When newspaper company executives talk to investors and analysts, the air is typically thick with buzzwords. Lately, local focus and its variants “local-local” and “hyperlocal” have been nudging out “multiplatform” for the top spot on that list. At June’s Mid-Year Media Review in New York, Sue Clark Johnson, president of Gannett’s newspaper division, told the Wall Street crowd that metros can thrive and relate to their local communities “if they also think and act like smaller papers.”
Gannett is backing the rhetoric with action. Its 85 papers have launched more than 1,000 local specialty publications this decade. A year ago, the company ordered its newsrooms to transition from focus on the daily print product to becoming “information centers” with such new tasks as building searchable local databases. Gannett has also jumped on the trend of launching Web sites for moms. These contain lots of local listings and chats among participating moms and thus generate a targeted audience for a ready-made advertising base.
So Gannett has a strategy for adapting to the economic upheavals afflicting the industry. And that is more than might be said for some of its competitors. Tribune, for instance, while starting its own hyperlocal Web site, TribLocal, in Chicago has had little to offer its many excellent papers—The (Baltimore) Sun, Los Angeles Times, and Newsday—in recent years but directives to eliminate bureaus, cut staff, and trim newsroom expenses.
Still, investors have hardly been bowled over by Gannett’s proactive stance. They are in a show-me-the-money mode, waiting for advertising revenues and earnings to at least stabilize and preferably show prospects of improving. In four months following Clark-Johnson’s talk, Gannett stock was down nearly 20 percent, off 50 percent from its high in early 2004.
In fairness, changes of the scope Gannett is promising will, best-case, take years to produce significant new income. But my assessment of local-local as a business strategy for the industry is skeptical. There is broad logic behind it, but also a host of devilish details that could drag the effort down and once-vital newspapers along with it.
Some years ago it became clear that most newspapers, even big metros, had little distinctive to add as they edited a version of the day’s national and international report. In the Internet age, such news is widely available, updated 24/7, and free. Someone interested in a news event can pick among The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN or any combination and come away with a pretty good sense of what’s going on. Also, as was the case for a number of readers early in the Iraq War, if a reader believes that U.S. newspapers are missing parts of the story, the BBC and a host of other international sources are just a click away.
So it stands to reason that nearly any newspaper’s franchise—now and in the foreseeable future—will be local news, probably with distinctive variations in print and online. Smaller circulation dailies, which only this year are beginning to feel the advertising pinch, made that call years ago and have, relatively speaking, prospered as most metros became distressed.
Following this basic logic, as newsroom expense cuts became necessary, even metros as big and ambitious as The Boston Globe have eliminated their national and international bureaus. Among nearly all metros, the front page mix is now heavy with local stories, something that was rarely the case not that long ago. When I joined the St. Petersburg Times organization 25 years ago, it pretty much took a hurricane for a local or state story to make the front; now the all-local front, especially on Sundays, is common.
Even the big, broad version of this local strategy requires a few qualifiers. Not everyone will seek out news online, national or otherwise. Some might be perfectly nimble online, but after a busy day and evening they might appreciate the “daily miracle” of sorting and condensation of yesterday’s events—the kind of thing newspapers have done well. No metros are so bold as to settle for a tiny national/international summary tucked back with the truss ads (and what ever happened to the truss ads?). Print readers expect more. Yet there is some movement at newspapers to run more summaries and fewer midlength stories of the kind that filled “A” sections some years back.
More serious pitfalls await if metros go too far in emulating Clark-Johnson’s formulation of thinking and acting like small-town newspapers. Judging the New England Newspaper Association contest in early 2007, I saw plenty of excellent smaller-circulation papers—local, local to the core, often with substantial staff-written reports on adjoining townships. However, in discussions I’ve had more recently with 15 editors of bigger metros, I was surprised to find a number cutting back on local coverage of exurbs and even nearby suburbs. As Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, put it pithily, “We can’t afford to cover the Richmond City Council anymore.”
Like the Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News and The Philadelphia Inquirer have endured newsroom staff cuts in the hundreds in recent years, and a lot of these cuts have been absorbed in bureau coverage (both foreign and local). This can leave residents who used to be served by a bureau of six to 10 journalists from the big-city daily with one reporter—and push them towards relying on a small suburban daily or weekly for their coverage of what’s happening nearby.
