The rise of local at CUNY New Business Models for News

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If there was a reoccurring conversation topic at CUNY’s New Business Models for Local News event it was: we are not alone.

As local newspapers fold, the entrepreneurial “hyperlocal” publisher has become a new accidental career path for many journalists. Most local publishers assumed their new gig out of necessity after facing a dismal job market or after being laid off from a local newspaper and, until yesterday, many thought they were an anomaly.

Now we are seeing the beginning of a new sector of the news economy: the small online local publishers. As I wrote about previously, Google is making aggressive moves into this space, large studies such as the CUNY business models are being commissioned and many vendors are beginning to offer products to small, locally based news outlets.

But a disjointed community became more solidified at the end of yesterday’s event when CUNY professor and media analyst Jeff Jarvis asked the gathering of 100-plus bloggers, local publishers, reporters and vendors what they needed to see next.

Attendees began shouting out common problems as Jarvis did his best Oprah impression, frantically hustling across the school’s newsroom to hand the microphone to the next local publisher ready to express their concerns. And with every statement, a group of heads would nod in agreement.

“We need sales training!”

More nods.

“We need access to capital!”

The sound of quietly agreeing murmurs then swept the room.

Suddenly a group formally isolated by geography was able to come together and express a degree of uniformity and camaraderie to those with the research means. Some common themes bubbled to the surface:

•    Sales training is needed. Most publishers are leery of breaching the “church and state wall” but are forced to learn how to sell advertising to keep the lights on.

•    Knowledge of non-advertising revenue streams. Local publishers need education and vendors with products to help them accomplish goals of non-traditional revenue streams such as mobile and premium content offerings.

•    Communication. Most mentioned a desire to continue the dialog and networking after the event. For many, it was a coming out party, and chance to discover that local online news is fast becoming an industry.

•    Mainstream media relationships. Local newspapers seem to be a natural fit to help foster the business and content aspects of a local news ecosystem. However many of the conversations with the mainstream media bordered on frustration as local publishers felt ignored by their hometown paper. Many mainstream outlets such as Gannet (injersey.com) and The New York Times (Times Local) are creating local pushes as well.

•    Local ad networks was a common buzz-phrase during Jarvis' presentation on CUNY's business model. Vendors such as PaperG and GrowthSpur each expressed a desire to leverage the selling power of groups of local sites. 

Highlights


The all-day event featured three tracks with the titles “Operations,” “Business,” and “Services and Partners.” No “How to use social media” or “what is a blog” thank you very much.

While I admittedly could not attend every session I did poke my head into a few. Some highlights:

In the “Operations” session, far and away the most useful (and entertaining) was TV producer and CurrentTV co-founder Michael Rosenblum whose humorous no-frills shockingly honest assessment of revenue streams for online video was of benefit to any local publisher in the video space.

"Al Gore made a great VP but he is a crappy businessman,” he said among his dozens of soundbyte-worthy assessments.

His advice to publishers essentially was to license content. In short: cable TV stations need content and have money, you have content and need money.

The “Business” track’s star session for me was “Understanding Business Models” which featured the brains behind the university’s business models, Jennifer McFadden, Jeff Mignon and Nancy Wang, answering all questions about CUNY's extensive study into the business models of local news. The group compiled a spreadsheet with editable variables so local publishers can base their current business models off of the research CUNY compiled. Among the highlights was the revelation that the numbers “did not look pretty” when a pay wall was accounted for.

The “Services and Partners” track featured 12 vendors, all catering products to the local publishing market. Among the highlights were PaperG’s “Placelocal” advertising platform that allows publishers to enter in an address and a business name to automatically pull content from Flickr and Yelp to create a slick IAB standard Flash advertisement.

In all sessions, I saw the sudden coming-to-terms journalists faced when it came to their own future. While most started their hyperlocal ventures to report, the business side of the operation suddenly consumed the thoughts of many in the room.

One participant tweeted that as a journalist he didn’t “do spreadsheets.”

To which Jarvis quipped: "Business isn’t as fun as journalism, but starvation ain’t fun either."

Other notes:

  • Gannett is looking to charge $30-$40 CPM for hyperlocal ads for its InJersey sites.
  • Jarvis via Fred Wilson: Hyperlocal sites don’t appeal to VCs, but neither do restaurants. That doesn’t mean either is not a viable business.
  • CUNY research group: most hyperlocal sites only touch five percent of their available market.
  • The local ad market is a $100 Billion industry.
  • SeeClickFix’s public nuisance reporter, while not getting the same press as CitySourced, is more widely used.
  • Automated ad sales seem to be the Holy Grail for local publishers.
  • Investigative journalism for local sites can be viewed as a marketing expense as well as a content expense.
  • Jarvis: The Telegraph is the leading retailer of hangers in the UK.
  • CUNY team found local blogs pulling in $200,000 in revenue.
  • Outside.in says there are 1000 blogs in Brooklyn alone, though many doubted how many were “active.”
  • Local sites seem to need at least a 60,000-person market to be sustainable.
  • The New York Times does not command nearly the same amount as respect among journalists as it did even five years ago.

Other takes on the event:










 

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