Audience-first local news
How Local News Now approaches sustainable local journalism
We’re back. I hope everyone had a good break. I am wrapping up some time in Miami and preparing for a bracing start to the year: A Spirit Air flight to Las Vegas. Talk about a pivot to reality. If you’re also heading to Vegas this week for CES, please come to The Rebooting’s event there in partnership with Outbrain. “The Sustainable Journalism Imperative” will feature a conversation I’m having with Krystal Olivieri and other industry leaders on the critical issue of how to get advertisers on board with continuing to support local news in particular at a time of tight budgets. We’re also having lunch. The event starts at 11:30am local time on Thursday, Jan. 6, at the Aria.
A podcast conversation with Scott Brodbeck, founder of Local News Now, which operates a network of local news outlets in the Washington DC suburbs.
A preview of some plans for The Rebooting in 2023.
Recommendations: The inevitable ad growth slowdown, lessons from email newsletters, the year of hard questions and the coming hand-wringing over AI.
Audience-first local news
For the first episode of The Rebooting Show of the new year, I spoke to Scott Brodbeck, founder of Local News Now. Scott got into local news a dozen years ago, after working in local broadcast news in Washington DC. “I looked at the direction of the industry and didn't love where local was going and ended up leaving and just on a total impulse to start my own site,” he said. “It was like a one day thing.” After this prototypical shower inspiration, Scott launched a local site to cover Arlington, Virginia.
Since then, Scott has built Local News Now into a 10-person company with a clutch of local news sites for the Virginia suburbs near Washington, including ARLnow (Arlington), FFXnow (Fairfax) and ALXnow (Alexandria). The opportunity Scott saw was to make local news products that were different from the typical local news efforts from those coming from the newspaper industry. “The local news outlets that were focused on Arlington were meant for people middle aged and up, living in single-family homes and the more affluent parts of Arlington, Scott said of the time when he was in his 20s. “I wanted to launch something that was gonna speak to people my age.”
Some key takeaways from the conversation:
Geography matters. Local News Now focuses on fast-growing, affluent areas that ring the Washington DC area. The median income in Arlington, for example, is $128,000, compared to $70,000 for the U.S. overall. That helps greatly, particularly for a business model that’s mostly reliant on advertising. “If we were in a less populated, less affluent area, I still think we could make it work, but it's working to the degree it is in part because of the market,” Scott said.
Being essential starts with being audience focused. The demise of local news is blamed on many forces, but one undeniable one is big legacy chains coasting on what were in essence protected markets. That went away witht he rise of the internet. In recent years, many local sites have downsized and chased clicks instead of being essential to their communities. Local News Now looks to cast a wide net in its areas of coverage while always coming back to what people need to know. “Part of the secret sauce is being really audience-centric in terms of knowing what kind of information appeals to their daily lives,” Scott said.
Find ways to engage communities. A great advantage of local news is it’s by definition of community-focused model. The keys to any community-based publishing venture is getting involvement and moving people from being a passive audience to active participants. One overlooked tool that Scott believes in: site comments. While many sites turned off their comment sections, tired of policing offensive content and spam, Local News Now has stuck with them. “The news outlets that ha dropped their comments section a few years ago, they really missed out,” Scott said. “They had their own little social network on their site.”
Native ads can work at a local level. Many local newspaper sites are a user experience horror show. That’s hardly a way to be audience-first. Local News Now relies on advertising for most of its revenue. Of its ad revenue, half comes from sponsor posts on its sites. “The problem is, on the local level, we’e spent years getting advertisers out of the print mindset,” Scott said.
Listen to The Rebooting Show on Apple or Spotify.
