Previously published at the Nieman Lab.
Mark Henderson was getting ready to throw in the towel on his dreams of becoming a successful media entrepreneur. He had suspended his two-year-old online community news project, the Worcester Sun, after a brief, failed experiment with a weekend print edition. So in February 2018, he started pulling his resume together and getting ready to look for a job.
First, though, he had one more idea he wanted to try. Since 2012, when he was still a top executive with the Massachusetts city’s daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette, he’d been thinking about building a local version of a social network. Back then, the timing wasn’t right. But maybe things had changed. He remembers sitting down one day in the early afternoon and starting to code a prototype.
“By midnight that night, I got a heartbeat,” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’re off to the races. I can do this.’”
“This” turned out to be The 016, a website for Worcester and surrounding communities that seeks to connect people, organizations, businesses, and — not least — media outlets. The project, which takes its name from the first three digits of the city’s zip code, launched in November. According to Henderson, it now has more than 4,000 members, up from 2,500 just two months earlier, and is attracting more than 300,000 pageviews per month. (Disclosure: I’m a member of Henderson’s unpaid advisory board.)
Although The 016 bears more than a little resemblance to Facebook, the way it works is quite different. The content of Facebook’s News Feed is determined by algorithms, though the exact formula is secret. “Liking” a news organization will send only a small fraction of its Facebook posts to your feed. This so-called organic reach has dropped to as low as 2 percent, according to some estimates. If you’re a publisher and you want more, you have to pay.
By contrast, users of The 016 customize their news feeds to their own preferences, choosing among categories ranging from local news and obituaries to dining out and “weird news.” There are no algorithms. All users see everything they’ve asked for, and members can repost the same content as often as they like. If that sounds like a prescription for abuse, Henderson notes that users can delete bad actors from their feeds.
For news organizations, The 016 offers what Henderson says is a solution to the dilemma of publishing journalism on the internet that few people ever see — a factor, he says, in the Worcester Sun’s demise. He recalls publishing a story on infant mortality in the print and online editions of the Sun. “It laid an egg,” he says. “Here we are doing this great thing for the community, and crickets. And it was still the most important story I think the Sun has ever done.”
Content appears on The 016 not just in the news feed but also in a list of hand-selected “Highlights” and “Top Posts” at the top of the site. Henderson taps into sources ranging from the Telegram & Gazette and local television stations to police departments and colleges. He’s also formed partnerships with about a half-dozen media organizations, which are given pages at The 016 that they can manage as they see fit.
One of those partners is Unity Radio, a low-power FM community station operated by a nonprofit called Pride Productions that was founded by local activist Ernest Floyd. The station features eclectic programming — shows run by high school students, programs that highlight nonprofits, local sports, the chamber of commerce and a music show hosted by Floyd called “Smooth Grooves.”
“It has a little bit of everything,” says Floyd. He sees The 016 as another way to get the word out. “The station is still building its identity,” he says. “This is a vehicle we can use to promote the station and market our programs.”
Henderson is hoping to form many more partnerships, invoking the cliché “win-win” to describe The 016’s business model. Unlike the old Huffington Post approach to aggregation, The 016 takes just a snippet of content in linking to, say, a Telegram & Gazette story. Those who want to know more will have to click through, where they will see ads on the T&G’s own site or run into its paywall — thus helping the paper to sell digital subscriptions, at least in theory.
The 016 makes money from advertising in the form of sponsored content, starting at $20 a month. My research partner Ellen Clegg and I pressed Henderson on how he expected to have a cooperative relationship with local media outlets if he is competing with them for advertising dollars. He replied that he would offer his partners the chance to sell ads for The 016 on a revenue-sharing basis.
“My answer to a rather large publisher in this area is you’re not going after the $20-a-month guys,” he says. “And if you want me to deal you in, you guys can sell it and keep the rep share.” Henderson is convinced that ad salespeople for other news organizations can add The 016 to what they’re already selling, including Facebook ads, and that he can also make the case that The 016 is a better deal than Facebook because of rising prices and shrinking organic reach.
Henderson’s business partner, Kevin Meagher, puts it this way: “We’re delivery boy and booster. And no one should be afraid of us.”
To a certain extent, The 016’s mission is at odds with Henderson’s original vision for the Sun. When the site was launched, Henderson told me he hoped to fill some of the void created by the shrinking of the Telegram & Gazette under the ownership of the GateHouse Media chain. Now he’s providing a distribution platform to other media outlets, including the T&G.
Henderson makes no apologies, though. “You can create the best journalism,” he says, “but if you can’t get it to an audience, this is a problem.” He adds that he might revive the Sun at some point for occasional big projects that other news organizations might shy away from — something that would now be worth doing since he’d have The 016 as a distribution vehicle. But it’s unlikely that the Sun would seek to cover the city comprehensively since that would put it in competition with The 016’s media partners.
The 016 may prove to be something of a template. Henderson hopes he can roll out similar sites in about eight cities in the Northeast by the end of the year. Among them: Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; and New Haven, Connecticut. He would also like to reach out to members of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers.
Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers and websites, including the New Haven Register, and until recently, he was the executive director of LION. He says that The 016 faces a daunting challenge in attracting regular users if it depends on luring them away from Facebook. But he adds that Facebook itself is moving away from the News Feed and toward groups, many of them locally based — which suggests there’s a demand for the kind of service Henderson is offering.
“If Mark’s intent is to build a community that brings together people who are engaged in discussing their mutual opportunities and problems, and there’s a real human element in keeping out misinformation and trolls and things like that, that would be remarkable,” DeRienzo says. “And seemingly not impossible.”
As for Henderson’s advertising strategy, DeRienzo adds: “I actually think there is enough money to go around for everybody, especially if you’re saying the Facebook emperor has no clothes. I think publishers are smart to engage and be part of an ecosystem instead of viewing the ecosystem as competition.”
There’s an X factor in all of this: the plummeting reputation of Facebook. It’s not just Henderson’s contention that it’s a bad deal for advertisers — it’s that we increasingly understand that Facebook can be a toxic environment. Those all-powerful algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement — and the way Mark Zuckerberg & Co. keep people on the site is to make sure they’re stirred up and angry by feeding them fake news and politically charged memes.
Among the first people Henderson says he showed The 016 to was Joel Abrams, manager of media outreach for The Conversation, a nonprofit that serves as a platform for academic research. Abrams is a former colleague of Henderson’s, as he was a product manager for social media at The Boston Globe when both the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette were owned by The New York Times Company.
“In this age where people are feeling queasy about Facebook,” Abrams said in an email, “that provides a motivation for people to give some of their mindshare and browsing time to The 016.”
Henderson himself credits none other than President Trump for some of The 016’s early success, explaining that he believes the hyperpolarization that has turned Facebook into such a nasty place is leading people to look for alternatives.
“We are Trump-free,” he says. “And that’s not a bug — it’s a feature.”