There may never be a Holy Grail, but the varied building blocks of a successful strategy can be found and rolled out widely across the industry.

By Kinsey Wilson

Despite the pall that hangs over much of the news industry these days, there are real bright spots, even in smaller local markets where the effects of a now two-decade-long economic disruption have landed hard.

As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted back in May, the local news digital startup scene is surging and looks significantly more promising than it did just a few short years ago. From Santa Cruz, to Akron, to Vermont, to Memphis, there are beacons of hope everywhere on the horizon.

And yet, the question of how to build on these still nascent glimmers of success, fast enough to offset the continuing loss of thousands of reporting jobs in local communities, remains elusive.

It’s not for lack of trying. Over the past three years, Google, Facebook, The Knight Foundation and others have plowed more than a billion dollars into efforts to study, catalog, test and support local news initiatives with everything from training to direct financial subsidies.

It’s generated an immense body of work that, taken together, can provide an aspiring news entrepreneur with some of the basic building blocks of a sustainable model for local news.

But it can also feel overwhelming. And at the end of the day, no one has found a simple, repeatable formula. More often than not, success depends on the skills of the editor or publisher. Their vision, their business savvy, the talent they attract and perhaps most important, whether they grasp how to build a step at a time, without getting overextended or undershooting because they haven’t mastered every detail.

In more than 25 years of driving digital innovation across the news business, I’ve come to understand — often the hard way — that technology, timing and execution are far more important than the next new thing.

So what will it take to get the industry to a point where it can move with pace and confidence?

Two years ago, a small team I put together at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, began building a publishing platform for small- and medium-sized local news organizations we called Newspack. (The project was jumpstarted with support from some of the aforementioned funders including Google, Knight and The Lenfest Institute). 

The premise was simple: provide local news publishers with access to some of the same tools that larger organizations already enjoy at an affordable price so they don’t have to constantly struggle to figure out their own technology needs.

But the ambition was grander. With technology as a foundation, we hoped to incorporate the emerging business and editorial insight being developed across the industry to help local news organizations find a path to a more sustainable economic future. 

With over 100 publications now on the platform and dozens more in the pipeline, the contours of that opportunity are starting to take shape.

The publications we support are enormously varied. About a quarter are run by editors and publishers of color or focus on underserved communities. Half are for-profit, half not for profit. Two thirds are in the U.S., the rest scattered across the globe. Some are digital natives, some offshoots of venerable print publications. Three quarters of the sites have fewer than 20 employees. They range from a cricket site in India (published in English and Hindi) to a startup investigative news site in West Virginia.

Amid such diversity, it’s clear that there isn’t a single, simple business model that can be applied across the board.

Instead, the platform allows newsrooms to test, measure and model successful approaches to distinct parts of the business — from audience acquisition, to newsletter distribution, to reader revenue, to direct-sold and programmatic advertising. And then apply them as building blocks that contribute to a publication’s overall success.

We’re still in the early stages. We’ve built a publishing tool and developed a support system. We’ve cultivated a community of more than 500 editors, publishers, producers and developers, who help each other in our Slack channels every day. And we deliver it at a cost well below what competitors charge.

We’ve seen early success — improved mobile performance, faster load times, audience growth, accelerated newsletter signups and significant reader revenue growth.

The Asia Times, to cite one example, moved from a purely ad-driven model, to bringing more than 30% of its revenue from subscribers in just a year. “Without Newspack,” said former CTO David Bicknell, “we would not have had a membership program.”

But the real test will be whether we can build and configure tools that lift the performance of individual sites — track that performance — and then deploy those tools broadly across the platform, so each site isn’t simply trying to interpret its own data and find its own path to success.

If the big tech platforms have taught us anything, it’s that scale matters. Why build something 100 times when you can build it once and apply it to 100 different uses?

We’re not the only ones trying to bring scale to bear. The American Journalism Project, under the leadership of Sarabeth Berman, is deploying tens of millions to provide financial runway and systematic business support to the most promising not-for-profit journalism startups.

The National Trust for Local News, headed by Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, hopes to establish a $1 billion capital fund to acquire local newspapers and build local ownership and support. 

Report for America, under the leadership of Steven Waldman, is doing it by putting legions of reporters in local communities across the country.

But while manpower and financial support are critical, we also need to find a way to distill the most essential editorial and business lessons from across the industry and quickly extend them to others.

With Newspack, we hope to do that by integrating those best practices directly into the platform, making it easy for individual publishers to embrace those practices and apply them directly to their own ventures. 

By now, the importance of driving reader revenue through subscription and donation is well understood across the industry. But the tooling and expertise required to do it successfully has typically only been available to the largest sites or through costly third-party integrators. 

By deploying tools to segment and message readers in real time, we hope to not only make such valuable tools more widely available, but make it far simpler for publishers to deploy them and realize real returns in revenue. 

We’re in the midst of bringing a similar discipline to our advertising technology.

And we’re consolidating data from a variety of sources so publishers can see how their site’s performance stacks up against others.

There are early signs it’s making a difference. Many of the sites that launched on the platform in its first year reported that they were able to increase their revenue by making use of the platform’s integrated advertising, membership and in-line messaging functions.

One of them, YubaNet, an independent news outlet that covers the Sierras in northern California, used the platfom’s mobile-first architecture to help drive a 65% increase in audience and its revenue tools to drive a 45% increase in membership.

Adam Giorgi, director of digital strategy at the Daily Yonder, a not-for-profit covering rural America, says audience, newsletter sign-ups and donations grew significantly after they launched in 2020. “We expect that some of this had to do with increased news interest and attention. But Newspack’s tools almost certainly contributed and are helping us sustain that growth.”

We wouldn’t claim for a minute that we’ve cracked the riddle of how to make local news organizations financially sustainable.

But we do believe that by hosting sites on a common platform we can begin to figure out what’s working and what’s not in various areas of economic and editorial endeavor — and then quickly make it available to other sites.

In effect, leveraging advantages of scale, while preserving the autonomy and independence that allows publishers to authentically address the local communities they serve.

In that way, we hope to accelerate the success of the growing number of independent local journalism sites by allowing them to easily tap into the wisdom of their colleagues without each having to find their way on their own.

The search for the Holy Grail of local news publishing may prove elusive. But it doesn’t mean the many and varied building blocks of a successful strategy can’t be found and rolled out widely across the industry.