Love Live Local offers a useful guide to independent media on Cape Cod

Photo (cc) 2013 by Arek Olek

A nonprofit organization called Love Live Local has published a useful guide to independent local news organizations on Cape Cod.

Included in its roundup is The Enterprise of Falmouth, Mashpee, Bourne and Sandwich; The Cape Cod Chronicle, which covers Chatham, Harwich and Orleans; Cape Cod Broadcasting, which includes four FM radio stations that provide local news; and The Provincetown Independent, whose coverage area comprises Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. I recently wrote about the Independent.

As Love Live Local points out, the Cape’s legacy newspapers are now owned by Gannett, which, along with its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, has cut them repeatedly over the years. If residents really want to be informed about what’s going on in their communities, they need to seek out independent sources of news.

So what is Love Live Local? Here is what the About page says:

When Love Live Local started in 2013, how it would evolve was a bit of an unknown. The intention was to highlight positive stories, Cape Cod happenings and connect local businesses with customers and supporters. As the founders began to appreciate not only how important small business was to the region, but also how much they were struggling, the messaging evolved, and they began to advocate much more strongly on behalf of small, local businesses — the backbone of this community.

Locally owned media and other types of businesses are all part of the same ecosystem that makes for a vibrant community. It’s good to see that there’s an organization on the Cape dedicated to helping them thrive.

A nonprofit in New Bedford seeks to fill the gap left by Gannett’s Standard-Times

Best wishes to New Bedford Light, a nonprofit startup that is aiming to provide in-depth journalism in a city whose legacy newspaper, The Standard-Times, has been gutted by Gannett. Bruce Mohl of CommonWealth magazine reports. (MassINC chair Greg Torres, which publishes CommonWealth, is involved.)

The Light hasn’t launched yet, but it’s had a Facebook page for several months. I hope the project succeeds, but I’m a little bit skeptical of the model. Mohl writes:

Barbara Roessner, the founding editor, lives in Westport and is a former managing editor of the Hartford Courant. Her initial plan calls for producing one major in-depth piece of journalism each week; the focus will be on providing context and insight, she said, not breaking news or high school sports.

I wonder if it might make more sense to make the Light essential to everyone right from the start by providing basic accountability journalism — city council, school committee, police, development and the like. Mohl does describe the once-a-week pace as the “initial” plan; maybe that will evolve into more comprehensive coverage as the project develops. My advice would be to cover the everyday details of city life and leave the suburbs to The Standard-Times. The logo, though, references “Greater New Bedford,” which suggests they’re looking beyond the city.

I was also interested to see that the group behind the Light approached Gannett about selling The Standard-Times and was turned down. Maybe the chain’s executives will come to regret their decision. More likely they’ve calculated that there are a few more dollars they can squeeze out.

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In Provincetown, a startup weekly newspaper is challenging Gannett

Launching a community news outlet at a time when local news is under siege might seem like a foolhardy risk. But journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit are taking that risk — and, for some, it’s paying off.

Take, for example, The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. According to co-founder and editor Ed Miller, the Independent already has more than 100 advertisers and a full-time staff of 10, including three editors and three and a half reporters, as well as a number of freelancers. He and the other co-founder, publisher Teresa Parker, are aiming for break-even and a staff of 20 by year five.

“The fact is that the majority of these legacy small-town papers are actually doing perfectly well,” Miller said last week at an event at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism via Zoom. He added, though, that “they’re not making anybody rich.”

The Independent covers four towns — Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. The paper has both a print and a paywalled digital edition. Although a number of local news startups are digital-only, Miller said he’s convinced that print is necessary for a for-profit enterprise such as his, since it’s a more effective way to attract advertisers. (The Independent is a public-benefit corporation, which means, according to its About page, that it is “committed to prioritizing the social and environmental benefits of our corporate decision-making.”)

The formula has worked, he said, noting that the current edition comprises 32 pages, 27% of which are advertising.

