Google’s latest multimillion dollar mea culpa to the news industry will soon be staffing up.
After spending years sucking away digital advertising revenue from newsrooms across the country, the online search giant is attempting to make amends by spending big bucks to launch three new hyperlocal websites in underserved communities with a focus on sustainability.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Google isn’t building the websites or hiring the reporters themselves—they’re paying McClatchy “many millions of dollars” over the next three years to do it, according to Google’s vice president of news Richard Gingras. The websites, which will be part of McClatchy’s sci-fi sounding Compass Experiment, will focus on underserved communities in the U.S. with less than half a million people.
While Google’s commitment to directly fund journalism should be applauded, keep in mind that three new websites won’t come close to replacing the 1,800 newspapers (mostly weeklies) that have been forced to close since 2004, according to a recent report from the University of North Carolina on news deserts. Which is why the sustainability portion of this experiment is more important than Google writing a check to hire reporters.
The funding for the Local Experiments Project comes from the Google News Initiative (GNI), which launched back in 2018 with a commitment to spend $300 million to help the struggling world of journalism over a three-year period (if that number sounds familiar, it’s the same amount Facebook also pledged to spend to help local news survive earlier this year).
To run the Compass Experiment, McClatchy tapped Mandy Jenkins, a Project Thunderdome veteran and the former editor-in-chief of Storyful. But more importantly, Jenkins began her career at local newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Cincinnati Enquirer, so she knows a thing or two about what works on the local level. That’s good, since Jenkins’ task is not just creating excellent news content, but also developing three self-sufficient businesses in the process.
In a conversation with E&P, the recently-hired Jenkins spoke about what attracted her to the Google experiment and what it’s like taking a role under such a bright journalism spotlight. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can follow Jenkins on Twitter @mjenkins and keep tabs on the progress of the Compass Experiment by following its page on Medium.
What attracted you to McClatchy and this role involving Google?
The thing that was most intriguing to me was that this wasn’t just money going to some esoteric initiative of grants and stuff, but Google giving to a company to start news sites, and specifically to have these sites be in a place where there’s not currently a news presence.
What does the partnership between McClatchy and Google look like?
Google is supplying the funding…but their involvement, at least as far as I can tell, is hands off. We’ve got to build out what the websites looks like, what we want on the backend, and all of that’s going to be in house at McClatchy.
Gingras cited the Texas Tribune when discussing local news business that can thrive. Are there any hyperlocal websites out there you’ve drawn inspiration from?
I look at the publications that make up the LION Publishers, which include many interesting stories and people in various sized communities. Some of them are wildly successful, like ARLnow, Berkleyside and West Seattle Blog, which has been doing it forever. Or like Flint Beat, which is doing some really cool stuff up there (in Flint, Mich.) and it’s just this one woman who’s working 48 hours a day.
Do you think that’s part of the challenge many larger companies often experience when it comes to hyperlocal websites, that employees can’t put in the long hours a local owner can?
Not really. If you asked some of the people who run hyperlocal websites what would they do if they had more money, they’d probably say I wouldn’t work these long hours. So, I think that’s one of the benefits of having Google’s resources—we want to have the snappy approach of a small hyperlocal website coming up from the ground and having everyone be excited to work there, but also maybe they don’t have to kill themselves to do it.
How do you plan to promote these new digital news websites to readers?
Some of that is going to be on the social…but a lot of it, especially at some of the really local places, it’s just a matter of being there and showing up to the city council meeting, showing up at events and telling people who you are. It’s one of the ideas behind hiring people locally who are already there, because those local connections are going to be a big part of getting that word of mouth out there.
Since you’re partnering with Google, will there be any help promoting your website’s content from a search perspective or using their data to inform your decision making?
That’s not something that’s formally built in yet, but we’ll be working with the people at GNI. I think Google probably has some pretty interesting trends data…I’m thinking about people searching for news in areas and not getting something back. They have that information, and I think it’d be pretty intriguing to see it.
When do you expect the first website to launch?
I don’t really know for sure on the timeline, but we’re definitely going to get that first one out the door quickly—ideally this fall (Editor's Note: The Compass Experiment announced in July it would launch its first site in Youngstown, Ohio.) I think what success will look like for this is if in three years, we’ve got websites that have become such an important part of the community that people can’t imagine them not being there.
Considering how much the industry will be watching this experiment, will you be doing any reporting on the results of this experiment?
Google very much wants this to be knowledge that's put out into the world that people can learn from our experience on this, and I’m more comfortable operating in that place as well. I mean, what’s really proprietary anymore, right? We all need to be learning from each other. And I think the more we can be contributing to that knowledge, the better. I guess I’ll even have to be more active on Twitter.
Yes, because now you’ve become one of the great hopes of the industry, right?
No pressure, no pressure at all.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.