A project of Democracy Fund

April 12, 2019

Local Fix: Business Models, Feelings, and Data Collaboration


Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. But first, we always begin with one good idea…

One Good Idea: Skim-Friendly Stories
A report from Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative has some interesting details about what gets readers to subscribe. The study of three newspapers’ data found that the best indicator that a subscriber will keep paying for news is habit, not how many stories they read or how long they spend reading them. To build new news habits, news outlets are experimenting with content for “snackers” so those readers come back regularly. For example, skim-friendly articles bring the most important information to the top, and newsletters share the top links and stories of the day. It doesn’t mean long stories are bad (in fact, other recent examples have shown how deeper coverage can also boost subscriptions) – but using different formats and styles to get audiences the information they need and encourage them to keep coming back is one key way to build loyalty and habit. 

Three Business Models

There is no one business model that will define the future of local news. Instead, there are many variations depending on community, context, and mission. We got a detailed look at three of those models in useful posts this week. They cover a nonprofit news organization in a small city, a family-owned for-profit newspaper, and a network of for-profit local digital sites. The three models use a mix of different revenue streams, including events, membership, subscriptions, merchandise, investors, sponsored content, and more. While all three have different mixes and strategies, they do have two important things in common: a commitment to deep evaluation and analysis of their communities and audiences to understand what their needs are (and are not); and to making adjustments as needed. Each has had to make significant pivots in their strategies when some things haven’t worked out. Read more about each model below:

Data Collaboration

Data is a powerful tool for revealing important stories hidden within statistics, and holding those in power accountable. However, for some newsrooms, the work it takes to collect, clean and visualize data sets is beyond current capacity. For that reason, data journalism collaborations are emerging as a way to pool resources and centralize data in ways that can serve more newsrooms. The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism is hoping to lower the barriers to this kind of work with a new project designed to make large data sets useful on a local and even hyperlocal level. In Chicago, 70,000 people used Chi.vote – a data and reporting collaboration between a diverse team of local newsrooms – to understand the issues and people at the heart of the recent election (similarly, in NJ, the Center for Cooperative Media has helped create open election results maps that all newsrooms in NJ can use). We’ve collected some other models, tools and tips for collaborative data reporting in the links below. 

All the Feels

This week, Poynter highlighted a program at The New York Times which helps them sell premium ads based on how an article makes you feel. The Times is not alone. Last Fall, Digiday covered how ESPN and USA Today were also targeting ads to people based on their moods. Articles are categorized by the emotions they evoke, and then ads are sold based on the emotional response publishers believe readers will have. But emotion isn’t being used just to sell ads. We’ve compiled a number of articles below that explore the role of emotion in building affinity, combating misinformation, and more. As we build trust with our communities, newsrooms should value emotional connections with readers, rooted in the stories and issues they cover in their community. But we need to do so in a way that is authentic and not inflaming emotions or provoking our readers for the sake of traffic and ad dollars. Embedded in many of these articles is an often unanswered question about the line between something that emotionally resonates, and something that emotionally manipulates.

Have a good weekend,
Josh, Teresa, and Maya, with editing help this week from our newest teammate Anna Kegler (welcome!)
@jcstearns, @gteresa, @mayaaliah

The Local Fix is a project of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, which invests in innovations and institutions that are reinventing local media and expanding the public square. Disclosure: Some projects mentioned in this newsletter may be funded by Democracy Fund, you can find a full list of the organizations we support on our website.