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April 8, 2020, 2:13 p.m.
Business Models

Under stress but seeing their work resonate, local news orgs are experimenting through the pandemic

“If you’re looking for someone who has managed a local news organization through a global pandemic, you’re not going to find one. As an industry, we’ve weathered a lot, but this is all new.”

The coronavirus outbreak and its economic impact are forcing news organizations of every size to make life-or-death business decisions. Small independent publications, even those not chiefly dependent on advertising, are staring down short-term financial challenges and long-term uncertainty.

Newsonomics: Tomorrow’s life-or-death decisions for newspapers are suddenly today’s, thanks to coronavirus ]

Still, there’s a sense that there are still opportunities afoot for those nimble enough to capitalize on them. Newsrooms are keen to fortify reader-generated revenue streams and demonstrate the value of local journalism while the interest — and the stakes — are at historic highs.

That’s where our friends at LION Publishers — Local Independent Online News Publishers — come in. They hosted a webinar on managing a local news business during a pandemic Friday that was aimed squarely at helping small newsrooms get through a challenge that many didn’t see coming.

Media consultants Tim Griggs and Ryan Tuck led the presentation. Griggs warned at the onset, however, that anyone tuning in to learn the single right answer or silver bullet would leave disappointed.

“If you’re looking for someone who has managed a local news organization through a global pandemic, you’re not going to find one,” he said. “As an industry, we’ve weathered a lot, but this is all new.”

The pair dove into cashflow worksheets and planning for the worst- and best-case scenarios. (You can get the full recording, slide deck, and a revenue resource guide from LION.) The number-crunching is critical stuff — but what really caught our attention were the ideas and experiments that small local news organizations are deploying on short notice. With a number of local online news organizations having launched during or immediately after the 2008-09 financial crisis, the presenters pointed out that many LION members already know necessity can breed innovation.

Here are some ideas. Feel free to try them at home.

Don’t be shy: Ask your readers for help

The most-cited strategy was a simple one. If you’re in a tight spot, ask for help. Be candid about your finances. Whether you’re subscription-based or dependent on donations, make the ask and do it directly.

Back in early March, we saw the Seattle-based alt-weekly The Stranger level with its supporters in a plea for contributions. As coronavirus and social distancing orders have spread across the country, we’re seeing a lot more outlets turn to the strategy.

Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in North Carolina, wrote a note to readers that began, simply: “I’m going to be blunt. We need your help.”

Tomlin asked readers to subscribe or consider making a donation to Report for America that would help the news organization meet its matching funds requirement.

Griggs and Tuck pointed out newsrooms don’t need to be a nonprofit to accept contributions directly (though they’re unlikely to be tax-deductible) and they don’t need to wait to develop a fancy in-house donation system — simple, secure, and off-the-shelf works too.

Encourage subscriptions, even if you’ve unlocked coronavirus coverage

As a public service, many news organizations have made their coronavirus coverage free. (Griggs and Tuck argued that newsrooms can successfully keep paywalls up, too, as long as the messaging around the decision is consistent and crystal clear to readers.)

But even without a paywall to force readers to pay up to keep reading, local news outlets can nudge people in the right direction. In-article calls to action on coronavirus coverage, in particular, are proving to be valuable.

At the Anchorage Daily News, more than 80 percent of 400 new digital subscriptions came from non-metered articles, according to the presenters. Each article features a prompt to “support local journalism in Alaska” alongside a link to purchase a subscription.

Another option for unpaywalled articles? Some publications are taking cues from The New York Times (which requires a free email registration to view free coronavirus content) or using a soft registration wall that asks readers to provide an email to see, say, another three articles.

To keep advertisers, get creative

The questions that LION heard more than any other were variations on: “How do I keep my advertisers?” With nervous companies scaling back on digital advertising by 38 percent and neighborhood businesses that local news outlets often rely on among the hardest hit, it’s a difficult question to answer. Tuck and Griggs pointed to a few ideas:

See if you can sell sponsored access. Here at Nieman Lab, we’ve written about Postmedia partnering with a Canadian fast-food chain to provide sponsored access to readers. The Southeast Missourian has pulled off something similar, providing stories for free with the support of local medical sponsors.

Turn live events into virtual ones. Here, thanks to free tools like Zoom, presenters emphasized the old maxim “fail fast, fail cheap.” Virtual trivia in partnership with a brewing company? A conversation with a bestselling author or an out-of-town expert? Going virtual certainly has drawbacks, but it also opens up a universe of events that’d be much harder to pull off in person.

The presenters also encouraged publications to reach out to businesses, organizations, and entities with mission-based marketing or a “positive message” to share with the community during the coronavirus crisis, even if they’ve not been advertising partners in the past.

Demonstrate your value to the community

Many local news organizations are doing some of their best, most innovative work in service of their communities.

Charlotte Agenda launched a virtual jar for service workers and Berkleyside lists fundraisers for local businesses.

NOLA.com is encouraging local restaurants to share new menu specials and curbside pickup with readers for free — while reiterating their pageviews and “go-to” status for local news:

As the go-to authority for round the clock local news, NOLA.com can help you get the message out. We have created a resource for restaurants to supply updated information about their current services or changes that have been made during COVID-19 that the approximately 1 million daily visitors to NOLA.com during this crisis can utilize to navigate their dining needs. We are the source for what is going on in the community.

The Discourse launched a “Save Small Business” campaign for Canadian companies.

We also spotted that VTDigger, the nonprofit newsroom in Vermont, pledged to donate masks to local hospitals for every new subscriber.

Photo of U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak visiting a coronavirus testing laboratory in Leeds March 12 by HM Treasury used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 8, 2020, 2:13 p.m.
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