BY KINSEY WILSON · OCT. 14, 2021
Despite the pall that hangs over much of the news industry these days, there are real bright spots, even in smaller local markets where the effects of a now two-decade-long economic disruption have landed hard.
As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted back in May, the local news digital startup scene is surging and looks significantly more promising than it did just a few short years ago. From Santa Cruz, to Akron, to Vermont, to Memphis, there are beacons of hope everywhere on the horizon.
And yet, the question of how to build on these still nascent glimmers of success, fast enough to offset the continuing loss of thousands of reporting jobs in local communities, remains elusive.
It’s not for lack of trying. Over the past three years, Google, Facebook, The Knight Foundation and others have plowed more than a billion dollars into efforts to study, catalog, test and support local news initiatives with everything from training to direct financial subsidies.
It’s generated an immense body of work that, taken together, can provide an aspiring news entrepreneur with some of the basic building blocks of a sustainable model for local news.
But it can also feel overwhelming. And at the end of the day, no one has found a simple, repeatable formula. More often than not, success depends on the skills of the editor or publisher. Their vision, their business savvy, the talent they attract and perhaps most important, whether they grasp how to build a step at a time, without getting overextended or undershooting because they haven’t mastered every detail.
In more than 25 years of driving digital innovation across the news business, I’ve come to understand — often the hard way — that technology, timing and execution are far more important than the next new thing.
So what will it take to get the industry to a point where it can move with pace and confidence?
Two years ago, a small team I put together at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, began building a publishing platform for small- and medium-sized local news organizations we called Newspack. (The project was jumpstarted with support from some of the aforementioned funders including Knight, The Lenfest Institute and the Google News Initiative, which has provided the lion’s share of the funding.)
The premise was simple: provide local news publishers with access to some of the same tools that larger organizations already enjoy at an affordable price so they don’t have to constantly struggle to figure out their own technology needs.
But the ambition was grander. With technology as a foundation, we hoped to incorporate the emerging business and editorial insight being developed across the industry to help local news organizations find a path to a more sustainable economic future.