Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mini-Size Me: Trying to Bridge the Gap to Local Online News Content

Ken Doctor notes on his ContentBridges weblog an effort by Amy Webb of Philadelphia to try to consume nothing but online news content for thirty days - kind of the inverse of Morgan Sperlock's quest to eat nothing but McDonald's food for a month chronicled in his movie "SuperSize Me". It's the inverse because unlike Spurlock's dangerous weight gain Amy found herself on a starvation diet for certain kinds of news. Between mainstream news, weblogs and other sources she kept up with mostly via RSS feeds she felt that she had done a good job of understanding world and national news but she was flunking out on local news. Ken ticks of a short list of mobile-oriented equipment that can be used to "replace" a local newspaper these days, but it's far from clear that this alone is going to fill the bill.

There are a wide variety of experiments in online local news collection large and small, including my home town's WestportNow, a great online collection of news, down-home photos and such. But in most instances they are supported by a very thin layer of revenues from Google AdSense and a few venturesome local merchants: most local advertising is either in print or search engine ads, not local online content sources. As much as it's great to talk about how weblogs and other user-generated tools are revolutionizing content, there are very few examples of how they are helping local communities collect and distribute news to the point of providing robust news-sustaining revenues.

Local papers, especially community weeklies, continue to have a stranglehold on local news reporting of substance, and most continue to support that reporting via the one medium that local marketeers continue to understand: print. Search engine ads help local merchants to extend their markets, but it's print for the one thing that people are likely to pick up and browse at the local coffee shop. This will change over time as the Amys of the world get fed differently and a new generation of local merchants thinks differently, but I am not expecting that any time soon. For local news to succeed online there needs to be a combination of professional editorial resources combined with community input and the ability to help local merchants become online marketers as well as advertisers to drive new revenue streams.

I have a six-year old business plan that's ready to be dusted off for doing this right - I don't think that the fundamentals of the market have changed all that much and newspaper chains will progress towards online solutions as slowly as possible until really viable alternatives arrive. In the meantime they will suffer a "death of a thousand cuts" from a wide variety of fractured channels such as Craigslist and American Town Network that are building pockets of value which will drain off their news-supporting revenues step by step. Sorry, Ken, print's not the enemy but a lack of imagination in how to develop effective marketing channels via online news for local markets. The solution includes today's technologies, yes, but these technologies have been widely available for quite some time. The imagination to string them together effectively with an effective marketing model is what's lacking.
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