We like to think The Swellesley Report is one-of-a-kind, but plenty of other communities have local independent online news outfits of their own. We hung with reporters, editors, publishers and other business types from dozens of such sites at the LION Publishers Summit this past month in Nashville, swapping best practices, bonding over financial and editorial challenges, and drawing inspiration from one another.
Having launched in 2005, The Swellesley Report is one of the more established LION members. We’re smaller than most, too. But our entire staff (Mr. & Mrs. Swellesley) attended this event, dividing and conquering for some sessions and workshops, joining forces for others.
One shared frustration for the media is the decreased access to interview subjects at public and private institutions. Organizations increasingly hide their supposedly trusted employees, the ones they often boast about in their marketing campaigns (“It’s our people who make the difference!”), behind communications departments and lawyers. Frank LoMonte of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, is on the lookout for test cases where organizations threaten employees’ first amendment rights to speak freely. Such gag orders have never stood up well in court, he says.
Local independent online news organizations come in many varieties, from for-profit to non-profit, from solo to staffed, from blog-style to podcast- and newsletter- and podcast-focused (Santa Cruz Local). Non-profits, especially those serving news deserts from which traditional media outlets have fled or never existed, often seek grants to subsist. In light of the country’s political climate and downward-spiraling mainstream news business, speakers said, more organizations are emerging to offer grants and other support. The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism will even send its students to help you out via assorted fellowship programs that the school’s Randy Picht describes as the “most flexible in the country.”
This includes Facebook and Google, both of which had reps at the conference—and both of which have reps that make news publishers wary because of their online advertising strength. Joe Hyde of San Angelo Live! in west Texas noted during a session on Ad Tech for Local Newsrooms that his publication no longer posts videos on Facebook, since the social media giant was getting all the ad revenue despite San Angelo getting strong viewership of its videos. “Don’t give up control of your stuff,” he preached.
One thing that most of the new breed of publications has in common is a true community focus. Not only do the publications track news and give voice to residents and organizations, but they also get involved, as we’ve done over the years from supporting spelling bee teams to speaking at events to sponsoring events like Wellesley Theatre Project’s Cone Crawl. Some of these publications put on concerts and debates, in part to increase exposure and in part to diversify their revenue streams beyond online ads and sponsored content, subscriptions/memberships, and reader contributions.
The Swellesley Report needs to get better, for example, at asking our 1,500 email subscribers and thousands of other website and social media followers to contribute. We keep hearing rumors that much of our audience is affluent, after all. But it’s tricky since we’ve always offered everything for free.
Because so many of our fellow online news outlets are small and nimble, experimentation comes naturally. Though it was Alexandra March from the New York Times, which aims to be nimble despite its size, who I first heard discussing experimentation at this year’s conference. Newsletters are a great sandbox for trying out new things, as the Times’ opinion
group did with a pop-up World Cup newsletter that focused less on soccer and more on geopolitical and cultural ramifications of the sports event. Even after the World Cup ended, the Times had secured a loyal new following that it introduced to other content, March said.
The key to staying current with readers is to iterate, and to go where they are (like the Gen Z population, which you might find more easily on Twitter than email). “Don’t set and forget,” she said. “Look at the data and keep things fresh.”
Analytics and numbers
News organizations, like so many businesses, are gaga over analytics. Katie Kutsko from American Press Institute, led a Metrics 101 session, which served as a refresher for some, an introductory course for others. While I’ve spent much of my journalism and content strategy career processing and acting on analytics from programs such as Google Analytics, Adobe Omniture, Facebook’s Crowdtangle and our own analytics dashboard at Mass.gov, I wanted to catch up on the latest at this session and learn about any surprises. I was not surprised to here that engagement, such as readers leaving comments or sharing posts, is a metric to watch.
Kutsko relayed one story about the Dallas Morning News changing one of its success metrics (i.e., key performance indicators) to conversions of readers to paying subscribers. While Dallas Cowboys news is voraciously consumed on the publication’s site, it’s the smaller Southern Methodist University sports fans who are more likely to pay for news that’s harder to come by elsewhere.
As in any analytics briefing, Kutsko was quick to point out that a big part of the job remains using the human touch. “Don’t ask people about what stories they want, they’re not trained journalists,” she said. “But they know their issues.”
A couple of speakers told the story of the news industry by the numbers.
Michele McLellan spit out stats about the local news market, delivering mostly encouraging news. For example, 4 out of 5 for-profit local news publishers have been operating for 5-plus years and only 1 in 5 have gone out of business over the past decade. That beats the 50% rate of general small businesses. Less encouraging is that 2 in 5 of these publishers generate revenue of $50K or less annually.
Also charting progress in local news, Damian Radcliffe shared a handful of sobering stats. This included 1,300 communities having lost total news coverage and three-quarters of people thinking the news industry is doing well financially. Some 60% of people think journalists are paid by their sources.
While sources paying journalists are hopefully a rarity, the reality is that news outlets including ours are on the lookout for more revenue opportunities in a world where so many people expect to get information for free. Some have started offering push notifications to young people who aren’t regular email users, some are targeting smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
We met with a handful of vendors at the show, including Ezoic and LaterPay, the latter of which helps news sites encourage readers to contribute after they’ve read content, rather than interrupting them before they finish consuming articles, videos or other content. You might notice us experimenting with new ad systems in the days and months to come as we look to make Swellesley sustainable not just in terms of longevity but profitability, allowing us to serve all of you for a living. Please be patient, and feel free to chime in if you have great ideas we should be adopting.