The Rebooting in 2023
It’s hard for me to believe that I started The Rebooting over two years ago already. I looked at the first year as a time of experimentation in order to understand if there was a market for the product I wanted to make. Last year was focused on making it a personal business. My goal for 2023 is to expand The Rebooting into an independent publisher with multiple revenue streams. Here’s my top goals for the year:
Expand The Rebooting’s content. One of the challenges of the solo path is scaling yourself. There’s only so much time and focus possible. A big goal for this year is developing an infrastructure and bringing on support in order to focus more on improving and expanding the product. I see the opportunity to build new content products that everyone involved in building sustainable media businesses will find essential. I’m particularly interested in speaking to reporters who would want to discuss ways to collaborate on these new products (and sponsors who want to help launch them). My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Expand partnerships. I’ve written about my adventures in sales. It’s been invaluable to work directly with sponsors and understand directly what people value and the problems The Rebooting can solve for clients. So far, The Rebooting has done campaigns with over 20 companies. With the help of Paul Turcotte, we’re expanding that as we add in new products like leadership dinners and eventually events. The Rebooting has a very engaged audience of top people in publishing. Get in touch to work together. My email is email@example.com.
Start interest communities. In my notebook before I even began The Rebooting, I had down that I wanted to create “circles” that acted as interest communities to connect like minded people who face similar challenges. I’m kicking that off with an informal group of independent publishers of one or a handful of people since we all face a similar set of problems. If you’re interested in participating in these communities, fill out this form. This will help as I think about how to develop this into a product.
Start a membership plan. I want to keep most of The Rebooting’s content freely available, particularly since I know sponsorship works well with the audience so long as it’s executed right. But alignment is important. I want The Rebooting to be an audience-first model that skips the adversarial tactics that are common with ads-only models. My initial thinking on the membership is to offer a mix of community benefits, like in-person events and virtual communities, along with content that’s only available to members. Would love feedback as I think this through. If you want to help out, take this survey.
Develop an efficient infrastructure. I see having a low cost base as a tremendous advantage, and I want to avoid the mistakes of throwing bodies at needs. In the short term, that means doing 15 different jobs at once, many of which are being done poorly, if I’m being honest. This year that needs to change. Talking about infrastructure – I mean tech, processes and people – isn’t exciting but it’s critical to having a sustainably profitable enterprise. One place I want to start is bringing on an “operations wrangler” who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the hundreds of small tasks that are a reality of these businesses while also figuring out ways to do them all more efficiently. Get in touch if that’s you or you know someone who wants to get an understanding at the ground level what goes into building a publishing business. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, if you find The Rebooting valuable, please share it with a colleague or four.
Mastering email means mastering tactics while also sticking to a solid strategy. Dan Oshinky is an email expert and shared his top 10 lessons from working on email at publishers like BuzzFeed and The New Yorker. Nodded along to most of them, including “be personal, shareable and reliable.”
An ad growth slowdown is inevitable. Advertising is a discretionary expense that companies always use during turbulent economic times. The good news is GroupM still expects 5.9% growth in ad spending in 2023, lower than its original 6.4% increase forecast. These headline figures are also misleading since the shifts happening as the duopoly becomes an oligopoly can obscure how content publishers are at particular risk for pullbacks.
2023 will disproportionately benefit those willing to ask hard questions about their models rather than kick the can down the road. Liontree’s Aryeh Bourkoff uses his annual letter to highlight a year of tumult ahead – “uncertainty” is mentioned 11 times – and note how these periods of “down growth” are beneficial to those willing to ask tough questions about whether they were set up to succeed only in an abnormal growth period that’s now ended.
Hand-wringing over social media destroying democracy will be replaced by hand-wringing over artificial intelligence destroying humanity. My money is on these fears being overblown, yet it’s a good bet the flood of these AI tools, particularly for creative work, will have transformative impact on media and marketing. Scott Belsky’s list of 9 implications is worth a read, particularly how the flood of AI content will shift the creator economy to focus squarely on communities. In the end, those with tighter relationships with valuable communities will fare best.
Ben Smith’s rundown of reasons for optimism for media in 2023 is a grab bag of various positive developments, including hope for the continued progression of new models of publishing that are smaller but still have outsized impact. Newsletters are a symptom of this shift. The struggles many legacy publishers are likely to face in 2023 won’t be equally shared by a crop of newcomers developing lean models and more meaningful audience connections with diverse business models.
Thanks so much for reading. Send me a note with any feedback: email@example.com and please fill out my audience survey.
So many parts of this newsletter resonate. Thank you.
Could the asynch part of the interest communities be held in chat in the Substack app? One chat thread per topic area, per day, once a month? I already filled out the form; just had this idea.