October 16, 2018
Can We Save Local News? A Conversation with Douglas K. Smith of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative
Keeping a watchful eye on the changes in the media landscape is part of our jobs in the PR business. Our clients depend on it, and we can’t do our jobs well if we don’t understand what’s happening at the publications we work with. But it’s also in our DNA — most of us are news junkies at heart.
So we’re all well aware of what those publications are up against, especially in local media, where viable business models and paths to monetization have been all but impossible to come by. The results are mostly discouraging, with news deserts popping up all around the country.
But there are some rays of hope. Speaking to our staff over lunch, ProPublica Illinois investigative reporter Jodi Cohen recently told us that “the public is yearning for reporting that exposes wrongdoing.” She pointed to the creation of her organization and Block Club Chicago in the last year as positive signs.
Cohen isn’t the only one who sees hope for local journalism. We recently spoke with Douglas K. Smith, co-founder and architect of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. Launched in 2015 as the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project, the initiative was developed to strengthen local media in the face of disruption by accelerating the transition to audience-first and digitally skilled news enterprises, improving their practices and helping them grow audiences and audience-related revenues.
Smith, who coauthored Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News, told me that participating organizations have made good progress. Four major metros participated in the first year of the initiative in 2016. Since then, more than six dozen local journalism organizations have participated in what are now five different Table Stakes programs.
The initiative calls for participating journalists to share current challenges and opportunities and discuss strategies. That collaboration has revealed that most news organizations face similar challenges. They include juggling two monumental undertakings. “Journalistic efforts in today’s digitally disrupted world all work hard to put audiences first, create and monetize as many sources of value as possible,” while at the same time newsroom leaders must “retool skills, work and technology in ways that are sustainable going forward,” Smith said.
Early results are encouraging. “Participating enterprises have made significant progress toward success at the challenges selected,” Smith said. That progress includes revenue gains from a variety of sources, ranging from digital subscriptions to native advertising to local digital marketing services to fundraising to events and more.
- The Houston Chronicle revamped its newsletter and expects that by the end of this year, it will have more readers coming to its subscriber website through newsletter click-throughs than through homepage visits. The morning report newsletter has grown dramatically, from 1,000 subscribers in January to 20,000 in August.
- The Philadelphia Media Network, one year after focusing on the performance management models taught in the Table Stakes program, has more than 25,000 digital-only paid subscribers, 25 percent above the goal they had established for the newsroom.
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel grew page views 20 percent year-over-year since 2017, unique visitors by 29 percent and digital-only subscriptions from 13,000 to 30,000.
Three years into the newsroom initiative, Smith hopes that all local news organizations embrace the core tables stakes needed to be in the game:
- Serve targeted audiences with targeted content
- Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences
- Produce and publish continuously to match your audiences’ lives
- Funnel occasional users into habitual, valuable and paying loyalists
- Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build
- Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost
- Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective
“Healthy and sustainable local journalism is a linchpin to healthy and sustainable local democracy,” Smith said. “We cannot have one without the other. We must reverse the now decade-plus slide in the quality and sustainability of local journalism.”
Smith, who is also the author of On Value and Values, a book of moral philosophy for the 21st century, added, “When local journalism gets stripped down to the bare minimum, democracy’s light dims. Citizens, consumers, employees, families and friends all depend on local journalism shining democracy’s required light — not only by shining light on abuses of power, regardless of origin, but also on how local audiences can solve the necessities of their lives and work together to make the places where they live better.”