Local news is staging a comeback. But the players leading the way don’t work for your typical mainstream media outlets.
They are people like Michael Shapiro, attorney turned publisher of TheAlternativePress.com in New Jersey. People like Rhode Island’s Josh Fenton, a former Providence city councilman and founder and CEO of GoLocal24, and Lissa Harris, based in rural upstate Catskills, New York, who founded The Watershed Post. Each started their hyperlocal news platforms because they saw a news hole in their communities and decided to fill it.
But is that enough? Can local scale?
These were the very questions Shapiro, Fenton, and Harris sought to address, during a recent panel discussion at the “Innovating the Local News Ecosystem” conference sponsored by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media / NJ News Commons.
Shapiro founded TheAlternativePress.com (TAP) in 2008 so he could be closer to his wife and baby son, who’d just had open heart surgery. He started with news sites covering New Providence and Summit, New Jersey. Within a few years, the operation grew to cover 14 NJ towns. Shapiro then began licensing TAP’s platform, and this year moved to a full-fledged franchise model.
“Many of our franchisees are professional journalists,” says Shapiro. “The franchisee can focus on the news for their town and on the ad sales. We do the rest.”
There now are 30 TAP sites in New Jersey, and it’s growing. The key to scaling local news is not in expansion alone, says Shapiro. In order to scale, he says you must also customize the content for each local town.
“All too often you see these generic stories that run on 20 sites,” Shapiro says. “That’s not what people want. They want their kids’ pictures on the site. They want to see their neighbors.”
GoLocal24’s strategy is a bit different. Founded in 2010, its focus is on mid-market audiences. It launched with GoLocalProv.com in Providence, Rhode Island and GoLocalWorcester.com in Worcester, Mass. and now is expanding to Portland, Oregon. GoLocal24 aims to provide in-depth, investigative reporting and lifestyle news.
“We don’t do daily shootings,” says Fenton. “Local TV’s got that. But our audience does care about clusters of crime in a given part of the community and why.”
GoLocal24 stories have been picked up by The New York Times, Politico, ESPN, NBC Sports, CBS News, and Associated Press, according to its website.
Fenton, who enjoyed a successful career in advertising before GoLocal24, says if you want to scale and drive engagement, you have to be willing to spend on social media.
Currently, GoLocal24 has 40+ social media accounts in New England and 230,000 likes or friends, according to Fenton.
“You got to be willing to adapt to the very rapid changes and the algorithms that used to take place in 3-6 periods and now happening monthly, sometimes a couple of times a month,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harris’s The Watershed Post has become an invaluable news source for and about Catskills residents and events. A small team, led by Harris, covers five counties equal to the size of the state of Connecticut. The area provides the water supply for New York City; hence, the name “Watershed.”
Expanding, or scaling, is not so much Harris’s objective as it is finishing what she started.
“Success is having the money to hire a passionate successor and pay them what they are worth,” Harris said.
So much of what The Watershed Post does is so small and focused, explains Harris. Recently, Watershed covered a story about how a resident in the small town of Denning objected to their neighbor putting up a wind turbine. The story caught on because the neighbor who wanted the wind turbine happened to be actor Judd Hirsch.
“I could count on one hand the number of people involved in this story,” Harris recalls. “There’s no way you could do that story without going there and talking to those people in that town. You can’t just write a generic story. You have to do the work on the ground.”
So, can local scale? When I ask that question, I am reminded of Shapiro’s point about scaling not just being about expanding or increasing your audience reach. Scaling can’t happen without authentic community ties, consistent engagement, and customized content.
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Brett Savage-Simon is PR Newswire’s former director of audience relations and was a television reporter in her former life.