Reading about Kansas City’s Digital Sandbox inspired me to brainstorm ideas that would have an impact on the local news ecosystem. Being an online journalist with a background in and love of newspapers, I focused my energy on how The Star might revolutionize its practices. Are these ideas practical? Feasible? I don’t know. But that didn’t stop me from thinking of some cool stuff.
Ignite the imagination.
What’s a newspaper to do when people balk at its paywall?
When The Kansas City Star and other McClatchy papers moved to a paid model in December, the response was predictable. People didn’t like having to pay for something they’re used to getting for free.
Across the country, about 8,000 people have signed up for the papers’ Press+ program, though the company anticipates the paywall will generage $20 million in revenue this year. In Kansas City, The Star’s traffic has dropped to a year-low since the paywall went into effect, according to Compete, a web traffic analytics source. Quantcast shows traffic has dropped continuously since 2010, with a few expected bumps here and there.
These analytics sites vary in their accuracy and methodology. I would not call these numbers definitive by any means, but they do provide insight into overall trends.
A common complaint from Internet denizens is, “Why should I pay for what I already get for free?” There’s nothing new, they say. There’s nothing more. And no matter where they live, it’s a good bet their newspaper has undergone some significant changes over the last few years.
I’m a firm believer that good journalism deserves to be paid for. It’s not a cheap enterprise. But sometimes comments like these have some merit. In any case, we, as an industry, should be striving to innovate and, more to the point, find new solutions. Taking inspiration from KC’s new Digital Sandbox, I decided to ignite my imagination to think of something that could have an impact.
A new perspective
Working at DNAinfo Chicago, a news site covering the city’s neighborhoods, and dating an editor at Patch.com, has given me renewed perspective about what’s possible with online news. TribLocal serves suburban Chicago readers online and with weekly print inserts of hyperlocal content (example: Evanston). Will these experiments pan out? Who knows? But someone’s going to get it right one of these days.
And in this era of personalization, where you can choose the news you see via RSS feeds, follow people and organizations you like on social media, and absorb information from the vast number of blogs covering everything under the sun, there’s going to be something for you.
Except when it comes to local news. Because, for one reason or another, few, if any, legacy media has experimented to recapture audiences that just don’t see their areas covered anymore. (Aaron Kushner, Boy Wonder of the Orange County Register, aside.)
The beauty of DNAinfo and Patch is that they’ve asserted themselves in areas that have lost coverage – and have gained loyal readers. Admittedly, much has been made about the $150 million Patch lost last year. But Patch expanded at a very fast rate, going from several dozen sites to 850 in a year. That kind of rapid expansion is hard to sustain.
Anecdotally, here in Chicago, we hear from readers every day thanking DNAinfo for going into the neighborhoods and covering them. Not a lot of good news comes out of areas like Englewood. And that’s because a general readership cares more about a murder than a new park. But residents of Englewood will tell you they care very much about the positive things in their community, as well as solid – and continuous – reporting.
So what about Kansas City?
The demise of the Johnson County Sun means The Star and a few other smaller organizations – the Shawnee Dispatch, the online Prairie Village Post, for instance – are left with dedicated Johnson County reporters. And that means there’s a big hole for people who really do want to know what’s happening in their immediate areas.
As for specific neighborhoods, forget about it. Barely any media organizations are dedicated to writing about hyperlocal happenings. (But there are some, like the aforementioned PV Post, Midtown KC Post and the Gardner Edge.)
One of the paradoxes of newspapers is how by trying to serve everybody, few people are served very well.
So think local.
Think of how this could work in places like Merriam or Brookside or Hyde Park or Lenexa.
Yes, I’m proposing The Star double down on local news.
A new hope
Hire mobile reporters/editors to comb their coverage areas, produce news and manage sites. Reach out to residents, experts and bloggers to provide and share content. Give readers and businesses new incentives for being part of the community and readership.
Both Patch and DNAinfo have struck out into news deserts, those areas that are devoid of a dedicated news source. And there they’ve found readers hungry for the type of local news that affects their daily routine or their commute, highlights local figures and business, or just make you say, “huh.”
Who knew the smallest park in Chicago is made of a single bench? Or that a pastor at a church tries to spread the Word by rapping. Business openings and closings, crime stats and blotter items, and stories that elicit reactions like “So that’s what that is!” prove to be popular. Other stories go viral, like the cat story from DNA that got picked by, wait for it, the Pussington Post.
Both organizations employ professional journalists, but also utilize partnerships with local blogs (DNAinfo Chicago has a fruitful relationship with a blogger that writes about parking issues) and local residents (Patch has a stable of bloggers who write about area issues or personal musings).
And DNAinfo Chicago has done an ingenious thing by hiring bloggers who are already experts on their neighborhoods. Our Wicker Park and Rogers Park reporters brought a loyal following with them, along with their expertise.
A hyperlocal site in Kansas City might look like this:
It’s a rough (very rough) sketch, with all apologies to Gawker. But it has elements that serve readers and have the potential to generate clicks and revenue: local news on crime and real estate; sponsored posts and business listings (aka micro-websites for small business. Hello, Google!); collaborative efforts with local bloggers; photo galleries; pet obits (hey, it’s a work in progress, but these could be revenue generators); local history; a portal to the parent paper and other local sites; and ads.
Oh, and message boards. Yes, message boards, the Internet 1.0 concept that has remained popular for all these years. (Patch is trying a new take on some sites, adding groups that people can belong to. Lawrence’s health community site WellCommons does that, as well.)
This is where readers retain a sense of ownership over the product. They can ask questions of other readers (“What’s going on on 75th Street?), get answers (“They’re fixing an old water main.”), maintain discussion on local issues, help find lost pets or better babysitters, and foster a sense of community. They may even generate some news, or at least help local reporters find leads and sources.
Message boards do have inherent issues. On KUsports.com, we found that some posters behaved poorly, bullied others and tried to assert themselves by dominating conversations and trolling. Such is life on the Internet. Local reporters could serve as community managers, ensuring off the bat that bad behavior is not tolerated.
Residents in Chicago were shocked when the data- and community-driven website Everyblock shut down. The lack of a revenue model notwithstanding, it was more popular than most people imagined, and there are efforts to use the data Everyblock put out there to create similar projects. It was a roundtable of news, information and sharing. A true community, and it wasn’t exclusive. And you know what? Someone’s going to do it in Kansas City – if they haven’t already begun.
You could also add UGC photo galleries, events, deals and local circulars, social networking tabs, and more.
So what have we done?
We’ve provided our readers with news and information relevant to their daily lives. We’ve entertained them. We’ve collaborated with neighbors and readers. We’ve given local businesses a leg up in online search results and hopefully cultivated a relationship that leads to ad dollars. We’ve created something authentically local.
We have changed just about everything about the traditional news organization. We have created an online hub for the community. Under flag of the city’s most important news source.
And, yeah, as with anything, a project like this would come with a price tag. I’m estimating to launch 10 sites, you’d be looking at at least $350,000 in salary costs alone.
But could the potential payoff be worth the investment?