One type of advertising he’s not getting are legal notices, a problem he blamed on town officials who don’t like the tough coverage the Independent is providing. Instead, legals continue to go to the Banner and another Gannett weekly, the Cape Codder, whose coverage area overlaps with the Independent in Eastham.

Miller began his career as a small-town newspaper owner in the town of Harvard in 1973, an experience that led him to co-write a 1978 book called “How to Produce a Small Newspaper.” He worked for four years for the Banner before deciding to launch his own venture, saying that GateHouse Media, which later acquired Gannett and took its name, “pretty much systematically stripped it of all its staff and other capacities.”

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As for the Independent, he said the paper now has paid print circulation of about 3,200 (subscriptions plus newsstand sales), with another 450 digital-only subscribers, most of whom live far from Cape Cod.

The paper’s revenues last year were about $640,000, with $217,000 coming from subscriptions and $242,000 from advertising. Nearly $70,000 came in the form of government assistance related to the pandemic, and another $74,000 was from donations and grants to the Independent’s nonprofit arm, which it uses to pay interns and cover the cost of in-depth reporting on issues like climate change, affordable housing, health care and LGBTQ issues.

Although not every local news startup is as successful as the Independent, there has been an upsurge in recent years of independently owned community outlets. Some are for-profit, some are nonprofit. Some are online-only, some have a print edition. Some were launched to challenge a chain-owned newspaper, some were founded in communities with no news outlet. Later this week, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers will release a study showing that the number of independents in the U.S. and Canada has risen by 50% over the past five years.

What all of these startups have in common is that, even with the challenges to local news posed by the likes of Craigslist, Facebook and Google, independents can succeed.

“We hear from people in various other places where their papers have really withered and they’ve heard about what we’re doing,” Miller said. “Every place is different. What we’re doing out here in Provincetown is geared to this place. People will need to find their own ways of making this work wherever they are.”

Correction. This post has been updated regarding the length of Miller’s tenure at the Provincetown Banner and the Independent’s total print circulation.

There’s no reason to think that a Nextdoor-like service would have saved local news

Every so often, media observers berate the newspaper business for letting upstarts encroach on their turf rather than innovating themselves.

Weirdly enough, I’ve heard a number of people over the years assert that newspapers should have unveiled a free classified-ad service in order to forestall the rise of Craigslist — as if giving away classified ads was going to help pay for journalism. As of 2019, Craigslist employed a reported 50 full-time people worldwide. The Boston Globe and its related media properties, Stat News and Boston.com employ about 300 full-time journalists. As they say, do the math.

Sometimes you hear the same thing about Facebook, which is different enough from journalism that you might as well say that newspapers should have moved into the food-services industry. Don Graham’s legendary decision to let Mark Zuckerberg walk away from an agreed-upon investment in Facebook changed the course of newspaper history — the Graham family could have kept The Washington Post rather than having to sell to Jeff Bezos. As a bonus, someone with a conscience would have sat on Facebook’s board, although it’s hard to know whether that would have mattered. But journalism and social media are fundamentally different businesses, so it’s not as though there was any sort of natural fit.

More recently, I’ve heard the same thing about Nextdoor, a community-oriented social network that has emerged as the news source of record for reporting lost cats and suspicious-looking people in your neighborhood. I like our Nextdoor and visit it regularly. But when it comes to discussion of local news, I find it less useful than a few of our Facebook groups. Still, you hear critics complain that newspapers should have been there first.

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Well, maybe they should have. But how good a business is it, really? Like Craigslist, social media thrives by having as few employees as possible. Journalism is labor-intensive. Over the years I’ve watched the original vision for Wicked Local — unveiled, if I’m remembering correctly, by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth — shrink from a genuinely interesting collection of local blogs and other community content into a collection of crappy websites for GateHouse Media’s and now Gannett’s newspapers.

