The Pandemic: Turning Cracks into Canyons for Local News

By Michael Shapiro

It’s no secret. Local news has been on shaky ground for some time now — having disappeared entirely in some communities. The shift in how people consume information has led to a change in the economics of local news, exposing the cracks in legacy business models.

Readers shifted online, ad dollars became even more segmented and hard copy newspaper subscriptions began to decline. As a result, local news outlets had to figure out how to plug the holes. Some turned to events, others to e-commerce and still more sought to return to a subscription or membership model to support their news-gathering operations. There were some bright spots, but for every silver lining was another crack in local news business models.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. While there have been warnings and experts had quietly prepared for the possibility of a crippling global pandemic, most of us could not have imagined what we are now facing. In a matter of weeks, the economy came to a screeching halt. With it came an abrupt reigning in of advertising spend on local media outlets and social media platforms alike. The difference is, tech giants are well-positioned to weather the storm and most local news outlets are not.

The paradox of the pandemic is, many local news outlets are experiencing record readership and traffic but are also seeing a decline in revenue. The pandemic is turning what were cracks in local news business models into canyons. These canyons will only get wider as the economic pressures mount. It will require news organizations and stakeholders to rapidly reimagine how local news business models work. So far, the opposite has happened.

Since the pandemic, local news organizations, particularly those that fall under the umbrella of larger publishers, have continued to cut as demand for local news is increasing. Giants, like Gannett, have announced furloughs and layoffs. McClatchy is rolling through bankruptcy proceedings. And hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, is still working to snap up more newspapers.

Consolidation, which has been the dominant strategy to keep local news on its feet, isn’t working to achieve the primary aim of local news — reporting the news. Instead, it has created a scenario where news organizations are under immense pressure to deliver profits. This approach has resulted in stripping down newsrooms to deliver those profits. Local news is always essential to our civic lives, but now, more than ever, the public needs access to objective, well-reported news. Stripping down newsrooms doesn’t achieve that end.

So what can we do?

Local news outlets need to collaborate with each other to produce high-quality local news efficiently and effectively.

Such outlets need to develop revenue models that embrace features not provided by social media like email marketing and not a strength of social media, like search engine optimization (SEO) of content.

And they need to incorporate advertising innovations provided by social media and incorporate them into their local news platforms like Do It Yourself (DIY) social media promotion of content, sponsored content, and making the purchase of advertising simple and automated.

We are already doing many of these things at TAPinto and have seen significant success. While other media companies are experiencing a massive decline in revenues that has led to the gutting of their newsrooms, our revenues during the first four months of this year exceed that of last year and our sites are producing more original local news content than ever before.

The pandemic may fundamentally change how we work. Local news should follow a similar trajectory. Dollars should be spent on reporting, not overhead.

We are demonstrating that technology combined with a unique business model, franchising local news, has created new possibilities — possibilities that we never entertained before. This can be a turning point for local news. Let’s not waste it.

Michael Shapiro is CEO and publisher of TAPinto.net, a network of more than 80 independently owned and operated local news websites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. This post originally appeared on Medium at https://link.medium.com/0YM11sXSl6, and is re-posted here with the permission of the author. 

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