Proximity is Priority.

Posted: April 20, 2011 by Mike Carter in Uncategorized

Like this house, online-only publications await their foundation.

Introduction

As newspapers continue to decline, the building of a sustainable economic model for online news websites still remains undecided. The manner in which news is disseminated has changed so dramatically that the industry can’t keep up.

Says John Paton, the new head of Journal Register newspapers: “We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the web and, as an industry, we newspaper people are no good at it.”

The traditional newspaper’s economic model relies on a funding structure that is based primarily on selling audience numbers to those who wish to advertise in their publication. Secondly, newspapers have for years supplemented this revenue with sales, there are no secrets being revealed here. With content mainly free online, the problem with building a successful model for an online-only publication lays in pushing revenue past a reliance on ads and finding a way to provide something the public is willing to pay for.

For the first time, advertising revenues online have surpassed those in print, according to the PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2011 state of the media report (PEJR), leading some of my colleagues to believe the decline of local news is to be blamed on its failure to divorce the old news model as journalism has made its migration online.

Local newspaper sites were the first to post news online and this gave them the initial advantage.  But, a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University has drawn attention top the fact that, “the web particularly threatens [local] daily newspapers”.

 “Because it reduces the influence of geography on people’s choice of a news source, the internet inherently favours “brand names”—those relatively few news organizations that readily come to mind by Americans [and Canadians] everywhere when they seek news on the Internet”, the report says.

 The focus has been turned on the national brand newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and the Globe and Mail in Canada, for their coverage of world news events. Even blowing these out of the water are the large aggregator news websites such as Yahoo News, and Google News who attract the most web traffic.

But is the public willing to pay for these services online? Less progress has been made on charging for online news than was predicted. The PEJR states that, of the 36 or 37 newspapers that have opted for a paid content, only 1% of total users opted to pay.

One area of the PEJR of specific interest here is the finding that most American’s are willing to pay for local news. There is an area of opportunity here for a sustainable economic model for paid online content.

The Project

 How often have you heard Frederictonian’s complain about the state of the local media? Most of these are over exaggerated claims. But, for as much good as the Daily Gleaner does in print and online of covering the local beat, some still claim that there are significant holes in its coverage.

Granted, no one can possibly please everyone in this regard, but I believe what is missing is that there is too much concentration on Fredericton as a whole, and not enough on the communities within it.

The stories of the neighbourhood, which are not always scoops, are always of interest to those who live close by. Proximity, in local news, is priority. It seems so obvious, yet it is the stories of the people in the smaller communities-within-a-community that are often (not always) over looked by Irving media juggernaut.

A news organization dedicated to neighbourhood and citywide news could possibly define the areas and neighbourhoods of the city in order to showcase the people and events within them, and connect them to the larger community of Fredericton.

But why stop there?

Are people going to pay to hear about Joe and Sally getting a new cat across the street? Of course not, and we wouldn’t expect them too. The success of this project will be determined by how balanced local news (the priority) is with citywide, province wide, national and international news items that still hold the attention of the majority of readers.

To maintain the priority of local news a concerted effort will have to be spent on finding it. But, it is possible that while 5 reporters are on the street, one may be in the HQ finding and writing about extra-local tidbits. The local stories also have to shy away from gossip and dive hard into the issues of the community. The first step of course, is defining which communities you will focus your coverage on.

Logistically it is impossible to cover every individual community in Fredericton the way that I am proposing. A list of communities that follows shows preference for those with news value, and those with population density.

Looking at a map of the city, we can divide it into four sections: Downtown, Uptown, Northside East, Northside west. Extending coverage beyond the city limits on the east to Lincoln and Oromocto will give two more unique areas for news. Including these areas boosts the number of possible readers.

COMMUNITY AREAS OF COVERAGE:

–          Downtown: from the beginning of Waterloo Row to the Delta, and from St. Anne’s Point Drive to the bottom of the uptown hill, using Waggoners Lane/ Dundonald Street / Beaverbrook Street mid line through the city as the cut off (I would have liked to provide a map but didn’t have the time).

