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June 11, 2019, 7:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Mandy Jenkins will build McClatchy’s Google-funded new local sites. What’s her plan?

“A lot of this is taking advantage of what Google has to offer as a partner. They’re tracking all of these interesting trends all the time: what people are looking for and what they’re missing.”

The seesaw between platforms and news outlets is culminating in a local news experiment between Google and McClatchy, in which Google has pledged to fund the development of three local news sites over the next three years.

It’s the first time the Google News Initiative is actually putting money into building newsrooms that produce journalism, rather than just granting money for one-off projects. This partnership was announced as part of Google’s Local News Experiment back in March (more projects have not yet emerged) and is now gaining steam with its new general manager, Mandy Jenkins.

An alumna of Storyful, Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, several established and startup local newsrooms, and now the JSK Fellowship at Stanford, Jenkins is now in charge of building these three local news sites — maybe in existing McClatchy markets, maybe not — and devising sustainable business models for them. (To be clear, these are McClatchy products, with a sprinkling of Google data geek help and “millions” of dollars from Google, according to Google News head Richard Gingras.) We talked about what her role actually is (the test: how does she explain it to her parents?), her local advertising guinea pigs, and how she plans to use Google’s help over the next few years. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: Congratulations on the new role. What about it appealed to you?

Mandy Jenkins: I was actually at the Google News Initiative summit in Mountain View when this project was announced because I live right down the road [as a JSK Fellow at Stanford]. I was really excited from the beginning because I thought this was an interesting idea. I like the focus on business models and not just the editorial side of things. A lot of people out there are doing really great local journalism and the problem they have is sustainability. I like the focus of not only helping community…but also making sure it’s something that can stay there.

Schmidt: There are a lot of layers to this project. I know the news was just announced, but I was wondering how you describe what you’ll be doing when you talk to people about it. [Officially, her title is general manager of the Compass Experiment — which is part of McClatchy — but it’s funded by the Google News Initiative’s Local News Experiment.

Jenkins: I haven’t gotten to talk to too many people about it yet, but in describing to my parents, I was thinking along the lines of: We’re going into the communities where people don’t have access to local news or recently lost their local news provider. We’re focusing on being able to get in there, hire people locally who care about the area, to start providing local news again. My role is helping those local news sites become self-sustaining and making enough money to survive. That’s the thing that should be most exciting to so many people. This is something where we can be really changing something in these communities and also making sure we’re working with them locally to make sure it happens, not just sliding in and setting up shop.

Schmidt: Yes, and there are a lot of steps to that. The press release about your hiring notes you’ll “launch three digital-only local news sites, hire and manage a team of journalists, sales professionals, audience growth experts, and product staff that will build and support these new sites…[and] collaborate with various teams across McClatchy and Google.” This is supposed to be a three-year project. What’s your game plan?

Jenkins: We want to get a first site out pretty quickly. I’m very much a believer in iterating on things as we go. We want to get a site out there and a team together on the ground so we can start not just publishing, but also getting to work on those business models. We’re taking into account what’s already happening in the area and other local news sites, but also getting people in the door who have innovative ideas about what could work in these communities. What could work in one isn’t necessarily going to work in others. [The local news crisis] isn’t one thing to solve; it’s a hybrid model of several ideas. That gives us the opportunity to iterate this and try a lot of ideas along the way. It gives us the time and a bit of flexibility to try out a few things.

Schmidt: What are some of those things?

Jenkins: On the business side, it’s working with local businesses to see what their challenges are in terms of connecting with people locally. Maybe they have a difficult time connecting on social media, maybe they’re an older business that hasn’t gotten into these kinds of things, or wants to get live events going — that’s a thing we know a lot about at bigger regional publications. What could we be doing at the really local level to set up community connections?

We also can’t discount advertising. Ads often get pushed, like “Online advertising? It never works.” But I think there’s also innovation that can be happening there. There are local advertisers who want to be involved and it doesn’t have to scale. We want it to work locally and in this place.

We want to make sure we’re working with people in local communities. What are they missing and how we can be part of that? What kind of coverage works? What are the local subjects that bring people together? In one community, it might be more faith-based, or it might be high school football.

Schmidt: You’re technically employed by McClatchy. Google has said it will have no editorial control over this project, but what does working with Google look like for this?

Jenkins A lot of this is taking advantage of what Google has to offer as a partner. They’re tracking interesting trends all the time: what people are looking for and what they’re missing. They have a lot of expertise in-house and have a lot of interesting experiments around the world that aren’t in the news business. We can figure out some non-traditional approaches to this.

Schmidt: What will the three sites actually be?

Jenkins: We’re looking for small to mid-sized cities. We’re not looking for major cities or bedroom communities or suburbs of major cities, but for the place where people are born and live and their kids go to school there and get something more of a contained area like that. We want a community where they’re already really engaged, they vote, they volunteer, and people are focused on improving the community already — and there are no, or few, sources of local independent news, or they recently lost a local news provider.

Schmidt: Does that mean you are or aren’t looking at places where McClatchy already has a presence? [McClatchy has newspapers in 14 states.]

Jenkins: We’re looking at a few different places now. Once I get in the door and have the data, there could be a possibility in a state or region where McClatchy already has some operations. There are lots of places where that might not be the case. We have to be open to all the options.

Schmidt: Sure, but people in those markets where there are few sources of local news might be worried that you’d be coming in as a new competitor.

Jenkins: That’s something we really want to avoid, going into a place where there’s already someone doing this. We don’t want to hurt somebody who’s already struggling. We can be an ally from the beginning.

Schmidt: You were the managing editor of Digital First Media’s Thunderdome five years ago. Obviously, a lot has changed in the industry since then, but how do you think multi-local projects have changed? How does that project compare to this new experiment?

Jenkins: When I worked at Thunderdome, a lot of what I did was going into fairly small newsrooms and trying to help them not only innovate digitally but tell better stories and give them access to new tools and different kinds of journalists they might work with. There hasn’t been a lot of that that’s still been able to happen. Still, a lot of people run local news sites around the country — sometimes it’s just one or two people hustling, trying to be self-sustaining, and one person wearing 15 hats.

They’re struggling to do that, in some cases, and I think there’s a lot we can learn from [those projects] that haven’t been married to something that has financial backing and digital expertise, but still have that local tie and connection. A lot of people doing that work locally are either local operators, probably struggling to make ends meet in some cases, or big companies doing the best they can but they aren’t at the same level.

Schmidt: How big will the sites be? How many people are you looking to hire?

Jenkins: We’re still figuring that out. Once we get in the door, we’ll be looking at the areas themselves and the needs locally. They are still going to be fairly small operations. I’ve learned from experience at several past startups that jumping in and hiring a lot of people is not going to solve your problem if you’re not hiring for the right roles and places.

Schmidt: Is there anything else you’d like to say, or anything I should’ve asked about?

Jenkins: The importance of focusing on news deserts is really important to me as part of this project. Rural communities, like where I grew up in Ohio, can be really underserved in local news. My parents constantly talk about what they used to be able to get and what they have now. That’s something really important to me. There’s a lot of coverage of news deserts and that’s been reflected in some of the work I’ve done at Stanford. I was talking to users of disinformation and local news readers about how they make the media choices they make. A lot of what they come back to is the importance of local community and knowing who’s providing their news. That helps fuel my interest in getting into this.

POSTED     June 11, 2019, 7:30 a.m.
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