Once the bedrock of the media landscape, local news is an increasingly difficult space to make money; as traditional advertising income migrated online, many providers have struggled to survive. But a host of recent initiatives could signal a local media fightback.
- The shift of classified and small business advertising to platforms like Craigslist, Google and Facebook often gets the blame for the collapse of local news. The truth is more complicated than a straight blame game, but the difficulties for the sector are very real.
- A quarter of all U.S. newspapers closed in the last 15 years. A US academic study – News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive? – says 1,800 communities that had their own news outlet in 2004 had lost it by 2020. In the UK, at least 265 local news titles have closed since 2005.
- The loss of jobs and journalism training opportunities are important, but the loss of local press coverage is actually thought to be a threat to democracy. Concerns prompted the UK government to commission the Cairncross inquiry to identify strategies for a sustainable local press and spurred Google and Facebook to spend billions of dollars on local-news research.
Despite the difficulty in developing and delivering news profitably at a local level, publishers, from corporates to local startups, are working to find a sustainable future for the sector.
- The re-emergence of email as a popular information medium has inspired a host of local newsletter initiatives. Leading the pack is Axios Local, a series of city-focused newsletter published by the evangelists for ‘smart-brevity’. Axios already has six local newsletters in play and plans to launch another eight.
- The business has attracted 350,000 subscribers in just four months and is on track to net $5 million this year. Forecasts are for $15 million in 2022. The first Axios Local title – for Charlotte, West Virginia – is set to generate more than $2 million this year.
- Following a similar business model since 2016, 6AM City is adding cities to its network of 11 local newsletters. With 425,000 subscribers for its ‘need-to-know local news and events’ emails it posted revenue of $2.4 million last year. Ad pricing is about $11–$12 CPM for national advertisers.
Putting people on the ground is at the heart of a strong local media presence; from startups to established media organisations, community-based reporters are back in the spotlight.
- Regional publisher JPI Media is redeploying 150 journalists to individual local titles from centralised positions to help the publisher re-engage with the local community. Revenue at JPI fell by 18% in Q1, during a strict UK lockdown, but grew 18% in both April and May compared to 2020.
- “We have editors who have been involved in the community for years,” said CEO David Montgomery. “We have tried to get those experienced journalists back into the jobs they love and excel at and it has made a huge difference to the service we’re providing.”
- News startups in the North of England have the cash to hire new local staff thanks to an investment by Substack. Manchester Mill, Sheffield Tribune and Liverpool Post were among 12 local journalism projects around the world that won a cash grant from the newsletter platform to help them create sustainable local news businesses.
Talking about the Substack Local grants, co-founder Hamish McKenzie said: “The number one problem that local news needs to overcome is the failure of old business models. This is the start of our attempt to foster something new.”