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Building sustainable business models for local journalism

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Opinion
Monday, June 24, 2013

BY MARK BLAINE | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

06.24.13 Blog MarkBlaineThe short term news about the news in Portland is painful. The Oregonian's restructuring leaves real questions about the future of critical local coverage that's difficult to pay for, but it will also push readers and journalists to address new ways of getting and using news — whether we like it or not.  

In the past year, Advance Publications has restructured and cut home delivery of newspapers in New Orleans, Cleveland, Pennsylvania, New York and Alabama. Now Advance, the owner of The Oregonian, has applied a similar formula to Portland that includes significant layoffs.

Advance's idea is simple. Its four-day delivery decision relates to the unevenness of advertising revenue across the week. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday editions attract fewer advertisers and often lose money, so the decision to cut distribution on those days is a cost-saving measure, albeit a risky one. Print is where many readers are most at home, and the move relies on shifting some of those readers to digital products on off days.

The Gannett chain tried a similar approach in Detroit four years ago, writes John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University. But it lost so many readers that it resumed some limited daily circulation. In addition, Hartman writes, the projected move of readers and advertisers to digital outlets didn't happen and a large segment of the readership was lost.

"Once you break the daily newspaper reading habit, it never comes back for some folks," writes Hartman.

The ritual of reading a physical paper is important to millions of readers. Digital is the center of publishing, bringing with it some incredible opportunities, but right now, the paper edition still pays the bills. Digital-first publishing operates differently — users experience and expect different things from online and from mobile platforms — and that's a problem that many newspapers have been slow to address.

We're moving to a news ecosystem that won't have one dominant news source in one dominant platform. That's a good thing for diverse coverage but a challenge to find sustainable business models.

Competing publications elsewhere have benefitted from the dominant daily's pull back. When the Advance-owned Times-Picayune in New Orleans cut back home delivery and laid off staff last year, the Baton Rouge Advocate stepped in. The daily, which is 73 miles door-to-door north of the Times-Picayune and serves a population that's about two-thirds the size of New Orleans, filled missing delivery days and hired some Times-Picayune staff.

Readership is also up at The Lens, a nonprofit news organization launched four years ago, and several hyperlocal new sites. There's even talk of a newspaper territory war of sorts, although as James Gill points out in a column in the Advocate on Saturday, it's not like the really old days when insults exchanged in print once led to a duel between two New Orleans editors.

In a commentary in The Lens last month, Managing Editor Steve Myers reflected on the last year and how their nonprofit strategy has unfolded in the wake of the Times-Picayune's changes. The Lens relies on partnerships with local traditional media, and Myers writes, "Lens journalism reaches people even if they never visit our website. But even there, our growth has been astounding. Compared to last May, the number of daily unique visitors has tripled."

It's a non-traditional news approach unfolding in a way more in line with how a publication that started as digital would develop content. The Lens's financial pressures — trading owners for donors — lead to a different news product: It requires partners in established media organizations, and it can't try to cover everything because it runs on a much smaller staff.

Nonprofit journalism isn't a replacement for daily newspapers, but it's one of many models that may fill gaps in local news coverage as dailies contract. It offers much potential as a watchdog for local government, and efforts around the country, led by the example of the digitally savvy newsroom of ProPublica, tend to focus on deep dives into issues rather than broad coverage. Smaller local versions around the country, like The Lens, report and develop the stories, and depend on a solid traditional news infrastructure to get their stories out.  

In Portland, there's healthy competition between a diverse group of sources, including Willamette Week and other alternative weeklies, weekly newspapers, hyperlocal sites, Oregon Public Broadcasting and traditional television and radio coverage. Some of these are likely to benefit from the Oregonian's changes.

For a clue about the way local news spreads, however, a reader doesn't have to go much further than the news of the Oregonian's announcement of layoffs and restructuring — the real scoop could be found by pinging between three or four different websites and noodling around various Twitter feeds connected to the issue. It was, and is, up to the consumer to aggregate.

Mark Blaine is an award-winning investigative reporter and the coordinator of the Gateway to Media series in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications.

Editor's note:  Oregon Business accepts op-ed columns on topics relevant to the state's business community. See op-ed submission guidelines here.

 

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