Watering the local news deserts: which communities are thirstiest?

May 12, 2020

Ok, but where best to start? Who wants it most?

The right location choices are a key part of Presslocal’s success. A hat-tip to Karl Sheikh, one of our Founder Institute mentors who kindly followed up on a recent pitch presentation of mine that he assessed to note the importance of this to Presslocal’s success, and in turn of it to potential investors.

I’ve thus been working through this, as you’ll read below. But I need to learn more about how to build the smartest criteria. 

I would love to receive your wisdom on it: specifically from you and  in turn ‘of the crowd’ as you will each have different opinions and reference points. 

“Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible”        

- James Surowiecki

So, please do comment, criticise, disagree on the following. You’re a great crowd.

In determining which locations have the biggest ‘problem to solve’, those with an absence or steep degradation of local news would seem highly valid choices. Go and water the deserts, right?

However, the places of deepest degradation surely implies they can do without it. Otherwise trucks of liquid news would have turned up to slake their thirst. Yes, Facebook and Google have eaten local news’ lunch money generally, but plenty of locations remain well watered.

Related, is the socio-economic factor. Wealthy locations - Portsmouth NH or San Jose CA, say - are bordering on tropical, their paid subscriptions growing. It’s the poorer Middle that has dried out, as an AP study showed. They aren’t valuable enough consumers, perhaps. 

If so, that’s a tragedy for these two reasons:-

And as night follows day...

  • Local governments in those places waste more money (AP)  as the newshound ‘watchdog’ that investigates and asks questions has gone. 

“Those are the kinds of things journalists do” as then Fresno** Bee editor Jim Boren notes 

My view is that the importance of the economic link is borne out when comparing respondents in different countries when asked if they would miss local news A LOT.. The aforementioned Reuters study had 39% of Americans of that view, but only 25% of Brits. 

Wow. That’s a huge difference. How? 

Well, in the US local property taxes fund local schools. Wealth = education = social mobility. Ditto news plurality? Seems highly likely. 

It’s not the only factor though. A (more) federated America also means more locally elected officials - the sheriff, the fire chief - things that you’ll want to read about that aren’t a topic in the UK at a local level. 

Indeed while building out Presslocal in my home of London feels appropriate, not to mention convenient, its arguable that the oversized import of London makes the UK’s national news media more-or-less a local London rag, hence London isn’t logically on a ‘needs this now’ list. The counter of course is that those papers don’t cover news at a local borough level. 

Paradox Redux

How can it be that some local media organisations continue to go out of business amid a deadly pandemic with location fundamental to it? The epicentres, the R rate trenders. Government and NGO advice varying widely by location. A sense of strengthened local community bonds - and, yes, areas of heightened tension too - as people try to soldier on.

One reason I posit is that it's complicated, expensive, uncertain (how long might the pandemic last…?) and wrought with cognitive biases  for a media company to reverse a logical business decision to reduce or stop coverage in a location just because that location can be faintly heard in the distance  shouting “No, wait, come back...we miss you”.

Another reason is that there are many alternatives to traditional local news media. Official advice online, and on signs in the park. Whatsapp and Facebook local groups, both of which have grown apace since Covid. The Reuters Institute 2020 Digital News Report (see picture) notes local news* sharing is the primary driver of Whatsapp’s +10% usage surge, and that there’s now only a 20 point gap between local news (71%) and social media (51%) as a preferred local source, and narrowing.

Not so fast 

But if local news* has reduced, what are they sharing in these local groups? It might well be news - verified, some or all of the 5 W’s applied, endeavouring to be objective - but it may well not. It has certainly included unfounded theories about 5G towers .

A third reason is the demography of local news media consumers. A former CNN colleague of mine described the archetypal TV evening news bulletin audience as ‘55 to dead’, and he said that over fifteen years ago. Here’s Reuters again:-

In short, local news media isn’t viewed by those below middle age, who are in turn have far lower personal Covid health risks. 

Journalist, Heal Thyself

My view is that there’s a prophecy which news organisations need to stop self-fulfilling. 

Older people are not the only people living locally they could and should be informing (and entertaining). Too much of local news looks, feels and IS ‘old fart’ news. It doesn’t address younger citizens - including those under 35, let alone 25 - with their equally valid interests in local topics. Why did the youth centre close?  What’s my local primary school’s plan for handling my kids’ return for the new school year next week? What DJs and live bands are playing in town, and are they worth checking out? 

Ironic. Don’t you think?

There’s an irony here big enough to cause Alanis Morrisette to explode. Local news has always been the early proving ground for young journalists starting out. The ‘cub reporter’ model. Who better to cover these issues than the people most affected by them? 

That brings me to another proposed criteria for location selection. The supply side. I’ve interviewed many recently graduated journalism students that wish they’d had not only a ‘real’ news outlet to publish news stories in their final year (rather than their ‘closed’ University or College website as a proxy) and a place where they could collaborate with peers. Meanwhile the Dean has a role to build community relationships in that town. Helping that community to be well informed seems to me a good method.  

So locations with a journalism school, and graduates thereof, feels like a relevant link. Witness the new role of Jim Boren** formerly of the Fresno Bee. He’s now director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust...at Fresno State University.

Conclusions thus far.

In seeking to serve those most desirous of local news, Presslocal should start with the locations that have had material losses of it, but are not capital cities nor huge metropoles.  

Nor are they tiny locations where (pre-scale) the economics of a very small audience won’t work. A ‘goldilocks’ mid-size town.

In a country with federated/decentralised government where local government has powers and officials that materially affect the populace, and are locally elected.

One with a journalism school and/or other resource of trained journalists, most obviously perhaps those displaced by the now closed or reduced local paper. 

By way of example, The Athletic has succeeded here in sports news, gaining subscribers by hiring great sports writers the local papers thought they couldn’t afford anymore. 

But what say you?

To finish where I started, this is only a start. Even then, some of it may be wrong. I often am.

If so, where do you think my logic is flawed? What other criteria would you apply to choose the countries and localities within them with the best Product-Market fit for Presslocal?


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