The original Boston.com was a vibrant experiment as well, with community blogs and all sorts of interesting content that you wouldn’t find in the Globe. But after the Globe moved to its own paywalled website, Boston.com’s appeal was pretty much shot, although it continues to limp along. For someone who wants a free regional news source, it’s actually not that bad. But the message, as with Wicked Local, is that maybe community content just doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the journalists we need to produce actual news coverage.

Recently Will Oremus of a Medium-backed website called OneZero wrote a lengthy piece about the rise of Nextdoor, which has done especially well in the pandemic. Oremus’ take was admirably balanced — though Nextdoor can be a valuable resource, especially in communities lacking real news coverage, he wrote, it is also opaque in its operations and tilted toward the interests of its presumably affluent users. According to Oremus, Nextdoor sites are available in about 268,000 neighborhoods across the world, and its owners have considered taking the company public.

There’s no question that Nextdoor is taking on the role once played by local newspapers. But is that because people are moving to Nextdoor or because local newspapers are withering away? As Oremus writes, quoting Emily Bell:

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Look, I’m glad that Nextdoor is around. I’m glad that Patch is around, and in fact our local Patch occasionally publishes some original reporting. But there is no substitute for actual journalism — the hard work of sitting through local meetings, keeping an eye on the police and telling the story of the community. As inadequate as our local Gannett weekly is, there’s more local news in it than in any other source we have.

If local newspapers had developed Nextdoor and offered it as part of their journalism, would it have made a different to the bottom line? It seems unlikely — although it no doubt would have brought in somewhat more revenues than giving away free classifieds.

Nextdoor, like Facebook, makes money by offering low-cost ads and employing as few people as possible. It may add up to a lot of cash in the aggregate. At the local level, though, I suspect it adds up to very little — and, if pursued by newspapers, would distract from the hard work of coming up with genuinely sustainable business models.

Zombie subscribers are not the worst problem for a digital news source to have

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti

You may have heard about a new problem facing news publishers as they continue to transition to reader revenue — “digital zombies,” or paid-up subscribers who rarely or never visit. A study at Northwestern University “found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month,” according to Mark Jacob of the university’s Local News Initiative.

I would argue that this isn’t the worst problem to have, and that it may be more of an artifact of our ability to measure everything in the digital space than it is something new and threatening. Back in the days of print-only, we simply didn’t know how much time people spent with the newspaper. Oh, sure, there were surveys, but you can be sure that most respondents would want to tell researchers that yes, of course, they read every word of that seven-part series on pension reform because, you know, it’s very, very important.

The fact is that people signed up for newspaper delivery out of habit. Some spent a lot of time with the news. Some read only the sports section. Some read the funnies. And some might have only picked up the paper so they could clip out the Wednesday food coupons.

If a digital subscription is cheap enough, you might sign up so that you’ll have access on the rare occasions that you need it and so you can support the work those news organizations are doing. I’m not going to identify the news sources, but I can think of one that I gladly pay even though I only look at it once or twice a year and another that is, at best a tertiary read. Of course, I understand that I work in news and so my habits may be different from others’. But I don’t think that having customers who pay without reading is all that terrible unless they suddenly start canceling en masse.

“Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on,” writes Jacob, adding that publishers are trying several strategies to reanimate their zombies, including targeted newsletters, better recommendation systems and the like.

According to the Better News website, Gannett’s Arizona Republic found a direct correlation between lack of engagement and canceled subscription — 50% of canceled subscriptions came from the 42% of subscribers who were visiting the paper’s website less than once a month.

And yes, it’s important to try to keep those customers. Publishing strong journalism and making sure that even your zombies are aware of it really matters. But most papers offer steep discounts to new customers. For instance, you can get a three-month digital-only subscription to the Republic for just $1, which the paper touts as a 97% savings.

If I’m doing the math correctly, that comes to about $32 a month once the discount expires. That means the Republic and others who offer such discounts, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, have a few months to make their case.

