A modest proposal for restoring trust in journalism through community pride, not high-minded principles.
A bright future we’re not prepared for.
You hear it everywhere in news circles: reader revenue is the future. If we want to strengthen our troubled local news ecosystem, it’s most important to convince individuals to subscribe to their local papers. It’s recurring revenue, it’s less influenced by macroeconomic trends than advertising is, and it’s proof that the audience actually cares about local issues, not just national stories.
Reader revenue is also tough to come by in most markets in the country, because, tragically, most readers don’t think their local newspaper is currently worth paying for.
Who could blame them? The vast majority of digital news sites and their associated reading experience are built for advertising — clickbait headlines, obnoxious interactive ads, auto-playing video, and intrusive tracking technology. A mixed-revenue approach has made for confusing, contradictory products — the self-destructive ads-on-everything engine powering free, semi-automated content mills paired with metered pay walls that promise but too often fail to deliver a premium and pleasurable reading experience once you open your wallet (not least because the ads rarely go away when you pay).
The news industry and arguably the entire consumer internet is at a cross-roads. Ad revenue has been the dominant method for monetizing digital content for almost 25 years. But its dominance is coming to an end, as CPMs decline across the board, ad-blockers proliferate at breakneck pace, privacy concerns and disinformation fill the headlines, and ordinary people show an increased willingness to pay for content they find valuable, from Netflix to Twitch to even individual Patreon creators. We’re at the cusp of the post-advertising consumer internet, and the news industry can be one of the winners of this shift or it can be, as they’ve been in each wave of the internet age, the biggest loser.
Though the New York Times and Washington Post saw subscription rates surge in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, we cannot develop a strong local news ecosystem by repeating the mantra that “Democracy dies in darkness” until every American household holds digital subscriptions to a minimum of one local and one national newspaper. The way to build a strong local news ecosystem is by building a strong local news ecosystem — one designed from the ground up for the post-advertising internet and rooted in the one of the most potent forces in American society: civic identity.
Creating belonging through a common news source.
My grandfather, Christian Axel Mortensen, was an immigrant to the U.S. from Denmark — an illegal one, by today’s standards. He fled a hopeless life in the old country with little but his trust in an older brother’s assurances that things would work out in America. And it did. He married my grandmother Mabel Grace Ide (an Iowa farmer’s daughter), he fought as a sergeant for the U.S. in World War I, he became a citizen, and he worked as a railway postman for decades, daily riding the train from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Ogden, Utah and back.
But what made him American, more than any of that, were the newspapers he read. Every day, he read four of them. The Cheyenne Morning Eagle, the Wyoming State Tribune, the Denver Post, and the Rocky Mountain News. He read newspapers the way I read Twitter and listen to podcasts, the way billions read Facebook, the way we binge-watch series on Netflix and Hulu, and, yes, the way millions watch 24-hour cable news all of their waking hours. That daily habit, across more than 50 years of life in Cheyenne, made him a Cheyennite, a Wyoman, a Rocky Mountain resident, and an American — in that order.
He came of age in an era in which you didn’t really live in a place unless you took delivery of its newspapers. I say this not to evoke nostalgia for a golden era in the news business but to note how unique every single newspaper was back then. Those four newspapers were not redundant. Each contained totally unique stories covering unique subjects with fundamentally different perspectives. Each embodied what it meant to live in the place they covered — the values that tied people together, the issues the community was most eager to address, the rituals and behaviors that defined their ways of life. A subscription to the Denver Post taught you how to live in Denver and, to some degree, the Mountain West as a whole.
When civic identity publishing dissolves community.
There’s a serious downside to the civic identity function of a local news organization, of course. One need only consider the virulently pro-segregation portion of the press of the 1950s and ’60s to recognize civic identity as a morality-neutral force. It can be used to promote either justice or discrimination as a core value of its readers. It’s not an absolute good, but it is an incredible power. And, at some point, the identity and values signified and transmitted by our news diets became dilute or non-existent in many regions. It still means something to be a reader of the New York Times. It’s unclear what it means in this day and age to read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the San Jose Mercury News other than an interest in supporting local news or the free press.
This role of the press has not died out entirely: Many of the most vibrant new media organizations have a clear understanding of their roles as promulgators of civic identity. The Intercept is by and for leftists driven by a rejection of 20th century foreign policy consensus and the support of universal human rights against state and corporate interests. Vox reinforces, in every piece it publishes, that reasonable people care about the context that drives our discourse, not the sensationalism that characterizes breaking news — reasonable people read and support a press that knows the value of approproate context. Fox News, rightly bashed for its vexed relationship with objective fact and love of conspiracy theories, is the most successful vendor of civic identity of any media entity. It’s an identity built on reverence for the past, fear of change, and concern whenever anyone obtains power who wouldn’t have been able to in the 1950s. There’s much to deplore here, but the clarity and strength of the Fox identity is undeniable. Fox’s cultivation of this identity was essential for Donald Trump’s move from reality star to presidential candidate.
In an era that has seen the steady erosion of the social contract of the 20th century, declining trust in all institutions, and a deadly, widespread epidemic of opioid addiction, national or international news outlets are poor vessels through which to communicate civic identity. In some ways, they might be the worst possible choices. As Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend and longshot Democratic presidential candidate, recently noted,
“As we see dislocation and disruption in certain parts of the country, from rural areas to my home in the industrial Midwest, and in the economy, this leads to a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity. That void can be filled through constructive and positive things, like community involvement or family. And it can be filled by destructive things, like white identity politics.”
