How The Boston Globe could help offset the local news vacuum

Could The Boston Globe, profitable and growing, help make up for the local news vacuum in Eastern Massachusetts? The shortage of reliable community journalism became much more acute last week when Gannett told reporters at most of its weekly papers that they would be reassigned to regional beats or to one of the chain’s dailies.

The Globe could conceivably step in by reviving an idea that was perhaps before its time. Under New York Times Co. ownership, the Globe published web pages known as YourTown, one for each suburban community as well as a few of Boston’s neighborhoods. They relied heavily on aggregation — too heavily, as the Times Co. found out in court — and they competed with papers owned by GateHouse Media (now Gannett) that weren’t nearly as hollowed-out as they are today. What’s more, YourTown was part of the Globe’s free Boston.com site (this was before BostonGlobe.com), and the hyperlocal advertising that was supposed to support YourTown never materialized. John Henry shut down YourTown not long after he bought the Globe in 2013.

So what would a revived YourTown look like? Advertising isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but the Globe has been successful in selling paid digital subscriptions. So imagine a YourTown with one full-time reporter in each community. If the Globe signed up 500 new subscribers in a community, that could bring in as much as $120,000 a year. I’m basing that on an average subscription costing $20 a month (the full cost is $30, but many people would be paying discounts).

No doubt this would work better in some places than in others. I live in Medford, a city of about 58,000 residents that, as of now, doesn’t have a single full-time reporter covering the community. Selling an extra 500 subscriptions — or more — ought to be doable.

But right next door, in Arlington (population: 43,000), there’s a good-quality nonprofit news website, Your Arlington, which would make a Globe-branded YourTown less attractive. Or consider a small town like Bedford — not only are there just 13,000 residents, but it’s the home of a well-established nonprofit news site, The Bedford Citizen.

Still, I think a revived YourTown would work well enough in a few communities that it’s worth trying. I doubt it would be a money-maker for the Globe, but it might be a break-even proposition. And the paper would be filling a real need.

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