Digital local news is expanding rapidly, but the challenges of running community journalism projects sustainably are daunting.
Those are the conclusions of a recently released report by Project Oasis aimed at documenting the rise of alternatives as legacy community newspapers continue to shrink and shut down. The project, based at the University of North Carolina, is sponsored by Google News, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and Douglas K. Smith.
Project Oasis comprises several parts — a database of digitally focused news projects in the United States and Canada; a “playbook” full of ideas for those who are interested in starting projects in their own communities; and a research report written by Chloe Kizer and edited by Michele McLellan that offers a survey of what’s been learned.
What’s most striking is how much growth there’s been, which is no doubt related to economics (journalists who’ve been downsized out of their jobs are looking to maintain their careers) and opportunity (communities that are either unserved or underserved by legacy media). Project Oasis identified 704 digital-native local news projects in the U.S. and Canada as of a year ago. Of those, 266 were launched in the past five years. In addition, a 2010 study found that there were 126 such projects, “indicating that the past decade has seen the number of local sites multiply six times over.”
The report also draws some conclusions based on 255 organizations that provided information about their operations. Among other things, those outlets tend to be small, with more than half reporting revenues of less than $100,000 a year. Many of the founders are journalists with little or no business background and no resources to hire someone to concentrate on revenue. As the report puts it:
Most founders launch their newsrooms because they are passionate about journalism and their communities. But few start with business expertise. Like their traditional counterparts, the new locals rely heavily on advertising revenue, although some have begun developing reader revenue.
The financial picture does improve as publications mature, according to the data. But this field on the whole is very young.
The report also contains the rather disturbing news that the founders of many sites who who consider them “profitable” aren’t actually paying themselves a salary. Overall, the survey found that most of the sites were for-profits dependent on advertising revenue, whereas a minority were nonprofits subsisting on grants and donations. The report found that those with more than one revenue stream were more successful.
The database of local news projects probably should be taken for what any such survey would be: out of date as soon as it’s published, but interesting as a snapshot in time.
The Massachusetts listings, for example, include some well-known successful projects such as Universal Hub and The Bedford Citizen. But they also include the Banyan Project, which spent years trying to launch a news co-op in Haverhill before giving up, while leaving out WHAV Radio, a nonprofit community radio station in Haverhill with a significant digital presence.
Overall, Project Oasis is a valuable addition to what we know about online local news start-ups. And if you’re thinking of launching a project yourself, you’ll definitely want to spend some time with the playbook.