Leveraging the power of communities: How local journalism is ahead of the game

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Here we explore what local publishers are doing to understand and reach their audience, the opportunities community trust offers them, and how they can translate this into various paid-for models to better suit their readers.

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Challenges facing local news publishers: The print to digital struggle

The challenges local news publishers and newsrooms face are more prominent than ever due to an increasingly digital environment dominated by major platforms and mobile, but they also have distinct advantages over national publications that will help them survive. Scarcity of content, a loyal reader base, and relevance are not challenges plaguing local news media. Local news is sought out precisely because it is close to their audience’s life, expanding into local politics, sports, etc.

But, like larger publishers, where they could once rely on a business model based solely on advertising, local news is being seriously challenged to look beyond it to generate new revenue streams. And while digital media provides the solution, the new frontier can be an uncomfortable area for many local news publishers due to distribution, monetization, and technology.

Where most national legacy publications have relegated the topic of their digital transition to their recent past, it is still a current challenge for many local ones. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism recently published the “Digital Adaptation in Local News” report, where it highlights that “About one in ten local news outlets do not have a website. Some outlets do not have a presence on Facebook. And there are even some local news outlets that seem to have leapfrogged past web 1.0 and straight to social media.”

Local news outlets have the distinct challenges of working with smaller newsrooms, limited resources to invest in digital media (and consequently less opportunities to connect with their audiences online), and diversifying their business models to fit new behaviors.  

In addition, local news publishers have to devise a new way to monetize their content once they have established their presence online. Implementing technology requires resources that are not necessarily accessible for local news outlets; leaving publishers to find innovative ways, new tools, and services, to help and propel their digital monetization strategy. Creating a digital solution that can offer a good experience for the reader, access to qualitative content, and introduce new models of revenue for publishers is paramount.

Local News Strength and Opportunity: Community and Trust

First of all, let it be made clear that newspapers still sell, and local newspapers perform well in this area. But the numbers do not compare to what they once were. Hence the need to introduce business models to local news outlets that can sustain their digital and overall activities.

Second, one unequivocal strength of local news is its power within the community, specifically the trust placed in local journalism. The recent Poynter Media Trust Survey reported that “76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent have confidence in local newspapers.” Comparatively, 55 percent trust in national network news, 59 percent in national newspapers and 47 percent in online-only news outlets. Trust, Media & Democracy’s Josh Kearns expanded on the topic: “Study after study… has shown that as trust has plummeted across many parts of the media, local news has consistently been rated as more trusted. There are many reasons for this, including: Local news is viewed as more proximate, more relevant, more accountable, and more motivated by a shared sense of concern for the community.” Local journalism is potent because it operates from within the community, for the community. It is very much a part of it.

This is a valuable component to be considered by local news outlets; while community does not necessarily equate revenue, having the trust of an audience is the first stepping stone to sustainability—a trusting audience will be willing to try different routes to help a valued element of the community. Local news publishers have taken these points into consideration and are adapting their strategies to incorporate new and flexible business models, offering their audience multiple avenues to access their content online.

How local publishers put their advantages and innovative solutions to use in their digital strategy

Trust should work both ways: readers must be able to trust local content, and they deserve this trust back. They are in fact used to being trusted in the physical world when paying for content. They enjoy the freedom to browse a paper before committing to buying it and can read it at length before committing to a subscription.

Local publishers are starting to recreate this user experience in the digital world, based on the very principles their readers expect in the physical world. Combining trust with choice empowers the reader to make a decision that fits with their reading habits. This allows the publisher to demonstrate the value of their content and ease readers into a more meaningful commitment—a subscription.

Conversely, many readers never intend to subscribe to a newspaper because it just doesn’t fit their needs or budget. They would, however, be willing to pay for a single piece of content, or timed access on a specific day: the “digital single copy” equivalent of content. Readers appreciate the ability to choose what fits their preferences best, and this also helps the publisher convert a larger share of their audience.  

The key to success here is making these purchases as easy for the reader as buying a paper on their way to work. The current experience of purchasing content online is hardly that. Publishers are turning to solutions to improve their users’ journeys and offer them a seamless experience to access and pay for content online.  

John Rodriguez, Publisher at Pueblo Pulp, an independent newspaper serving the Southern Rockies and Western Plains, is one of the first U.S. publishers charging forward with LaterPay’s  innovative solution. “Partnering with LaterPay has allowed us to transition to a digital daily with a frictionless system for our audience - something we have wanted to do for a long time. And we are already generating more revenue now than we would have with ads,” stated Rodriguez. “LaterPay has worked with us to offer our readers the freedom to choose their PULP experience, and the response has been eye-opening. From yearly and monthly subscriptions, to weekly passes, single article purchases and contributions, LaterPay allows us to offer our readers a variety of content consumption options that they are widely receptive to. From day one, LaterPay was interested in our success but also the success of local journalism.

No matter what solution a publisher chooses to stay on top of shifting reader trends, there are certain things that readers expect today. Great user experience and choice are topping the list of those expectations. This is especially relevant for local publishers who don’t have the reader and content volume to make up for the high bounce rates larger publishers experience with traditional paywalls. Local publishers also don’t have the tech resources to implement some of those solutions, so ease of implementation is a major consideration in a digital monetization strategy. What local publishers do have is a strong relationship with their readers. That trusted bond, paired with innovative solutions, will help local publishers get ahead of the digitalization of the industry.

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