from news outlets that offer us both hope for the future and cautionary tales.

Lesson 1: Content is queen

The Athletic, focused on “smarter sports coverage for die-hard fans,” has broken 500,000 paid digital subscribers, and is profitable in all but only a couple of its 50 markets. How has it done this? By hiring up great sports reporters and editors who really know their teams and communities. 

Lesson 2: Great content alone isn’t enough

As journalists turned entrepreneurs, it’s easy to think if we just produce the best possible content, of course we will be successful. But producing impactful journalism about issues that matter is not a business plan.

A lot of outlets producing great work have had to scale back or close entirely. In this recent post, Jodi Jacobson of Rewire News, a non-profit outlet focused on issues like reproductive and sexual health, talks about painful cuts at their organization. They rely on foundation funding and simply can’t find a way to bring in enough of it for the work that they want to do. “No matter how valuable or how important an issue or a body of work may be, no matter how excellent a project, paying for it requires someone to give you money,” she writes. 

Lesson 3: Build an audience and people will pay

So if you have great content, how do you build a successful business around that? First you have to build an audience. More and more journalism outlets are focusing on email newsletters to do just that. Outlets like Syracruse.com are succeeding in growing strong email newsletter followings, and most successful outlets will see between 5 and 10 per cent of email subscribers become paying readers, according to the just-released resultsfrom an earlier version of the Facebook Local News Accelerator. Syracruse produced big results: 300 per cent growth in just nine months. 

Lesson 4: Getting paying readers in the door isn’t enough

Take the L.A. Times. Despite great content (and a Pulitzer this year), they’ve had disappointing results when it comes to their subscribers. Poynter obtained a memo sent to Times staff which explained that though the paper added 52,000 digital subscriptions there were “significant cancellations during the same stretch.” These cancellations left the Times with a net increase of only 13,000. Results like this show that it’s not just about getting people in the door, it’s about continuously providing value to your audience and communicating that value to them.

Lesson 5: Being valuable to people doesn’t mean taking up all their time

Local news outlets need to figure out how to be part of people’s daily habits in a way that genuinely provides value. But we need to figure it out for the digital age — because more and more print newspapers are closing down, every day. 

“One of the biggest challenges in digital news is replicating a print-newspaper level of customer loyalty by getting more visitors to adopt a daily digital habit,” writes Mark Jacobof the Medill Local News Initiative. But having a lot of touch points with people doesn’t mean sharing one long article after the next. “You don’t have to read this whole story if you’re tracking this issue of Trump and whatever—here’s what’s new about it in two sentences.” 

We’re still figuring out how to apply all of these lessons to The Discourse. Right now we are doubling down in Cowichan for the summer, in our quest for sustainability. We’ll have updates to share about Urban Nation and Scarborough before the end of the summer.

With optimism,


Erin Millar

Founder and CEO, The Discourse

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1 Comment

  1. Norm Reynolds

    Just in case this idea might mean something some day I want to add to the discussion of your post: What Will It Take To Build A Sustainable Model For Local News?
    I don’t agree that the day of print read is over. I prefer to sit down and slowly/relaxedly go over my copy of Watershed Sentinel than to strain my eyes over an online version.
    I think there is something in the comment “Being valuable to people doesn’t mean taking up all their time” we could bind with “Local news outlets need to figure out how to be part of people’s daily habits in a way that genuinely provides value.” And I don’t think that, necessarily means “getting more visitors to adopt a daily digital habit,”

    I dream of a small print edition of TideChange that condenses Tidechange online content to 300 word summaries and points to the tidechange url if the reader wants more in depth info.
    I see the print edition being a short 3-4 letter sized page publication. I see it reaching out to the community in public service by making each issue cost $1 AND make it a fundraiser for homeless/disadvantaged people who it would be acknowledged keep the $1 as an income supplement.
    There could even be paper stands where readers leave $1 in a can that is IS labeled for the benefit of disadvantaged (who are invited on a non restricted basis) to collect from the can.
    Imagine the coverage by other media of such a community benefit plan? Imagine how many people would go to the tidechange website as a result of reading a synopsis on the print version of TideChange.
    Imagine what a small expense the print version would be and how little extra effort to put it together and imagine how many businesses would want to advertise in a publication that generated so much goodwill and interest!


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