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Oct. 25, 2019, noon

Why I’m starting a company to build out a new model for local news in the 2020s

With Lookout Local, our longtime news industry columnist Ken Doctor is going to apply what he’s learned to try to fill the growing void in local reporting.

Over the past decade here at Nieman Lab, I’ve reported a lot of news industry news. Today, I’m sharing some of my own.

After months of work, I’m happy to begin introducing the new company that I’m heading, named Lookout. It’s a wide-reaching new model for local news; we’ll launch next year.

After 15 years providing analysis of the global news industry, the last 10 of them here, I felt compelled to meld together the best of what I’ve seen and heard — the best of the best practices of the trade — in a way we haven’t seen yet. It’s my opportunity, and my calling at this moment, to take the lessons I’ve learned from many of you who lead and work in the news industry and combine them anew. It’s recombinant news DNA for the 2020s.

As John Davidow, managing director for digital at Boston’s WBUR, recently put it after reviewing Lookout’s plans: “It’s like you got in the cafeteria line, but only took the good stuff.”

We are building a city-embracing mobile experience, delivering knowledgeable topical reporting paired with national content partnerships. We’ll meet our audience where they are, via audio, newsletters, and mobile. We’ll connect journalists and readers in multiple ways. Our reader revenue strategy allows for growing customization. In short, Lookout aims to become a true platform, bringing a national standard of digital execution to local news.

Overall, we believe the successful local news outlets of the 2020s will be the ones that authentically embed themselves into the life of the communities they serve. That’s got to be done both digitally and in the real physical world — you know, those humans around you — so the experience is really shared. And those two worlds have to be connected, through news, city guides, community groups, commerce, reader-driven story creation, and more. Facebook, for all that it does, is just an early way-station on the road to authentic community-driven social activity.

The decade now coming to a close has taught us well that the global internet economy values scale. With Lookout, we believe we can prove out a new truism The internet, locally, can uniquely generate and support new valuable individual, group, and advertiser relationships.

So why am I trying to create a new model and company? I could have just written a book about my ideas — Newsonomics 2020, 10 years after my book Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape The News You Get was published (and excerpted here at Nieman Lab). But the limits of writing and the need for doing have become all too apparent.

I’ve exhorted, cajoled, beseeched, pleaded, and lectured at times, preaching the best practices that I’ve found from the smallest of startups to the global news giants. But the diminishment of local news continues to speed up, the incumbents hobbled by legacy structures. And most of the efforts to fill the yawning local gap — powered by talented and caring journalists — are simply below the scale necessary to replace what’s been lost. One key to Lookout’s model is sufficient editorial and business resources to both make and fulfill a promise to readers in the marketplace.

Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton tells me I’ve written 419 pieces here since 2010. And I’m getting uncomfortably close to a million words here — 903,547 of them before today. I do write long, though usually backed up by ample reporting. Here I ask your indulgence for me to explain a bit about Lookout — based not on reporting, but on months of work.

Digital economics, local focus, necessary scale

“You have to do this,” Walker Lundy, the editor I worked for in the 1990s at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, told me over lunch this summer. Walker usually advises his friends to take early retirement, so I was surprised by the statement. I’ve taken on this mission spurred in part by my unusual constellation of work experience. Lookout will be my fifth career in journalism. At the tender age of 25, I became editor and then publisher of an alternative weekly in Eugene, Oregon. Through city magazine work, years with Knight Ridder newspapers in print and digital, and then as a media analyst, I’ve been able to learn so much from so many news organizations.

Lookout is still a work in progress, and I’ll tell you more as we move toward announcing a launch city, date, and who else is involved. We may well chronicle what we’re doing and learning here at Nieman Lab along the way. In short, though, we intend to offer a local news vision for the 2020s. We want to be part of changing the conversation about what’s possible — and what’s necessary — in the reinvention and revival of new local news institutions.

Lookout recognizes how we consume news today — on demand, at home, at work, in the car, on our phones, in audio, text, and video. Many of us believe that local is as meaningful now as in the heyday of print — but that how we write, present, and deliver local news and information requires a blank-slate start. This isn’t a matter of replicating newspapers digitally.

In fact, we should be able to do more and better local journalism now than we ever have. Consider that a digital-only operation like Lookout will be able to devote about 70 percent of its resources to content creation. The print-based daily model — with presses, newsprint, trucks, big office buildings, and more to pay for — can only afford 12 to 20 percent on content. The digital economics can work if we smartly and appropriately apply the lessons of successful national/global media companies to local ones.

Without the burden of legacy costs and public-company pressures, Lookout can harness the attractive math of digital-only business and the increasingly powerful but inexpensive technologies of our time. Earning our way forward is fundamental to the model.

We believe that new news institutions must stand on their own, earning and growing their own reader and local advertiser revenue. We don’t believe that many local news institutions — as compared to national, state, or regional ones — can do the scale of high-quality work required if they are dependent on ongoing philanthropy.

As a for-profit, public-benefit corporation, Lookout will act with the scale and scope necessary to make readers and sponsors a proposition worth paying for. Our public-benefit structure codifies the centrality of our community service mission. Our for-profit structure allows us to endorse candidates, access capital, and become part of local business communities.