I’m very much aware that many newspapers are trying to do the “hyperlocal” part with online sites, usually lightly staffed with a content “wrangler” or two soliciting stories, photo and comment but relying on unpaid user contributions for most content. Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer claims to have more than 200 such micro-sites. Notable examples include The Bakersfield Californian’s The Northwest Voice (for one corner of its circulation pie), multiple “Your Hub” sites around Denver offered by the Rocky Mountain News, and Bluffton Today, launched by Morris Communications in a growing new community near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and created to be online first with a “reverse published” free print version.
I’m leaving it to others—in this collection of articles and elsewhere—to discuss the editorial merits of such efforts being undertaken by newspapers and as unaffiliated citizen-journalism ventures. However, what I’ve observed on such sites are lots more pet pictures and Little League results than news reporting about or discussion of important local issues. And when looked at through the lens of business entities, nearly all are characterized by sparse advertising.
When John Temple, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, said at an editor’s conference that 90 percent of Your Hub revenues (and he thought this was typical) come from the reverse published print version, I was astonished. This indicates that the typical small local business, unable to afford metro advertising rates, might be wooed by a geographically targeted print product but, for now, seems not to be ready for Internet advertising.
Where this circumstance leaves us is pointing in the direction of some of the successful and well-established print local zoning efforts taking place among metro papers. Here are three examples:
My colleagues at the St. Petersburg Times have marched their way to nearby Clearwater and two counties to the north with strong zoned daily sections for each that supplemented the run of the paper. That is how a paper based in a city of 250,000 residents and a county of 900,000 has achieved daily paid circulation of about 320,000 and, on Sunday, 430,000.
A few years ago, the Fort Worth Star Telegram had the highest newsroom staff to circulation ratio among metros. Behind these numbers lay a curious success story. During the mid-1990’s, when The Dallas Morning News pushed into its home country, the Star Telegram added more than 100 reporters and editors in less than a year to strengthen two zoned editions in the area near the airport and in suburban Arlington. Before long a 40 percent advertising revenue increase followed. Wes Turner, the Star Telegram’s publisher, told me the key was providing a seven-day-a-week, current news report in zoned sections of the paper that was professionally produced.
Another variant in making zoned local news work editorially and financially is provided by the independently owned Daily Herald of suburban Chicago and Gannett’s Journal News in New York City’s Westchester suburbs. Neither has a real metro “center,” so multiple editions put different communities in the lead position. As might be expected, both papers have relatively large reporting and editing staffs given their circulation, but there is a payoff in household penetration and broadening the advertising base.
These examples demonstrate that a well-targeted, professionally produced local focus can be an editorial and business success, though it probably takes skill and some luck to get the geography right.
Keeping Business In Mind
There is one more business challenge, little discussed externally but well known inside metro papers, in trying to reconcile a local-local focus with advertiser preferences. Increasingly, advertisers clamor for, and insist on, being placed in the paper’s A-section. The theory is that sports, features, and local are only read by part of the audience while nearly everyone at least leafs through the front section. (Take a look at a midweek sports section of your favorite metro and you will see just how little advertising is there.)
Putting more local stories on the front, with their jumps inside this section, addresses this challenge to some degree. Still, that is not enough copy, as hardened business types would put it, “to run around the ads.” A block of national and international news needs to stay.
While no business model has yet emerged to fully replace the one that drove newspaper profits so high in years past, experimentation with new strategies must happen given the clear and irreversible erosion of the old business model. In this regard, “going local” is not all that different, in a business sense, from newspapers trying to improve their online capacity on a branded site while the business model to support it is being constructed.
As of the end of 2007, here is my scorecard on hyperlocal. Does its content, for the most part, merit being called “news” in the way journalists have understood the word? Maybe, but often not. Will it work as a business? Maybe, but there is little encouraging evidence yet. Meanwhile, thinning the traditional print report, even if financially necessary, runs risks of its own—like losing the attention of loyal print readers even as advertising on the printed page is likely to provide most of the advertising revenues well into the next decade.
Rick Edmonds is media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. He is also coauthor of the chapter about newspapers in the annual State of the News Media yearbook, published online by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.