News Experiments Prove Local Journalism Isn’t Easily Replicated

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Building a local news network isn’t easy, or else The Compass Experiment wouldn’t have branded itself as an experiment. 

Eighteen months after McClatchy and Google News Initiative set out to build a sustainable business model for community journalism, The Compass Experiment is essentially folding. In doing so, McClatchy will take over the Mahoning Matters project in Youngstown, Ohio, and Village Media will take over The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado.

Changing market conditions from COVID-19 certainly impacted the experiment, something general manager Mandy Jenkins acknowledged in a Medium post last week. The Compass Experiment initially planned to launch three local news ventures, and Jenkins also cited the lack of “efficiency” as a news startup compared to more-established news networks: “One of the hardest lessons we have learned so far is how difficult it is to efficiently operate local news sites without the benefits of a network,” Jenkins wrote.

The Compass Experiment likely struggled to establish a more efficient news network because its two digital publications were located two time zones apart, taking away some of the potential benefits of a news network in close geographical proximity.

Adjacent news operations are more likely to benefit from potential content and sales overlap. The vast majority of TAPinto’s sites are based in New Jersey, for example, helping improve regional and state coverage as well as cross-state sales opportunities. By localizing regional coverage and sharing timely state news, we are able to create a stronger and more sustainable news product that inevitably draws advertisers seeking a broad audience.

Through these efforts, we must ensure that news quality isn’t lost in the name of efficiency. The goal is to remain local while serving an audience with news they aren’t getting from more national-driven outlets.

Of course, this isn’t easy—Jenkins in her farewell note reinforced the fact that local news isn’t easy. This work is hard, and that is why the industry cheers on each other. We read too many stories about failed attempts to chart new revenue strategies and news publishers facing hard times during COVID-19.

But it’s made easier when small operations in close proximity can work together.

Michael Shapiro is founder and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Texas.  

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Philip Moore

I am reminded of all the enthusiasm which greeted the launch of broadcast news. I am also reminded of the probably apocryphal story of Louis B. Meyer describing the potential of talking pictures to Albert Einstein. Telling the famed physicist that soon movie film would contain technology for transmitting sound at the same time as images, Einstein is said to have asked, "The same time?" In response, Meyer said, "Yes, the exact same time!" to which Einstein responded, "It won't work." What Einstein knew and Meyer did not is that light and visual images travel much faster than sound. Sounds must be recorded and played back slightly in advance of the images, otherwise they will not align.

The Compass Experiment failed because it cannot work, not because distant news networks do not work as well as adjacent ones, but because local Internet news media will always fail. Print news is pushed and arrayed. Electronic media is pulled and sequential. Print news has inverse referencing (you can refer back to a story or an advertisement at will) and electronic media almost never does...once it's gone from the screen, it is difficult, if not impossible to easily retrieve. This means that local electronic media can never attract enough viewers, and can never aggregate the audience necessary to turn an audience into customers. If you want to do local news, the only viable option is ink on paper. Nothing else works or ever will work.

Thursday, February 11