We’re truly digital native, respecting our readers’ intelligence and time to earn a primary place on their home screens. Civic engagement — and betterment — is built into our very fabric. We believe the phone should become a primary tool of democracy, and democracy-building, into what history may someday tell us were the Soaring ’20s.

Everyday democracy

Soaring? That might be hard to believe now, in the final coughs of this exhausted decade, but the means of renewal are in front of us.

I’m not usually at the front of the line in citing popes. However, as Pope Francis described Europe’s malaise in 2014, we suffer from a “weariness” to solve problems. Can citizens, in the midst of messy democracy, find common ground to solve their own problems? Some believe that the wave of nationalism and polarization we see across the world’s democracies is a permanent feature of our societies.

There is plenty reason for pessimism. Our ability to tackle the issues of climate change, affordable housing, education equity, and food security, among many others, seems limited. And yet we’ve never had more knowledge and technologies to address them. What we need to do is activate the democracy, and in that, a vibrant, involved, fair, nonpartisan local “press” is essential.

That need is global. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the problems of media on four continents. The trajectory of digital disruption differs from place to place, but the loss of local journalism — and its resulting effect on self-governance — is universal.

Back in the 1990s, I invited a young NYU professor named Jay Rosen to Saint Paul. We then practiced, in partnership with Jay, “public journalism.” A substantial part of the newsroom had its doubts, but a crew of dozen or so Pioneer Press staffers seized an opportunity: Do great in-depth series journalism on key topics (crime and safety, intergenerational relations, and more), and then hold public forums to involve the now-better-informed citizenry in seeking solutions.

That’s solutions journalism as we’ve come to know it, done in fits and starts across the country. It’s not new, but like the Internet of yore, it’s very unevenly distributed. What Lookout will ask: How do we build everyday democracy into the very fabric of an everyday news source that readers will check into frequently?

Will it work? Certainly, I’ve run across a lot of skeptics. “Nobody cares much about local news anymore.” “There’s simply no business model for local news.” “Why do you think you can make this work when nobody has?” Indeed, the muscle memory of robust local news is atrophying.

Can it be revived? Yes, if you give it a chance — and enough runway to prove the skeptics wrong.

“It’s amazing how people come up to me on the street, and say: ‘You’re publishing stories about things I never knew about,” Eric Barnes, CEO of the year-old Daily Memphian, told me last week.

We’re appreciative of having the support of the Knight Foundation, Google’s GNI Innovation Challenge, and supportive individuals both national and local as we continue to develop our model and build that runway. In the end, it’s a model, made of digital clay. We intend to get more of it right than wrong.

As we do, we’ll figure out where Lookout, goes from there. How might we expand? Where? How quickly? All that is to be determined. The first job is proving out the ambitious model. Lookout Local, the formal name of the public benefit company, will do what it can to enlarge the notion of what is practical in providing robust modern local news.

Talent + technology

One great lesson of our time: Great companies require talent plus technology.

We’ve seen a remarkable brain drain in the news industry, as digital disruption depleted its workforce, its sense of purpose, and its attractiveness to both journalists and business-side professionals. Talent — hiring it at livable, professional rates — will be one key to Lookout. We must find a way to create a new pipeline of agile, diverse, digital-native journalists serving local communities from coast to coast.

How that talent uses technology will distinguish our successes. There is no question that the 2020s will be a time of unprecedented mixing and matching for humans and tech. It must be talent, with clear journalistic and community purpose, that applies the best tools of the day.

We know what doesn’t work. In this age of fast-expanding news deserts and ghost newspapers, we’re — amazingly — moving back to pre-press times when people largely got their news by word of mouth. And the town criers have a lot of problems telling fact from rumor.

David Rousseau, who heads the impressive and fast-growing Kaiser Health News, offered the phrase “misery index” when we discussed how to parse the worse and worst instances of local news. We agreed that while we could spend time writing that algorithm — deciding what and how we should measure — it’s much better to simply reduce the misery. Rousseau, among many others in the industry, has helped me sculpt Lookout this year, and I thank you all.

The extent of that misery is mind-bending, of course, but sometimes it takes a single phrase to stop us. Retired Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger summed it up most jaw-droppingly: “We are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how modern societies would exist without reliable news.” We must face down that prospect.

So that’s a preview. You’ll hear more as we can report it, here at the Lab and elsewhere. While I’ll be devoting most of my time to Lookout, I will continue to write on other topics. Both Josh and I are keenly mindful of potential conflicts, so we’ll clearly remind readers about Lookout with disclosure whenever relevant. Certainly, there may also be topics that become off-limits, and we’ll take the high road on those.

Early in my current career as an analyst, Michael Wolff, now famous for his Trump work, acidly defined my role in the news industry. “You’re the necrologist for the news business,” he told me, speaking of the ancients who read the scroll of the dead. Or, in more familiar news terms, a writer of obits.

Like much of what Wolff opines, it had the aroma of truth. He had a point, but I hope I’ve performed other duties as well. As I look to the 2020s, I come not to bury journalism but to praise what it can — and must — do for all of us.

Photo by Jonathan Silverberg used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 25, 2019, noon
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