For our latest season of the Media Voices Podcast, kindly sponsored by Poool, we’ll be publishing ten episodes exploring the biggest trends of 2022 and how they affect publishers; from subscriptions and membership to advertising, platforms, emerging technology and more. Our third episode explores how the local news market has evolved over the past 12 months, from start-ups showing early signs of sustainability, to the struggles of more established publishers.

After decades of managed decline, the past few years has seen a sea of local news start-ups rising to fill the gaps left by the once-dominant legacy publishers. In the US, publishers like Axios and 6AM City are using lean, MVP models to launch local news outlets with just a few reporters and a newsletter. Many others are using increasingly-available digital tools to set up websites, podcasts, membership schemes and newsletters to support a local news operation with minimal investment.

In Europe, established news organisations are launching new online local services, hiring journalists to fill the gaps in their own ‘news deserts’. In the UK, start-ups like The Manchester Mill have established a blueprint that works for them and are expanding into other areas, without needing tens of thousands of subscribers. Meanwhile in Finland, 39% of those who pay for news say they are paying for regional or local news online – higher than in many other markets.

However, that doesn’t mean the route to becoming a sustainable local news organisation is straightforward. To discuss the state of local news, we’re joined this episode by Chris Jansen, Head of Local News, Global Partnerships at Google. Chris started his career in local radio news, and learned some lessons early on about how hard it is to do original reporting on a local level, especially for small businesses. Now, he leads the Google News Initiative’s local news efforts, helping publishers with best practices and business tools to succeed in the digital world.

Here are some highlights:

The big local news trends that have flourished this year

Chris J: For a couple of years now, local newspaper publishers have been telling us that their number one priority is to drive consumer revenue, namely subscriptions revenue. And advertising is a fast follow to that. And so it’s been interesting to watch that evolve.

That story has not changed much, but we’re starting to see – I’m starting to see is the wrong way to describe it – but I think they’re being perhaps talked about more. And those include any other way to support a local news organisation from a revenue perspective. And I think it brings up really interesting things like contributions – direct contributions, not just a subscription base contribution, if you will, and the whole concept of looking at membership models for local news player.

Maybe we’re reaching this point where people really are understanding the importance of the local news providers in their communities and how important it is for them to directly support them somehow. We think a lot about these type of things at Google.

What’s changed more recently for local news

Esther: What has changed in the last couple of years which wasn’t so easy in the past is that the infrastructure to set up your own media business is easier than ever. So Substack, they put a $1 million commitment to support local journalists launching publications, just email newsletters, so you just log on to their platform and send an email newsletter, and you start to become a local source of news.

Obviously, if you want to do it properly, there’s a lot more that goes into it. We spoke to a number of people at the start of the year for a special episode on US local news startups. And a lot of them were ex-Tribune, ex-Alden employees that increasingly were finding that they couldn’t do the reporting that they really wanted to, that really mattered to the community. So they a lot of them jacked it in and ended up starting up their own publications.

They’re doing really well because the tech you need is absolutely minimal. You can start generating revenue really quickly with a lot of the membership support schemes and things going on. Advertising infrastructure, it’s very, very easy to pick up and plug in these days. A lot of them are saying their business challenge is a learning curve going from a journalist to a business person, but it is easier than ever [on the tech side].

Peter: I spoke right at the beginning of the year with Ryan Heafy of 6AM City. And a big part of what they did – because it grew really quickly, they ended dominating 24 cities over the last 18 months – and a big part of what they did was the playbook that they produced. As long as you’ve got that technology, that baseline in place.

State support for local news?

Chris S: The key point is actually having enough people on the ground to serve the local community. Because part of the problem with the UK in terms of its local news provision is that a lot of the cases we don’t have journalists with boots on the ground. And that’s why some of those local startups are really, really interesting.

When I was doing some research for this, I thought it was really interesting to find out that there’s been some developments like that across Europe, particularly where local news intersects with state support, which obviously was one of the potential recommendations of the Cairncross report. So The Digital News Report 22 notes that in Denmark, three news organisations launched new local news services in 2021, with a total of 75 journalists being hired across three titles to fill those gaps.

What I thought was really, really interesting is Finland. We know that they’re a bit of an outlier in terms of who pays for news. But 39% of those who pay for new say, they’re paying for regional or local news online, which, as far as I know, completely dwarfs the proportion of people who are paying for digital local news, either in the US or the UK.

Common themes in local news provision across the world

Chris J: If we take subscriptions, for example, the principle of presenting a user with subscription options and moving them through a workflow that to hopefully, they convert and they become a subscriber, that probably doesn’t look too different depending on where you are in the world. The digital advertising model is relatively similar across the world, I mean, certainly subject to local laws and some variation there. But at the end of the day, it’s a website with some ads on it, right?

I think there are a lot of learnings that that can be shared broadly in in that regard. And our approach has been, we’d like to do cohort-based learning. So we’ll do Subscription Labs and Ad Transformation Labs where we have a group of publishers who go through the experience. So they’re being lifted by the content, but then they’re lifting one another along the way by constantly sharing learnings.

This topic will be one of the chapters we explore in detail as part of our Media Moments 2022 report, launching on November 30th. Find out more and pre-register here to receive the report.

This season of Media Voices is sponsored by Poool, the Membership and Subscription Suite used by over 120 publishers from around the world. The team behind Poool are industry experts who have put everything they know into the product, ready to respond to your ‘how’ of launching & developing a reader revenue strategy. | @PooolTech

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