Or maybe the zombies will act like many people did before the internet — keep getting the digital paper out of habit whether they read it or not.

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Can Gannett and McClatchy’s joint venture reinvigorate national advertising?

At root, the debate over whether Google and Facebook should pay for news is about how their duopoly destroyed the value of digital advertising and then kept most of the revenues for themselves.

News, which is expensive, can’t survive on the pennies brought in by Google’s programmatic ads. That’s why there’s been so much emphasis in recent years on reader revenue — an emphasis that, at least in a few places, is starting to pay off.

Still, it would surely be a positive if news organizations could develop a revenue stream other than digital subscriptions. When readers are empowered, they expect their preferences and prejudices to be catered to. You need a balance. That’s why it’s interesting to see Axios’ recent report that Gannett and McClatchy will combine forces to sell national advertising for their hundreds of local and regional papers.

Can Gannett and McClatchy’s efforts drive up the price of digital ads? That’s the real issue, and without that their effort is not going to have much of an effect. Of course, it also does nothing to boost ad sales at the local level, which have been on the decline for years. Yes, local businesses have gravitated to Facebook just like everyone else. But local newspapers aren’t exactly known for being aggressive and creative about selling to the local hair salons, pizza restaurants and funeral homes, either. It can be done. Just ask Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian in western New York state.

The partnership shows why I differentiate between Gannett and Alden Global Capital, even though their nuke-the-newsroom approach to the bottom line looks very much the same on the ground. Alden, by all appearances, is trying to squeeze as much money as it can out of the newspapers it’s killing and then get out. Gannett, on the other hand, is hoping to build a community news chain that can be sustainable in the long run.

Gannett’s biggest mistake, carried over from its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, is that its executives think they can build for the future while failing to provide enough journalism to retain readers. No matter how smart your business model, it’s not going to work if all you’re offering your audience is a shell.

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Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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Could Gannett be looking to sell off its smaller papers?

Gannett is selling three daily newspapers in Oklahoma to a small, family-owned chain. It definitely sounds like good news. Even better news is that it may be part of a Gannett strategy to get rid of its smallest papers. I can give them a list if they’d like. Kristen Hare of Poynter Online has the details.

The Telegram & Gazette hardens its paywall

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is hardening its paywall. Currently you can access seven stories a month before you are asked to pay. Now the T&G, as well as other Gannett papers, is going to remove “investigative stories, political commentary, sports analysis and other content found only on telegram.com.” More routine stories and public-safety coverage will remain within the seven-story allotment.

Look, I get it. But what I don’t like about this is that there are those of us who might need to download two or three stories a year from various papers around the country. Last year, I actually took out a subscription to an out-of-state paper for a month — and then had to call several times so I could cancel it after the reporting project I was working on was done.

I’ve long thought papers ought to be flexible enough to charge for $1 an article or to sell day passes to people for whom a monthly digital subscription doesn’t make sense. But I’ve been told it’s not cost-effective, as it would be difficult to set up and could take away from subscription sales.

I also hope that whatever extra money the company pulls in will be used for journalism and not to service Gannett’s massive debt.

In Somerville, as elsewhere, tough times for local news

The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has an interview with Julia Taliesin, the only reporter at Gannett’s Somerville Journal, on what it’s like to work at an under-resourced corporate-owned newspaper. Key quote:

I am acutely aware that it is absolutely impossible for me to do justice to what the city deserves in terms of news. What Somerville deserves is a handful of reporters who watch every city council meeting, or at least 90% of them, because this city council is busy. When I think of what effective news looks like, it’s just that. It’s just enough people to cover the issues. Not the press conferences and the press releases, but the actual work and the legislating that goes on.

I should note that Somerville has more than 80,000 residents. Next door, the Gannett-owned Medford Transcript hasn’t had a full-time staff reporter to cover the city’s 57,000 residents since the fall of 2019.