–          Uptown: from this divide mentioned above to the limits of the town of New Maryland, including Skyline Acres.

Note: Uptown and Downtown areas will split coverage of the Silverwood area, including: Golf Club rd., and the Bucket Club, stretching to city limits posts.

–          Northside East: from the Burton bridge in Oromocto to St. Mary’s street. This includes Maugerville, Lower St. Mary’s, Barkers Point and Devon.

–          Northside West: from the beginning of Clements drive near Sugar Island, to St. Mary’s stree. This includes, Douglas, Nashwaaksis and the Kilarney Lake Lodge.

–          Oromocto: All area within the town limits. Also includes Lincoln.

Some coverage of these areas will overlap the coverage found in the Daily Gleaner and will include stories of national interest. A specific focus of this organizations coverage will be how these stories are affecting the people who live them. Their stories will take precedence.

Funding

Where do you get the funding to pull this off? I bet many of you are asking that question right now. Although the plan is to charge for this content, people are not willing to buy a bag of question marks. Simply put, you have to start off free so that when you do charge, consumers will know what they are buying.

Start up costs can be minimised by a simple approach: get the communities to tell their own stories first. One person could, over the course of several months, gather features on the communities, giving an introduction to each one before the site goes online. Then, start news gathering and get a series of headlines going. Take stories that are found in the Gleaner and do in-depth follow ups as a beginning. Eventually, the goal is to find news that is not being reported anywhere else and report that.

First step after building a small audience following is finding funding to expand that audience. One particular “Aid to Publishers” grant by the Canadian government would be helpful. The grant’s are there but you have to dig for them, and even then you may not get them.  Best to start taking donations and saving them.

Next, develop advertising revenues to help spring the publication into action. Local businesses usually pay small amounts for small ads. To prevent from having the publication plastered with ads, offer smaller ad spaces to smaller companies and larger ad spaces to larger ones. One problem that will have to be dealt with is the fact that advertisers already paying the Gleaner for space may not want to advertise with another publication. Special ad rates that are competitive may help this. In a perfect world, revenue from ads will get the organization started, but the alternative to the profit model, the non-profit model, may work just as well as an alternative to a failed for-profit enterprise.

Researching successful online paid-content structures would be helpful. An NY Times style pay wall however, would not work on the local arena at first. Once a solid reputation is built then this possibility is larger.

Types of Stories and Information

Here is where this publication will beat out all the competitors. A local focus starts with the people in the stories who make the stories. The information that is important to them is also what the publication will focus on.

The website should be a place for community conversation. This includes; political reports (city council, legislature), law reports form the provincial court, and school reports from all local high school’s including O.H.S. Campus reports from STU and UNB that do not directly conflict with pre-existing student publications will also be included. Who better to write these than students? At first it will have to be on a volunteer basis, but later money may be able to be offered.

Hot button issues like the closing of the Princess Margaret Bridge, the city transit system woes and the possibility of a QMJHL hockey team will provide fertile ground for stories. More hot button issues like this arise. What makes them interesting are the people that they affect. Publishing stories that relate news to people will help make for a successful local online-only news publication.

One innovative possibility is something I like to call the “Park Report”. We have several sports fields with many different events going on in each. Coverage of the local amateur sports will draw in attention from parents, players and fans. Schedules of ball games and conditions of the field, coverage of the teams etc. will add something that the Gleaner does not have the resources to do.

The big parks are: Carelton Park, Queens Square and Officers Square. Each host events and each also have a community of regular visitors who read, play Frisbee, take their kids to play on the jungle gyms or use the basketball, baseball, soccer and tennis facilities. Talking to these people about what their concerns are and developing stories out of the issues they raise should make the Park Report a pillar of this local online news site.

How better to maintain civilization than through a close interaction with the people in the places where they gather? The Park Report is more than just a report on the conditions, issues and events of a park (although these will all be covered as well), it is a report on the stories that the people share.

If the proposed project seems to be big, it is. Even if it only began as “The Park Report: Conversations from the Park Communities”, it would have the potential to spread into something much bigger.

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