When we talk about “saving local journalism,” we too often are really talking about saving big newsrooms. We need to stop doing that.

This week gave us a one-two punch to local news: the GannettHouse merger and news that McClatchy is in serious financial trouble (and really, three if you count the wait-for-it-wait-for-it slow-build takeover of Tribune by Alden Global Capital). Margaret Sullivan captures the worry quite well and it’s worth your read for the context.

I wanted to share a different view on this. I’m less worried about this story because I just spent a few days at Newsgeist with entrepreneurs and local news independents who are telling a different story: the road ahead is hard, but the ground is less treacherous than we think because we’re only thinking about the legacy players.

I’ve been centering on this for a while, but listening to local news leaders and entrepreneurs talk about what they’re doing has crystalized my sense that when we talk about saving local news, the real problem is that we are trying to save it at scale, by which I mean our tech-company-centric way of thinking that saving the news means having/building/restoring big local media organizations.

I’m not there anymore. Scale is the enemy of all our perceived fixes to what ails the news. Economic troubles, problems with context, problems serving underrepresented groups, problems with newsroom diversity.

I will get at why in a bit, but first I want to talk about statistics.

The Meh Line

This is a bell curve, what we call a normal distribution in social science. It maps responses based on how strongly respondents feel about a question on a created scale (such as strongly disagree to strongly agree). The x-axis goes from one end of your scale to the other; the y-axis is the frequency of people with that response.

So if this is, say, a 100-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” going across the x-axis, you can see very few are in either of those conditions. Most are in the middle, not having strong feelings either way. The closer you get to the middle, the more people you have. The further away you get, the less people you have.

There are a few things going on here that are instructive.

First, notice the middle line. That is your 50% cutline. On your scale of strongly agree to disagree, the middle point usually is what I informally call the Meh Line. People can take it or leave it.

Second (and I promise I’m going somewhere with this!), when you cut the lines up further, notice what’s happening here in a normal curve. About 68% of respondents clump in the middle around the Meh Line. Half are slightly agreeing, half are slightly disagreeing.

So why do I talk about bell curves? Because the Meh Line was the basis for newspaper business models for decades because that’s where the people were.

As a thought exercise, here’s a random (and extremely partial) list of things newspapers — as a function of being a general audience publication — had in the golden era:

  • Local news
  • National news
  • Comics
  • Arts & entertainment news
  • Stock tables
  • Baseball box scores
  • Weather
  • Classifieds
  • Ads
  • Crime logs

If I were to poll a local audience about how much they’d want to subscribe to their local newspaper based on that super incomplete list above, we likely would get bell curves for each of feature. Lots of people clumping along the Meh Line, and some who REALLY want it or not.

The driver behind the newspaper business model was packaging enough stuff people felt lukewarm-to-strong enough about and creating a product people would pay attention to. Maybe I don’t subscribe just for box scores, but hot damn, you add stock tables and weather and I’m in. The idea was to put enough things in that people were moderately excited about, and by having it in one place you’ve created a product.

That is, in a given market on a given topic, 68% of your audience isn’t really hot to read your product if that one topic is all you’ve got. But in aggregate, you’ve got something of value because it’s all there.

And that works great in a world of media scarcity, because people have no other way to get that stuff.

But notice how tenuous that model is for any technology disruption. First, you’ve assembled a collection of things that people largely are ambivalent about, so if someone comes along and offers it for free, one by one the freeification of those topics devalues your product.

Smartphones came along and turned recipes, the weather or stocks into apps. Google has largely usurped the all-in-one-place value prop of local news.

This was inevitable, a function of abundance. Stop blaming Google, Facebook, Craigslist, etc. The hard truth I don’t hear enough in saving-the-news conversations is that the newspaper business model was an accidental consequence of technology.

In the good old days that never were, the audience was local, had needs and little ability to reach outside their locality for that information. The internet gave them choices beyond city limits. Scarcity created a type lock-in, and the internet’s abundance blew up the monopoly.

This. Was. Inevitable.

The Seductive Illusion Of Scale

So what does this have to do with scale? Well, scale only cares about the middle of the bell curve. To assemble a large audience, those extremes at the Strongly Agree end (2.5% of your audience) are extremely hard to assemble into a general interest product. They are very willing to pay, but not a lot of people will pay for that.

When we talk about saving local news, let’s be real. We’re talking about accountability coverage, investigative and enterprise pieces, issues of justice in our community. “Real news,” as the curmudgeons would say. But that is some of the most expensive work in journalism, and you’re only appealing to that roughly 5–10% who would pay.