When people are disoriented and feel a loss of community and identity, a local news organization with deep ties to its place and its history can provide comfort, direction, and reminders of what’s actually important. In its absence, conspiracy theories on social media, polarized political messages, and the resentment of others take root in a community’s psyche.
The rebirth of vital, reader-supported local news.
For American Democracy to survive, we need strong, trusted journalistic institutions to hold our political leaders to account. But we can’t have a strong, trusted news ecosystem unless local news is reborn digital-first, ad-free, and subscription-supported. While non-profit newsrooms are vital parts of the ecosystem, unless local news becomes a good business again, the tide will not turn. And local news won’t be a good business unless we make real progress on nailing the desirability question: what need does subscribing to our publication solve for our reader?
After decades of trying to figure it out, I firmly believe that helping people feel part of a community bigger and more important than themselves is the biggest unmet need local news can and must solve in order to transition to a new economy. There are many potential solutions to deliver against this need, but I’ve identified a few core principles that can guide development:
Proudly state your biases, but frame them as informed beliefs.
Journalists have lived in fear of bias accusations for decades. This hasn’t actually built trust with readers; it has enabled the misleading “both sides of a story” device that confuses readers. If anything, seeking to avoid bias has distanced journalists from society and made them seem inauthentic or even naive. By laying out biases as beliefs based in the actual history of the place you live and cover, it’s possible to build reader trust — you come across as an expert, not a pundit. Casey Newton of The Verge and Interface, does a great job of owning his actual beliefs in the overview page of the Interface, laying out a list of “some things I’ve come to believe,” including “Television news has proven corrosive to democracy in ways that are likely as or more important than any created by social networks.” If he didn’t lay out this belief system up front, Casey’s credibility to report on these subjects would be much less, and readers would less understand how to engage with him.
Charge more than your content is worth, then live up to that price.
It’s time to drop the modesty. Local news is among the most important products made in any city or region, and we should charge like it. As has been shown again and again, the more people pay for a commodity, the more valuable and premium they believe it to be. New local newsrooms should charge a premium over their legacy competitors, then take that price as a challenge to do work that lives up to it.
Select one reader whose behaviors, needs, and context drive every decision. Choose a new one when growth slows. Repeat. Repeat.
Another burden on innovation in local news has been the belief that local news must be for everyone, as informing all citizens is key to a well-functioning democracy. While the latter point is doubtlessly true, the populist, no-fancier-than-an-eighth-grade-reading-level approach to news has failed to create a more informed society. Vocabulary isn’t understanding, especially when no one reads. Making local news for everyone has led to products no one wants. A core tenet of design thinking is that to make an appealing product, you must target a narrow niche. I’d go further to say you have to build for one specific person — we are evolutionarily wired to care about other people, but we lose that empathy and ability to project feelings and predict behavior when we instead think about groups, especially large amorphous ones. Choosing a real person (ideally a non-reader) and designing just for them makes for products that have a sharp point of view. And usually lots of other people share some of that POV and are attracted to its clarity.
Constantly engage with readers to understand why they subscribe. Make sure they always get enough of it, and keep your promises.
Newspapers will do anything to stop you from unsubscribing. “Please don’t leave! We’ll give you a free month! No? How about two? Please talk on the phone to our customer service representative, who won’t be available other than 15 minutes on Tuesdays! You can also send a notarized letter to a P.O. Box we check once a millenium.” This line of thinking gets the math exactly wrong. It’s much easier to retain a subscriber than it is to win one. Great publications of the next era will thrive through constant authentic engagement with their readers, understanding exactly why they subscribe to ensure that they’re never even tempted to leave unless they can’t afford it anymore — in which case they should stop subscribing.
Use design and branding to forge a positive, proud community identity people want to be part of and share.
It all comes back to civic identity. If you build for specific readers and you engage with them, a local news site can become a hub for how people in the readership think about themselves and their community. Connected to a sophisticated design and branding sensibility (potentially hosted in a central corporate office), these identities can be the basis for a critical additional revenue stream, merchandising and licensing. Think of the iconic I (love) NY campaign of the early 1980s — every publication should be aspiring to drive and market that kind of local passion. There are early signs of success here, as embodied in the Bloomington Hoosier Times’s “B-Town Box”, a collectible box for Indiana basketball fans to signal their allegiances to the team. This initiative, while novel in news, barely scratches the surface of what’s possible.
View other local businesses as potential partners, not advertisers.
Completely eliminating advertising as a revenue stream creates other new opportunities. Among the most intriguing is that you no longer rely on other local businesses in order to make payroll, which creates the space to explore new kinds of partnerships. These could include membership discounts for readers, joint events, and co-development of needed urban improvements. More than an opportunity to escape advertising’s malign incentive structure, this is an opportunity to put a news publication firmly at the center of a city’s public life.
It’s time to break free. It’s time to build the future of local news.
Someone is going to figure this out. All the elements needed to building this ecosystem exist today. What stands in the way is tremendous skepticism of media, and especially news, from most investors. All that really means, though, is that those investors who do get in early will make an unbelievable impact and go down in history.