In the golden years, all that hard-hitting news we love to talk about was paid for by assembling a product full of softer features, where there was more money to be had. The middle of the bell curve was subsidizing the end of the bell curve, so to speak. And when someone came along and offered the weather or box scores for free, they left and took all that revenue with them.

We are trying to save local enterprise news, but we are reckoning with the reality that we don’t have nearly the revenue to do that and everything else, as we used to do. So here’s my plea to those of us as we talk about saving local news: if we’re talking about bringing back the glory days of 100-person newsrooms, please stop.

It’s not going to happen.

One of the problems with the big chains like McClatchy is they’re desperately trying to find a business model that works but also maintains the scale needed to support a large news org and the debt/pension obligations they have.

In a world of abundance, unless you’re a big national brand like WaPo or the NYT, niche is your competitive edge. There is revenue there, but the minute you start trying to scale you’re adding topics or coverage areas that drain resources from the core. It’s mission creep.

A shift to a wider swath of coverage, in service of building a large audience, alienates your core audience that is willing to pay. The larger you get, the more you open yourself to disruption to someone who comes along to do a specific thing you do (but free and better). The more we chase the middle, where the people are, the more vulnerable we get. A large newsroom only happens again with commensurate revenue, and chasing that revenue causes you to make choices that dilute your product and open you up to disruptors.

The Fuuuuuuuture

At Newsgeist, I kept hearing stories from people doing really innovative things. They’re asking their community what their needs are and centering products on meeting high-impact needs people will pay for. They are doing a lot of research and listening, because understanding your audience means doing some extra things we haven’t typically done in journalism, trying to identify blind spots and unmet information needs in coverage.

This takes manpower to do this work, and it takes focus and resources to do this well.

You. Cannot. Do. That. At. Scale. It is the enemy.

I keep hearing justified hand-wringing over how we aren’t covering marginalized/underserved segments of our community enough. Or we don’t do enough longreads. That context gets lost. That we focus on episodic news at the expense of covering things like crime at systemic levels. Why don’t we do these things even though we absolutely should? Because when you chase mass audience, there isn’t enough interest to devote the resources you need to do each of those things well. They are niches we should chase, but they don’t appeal to the middle 68%.

Small newsrooms, hyperfocused on meeting a specific community need (or even interconnected needs that are closely correlated) are the future.

Trying to be general interest in a world of abundance is a fool’s errand.

Large media companies are getting hit double here. Their newsrooms have shrunk, so they’re at the right size to do something more tightly focused, but they have profit targets and debt service, so they need scale. That’s the story of GannettHouse, McClatchy, and all the papers that are/will be ravaged by soulless hedge funds like Alden.

If the local newspaper dies, I’m not looking for one large digital product to spring up in its place. I want ten, each focused on something different, driven by audience engagement and research to match coverage with community needs and do that coverage deeply.

Maybe this is the week the music died, as my brilliant colleague Tom Warhover said in Sullivan’s piece. But we’re talking about the death of legacy local news, not local news. It’s the death of an idea that local news must be general interest and try to capture everyone.

I used to be in that camp. I desperately wanted it. I have ink in my blood. But our nostalgia for the glory days (if those even existed — it was more an economic reality than a coverage reality and you should absolutely ask people of color about this) is killing our sense of what is possible.

We need a revolutionary approach to redesigning local news. Re-inflating the newsroom bubble ain’t it. Restoring McClatchy or GannettHouse papers to large operations isn’t saving local news. It just means even if we find the magic unicorn in the days of internet news and figure out a new business model at scale, we are opening them up to a new disruptor.

Starting with the idea that small is not only OK but probably good and (perhaps best!) seems like start of something revolutionary to me. It’s not the solution, but it’s a necessary step.

There *are* people doing this. They can’t afford to come to our fancy ONA gatherings all the time, but we need to figure out how to make space from them to teach us (and that means funding). I got to hear from a lot of them and was so inspired you wouldn’t believe it. I spent two days listening to people who are bucking conventional wisdom and figuring it out. It is intensive and hard work, from hearing them describe it. It requires focus and a lot of listening (and social science methods!).

The NYT and WaPo are going to be fine. They can chase masses because of their brand position. I’d like my local mid-major news outlet to try and stop competing with them. I’d like them all to close their Washington bureaus and let the national players do what they do well.

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(Credit to @mthomps. I’d been pulling at these threads for a while but he was saying the same thing in different ways. He is one of the most thoughtful people in news right now.)

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