When I first stepped foot into the classroom where I would be embarking on my final quarter as a graduate student at Medill, you could say I was a bit taken aback at the mission statement of my capstone course: solve hyperlocal news on the Web.
Not that my classmates and I weren’t smart enough or up to the challenge, but come on – making hyperlocal news “work” online has been a hot-button problem in newsrooms and journalism institutions for, at least, the last 20 years. We’re going to somehow derive the magic key to solve it, make it financially sustainable?
Perhaps more daunting was the experience my classmates and I had at Block By Block, a September local media summit that featured hundreds of local news entrepreneurs still searching for answers to making their site financially sustainable. Some of these local news junkies were successful (I interviewed the editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a site that operated under a $1 million budget last year), while others were, well, not so successful (one entrepreneur expressed making as little as $500 in revenue every six months).
All of those in attendance, however, wanted more – “the secret” to making money in hyperlocal news on the Web.
After 10 weeks of researching the subject, interviewing academics, residents, hyperlocal journalists and editors, one thing is for certain: there is no “secret” to making money in this space.
Today, the Local Fourth Business/Revenue team is releasing its “cookbook”: Sustaining Hyperlocal News, an approach to studying local business markets. And if there is one conclusion to derive from our report, it’s that a broad-based solution to generating revenue in hyperlocal news doesn’t exist.
Solutions to learning how to size-up revenue opportunity in a business market do exist – and that is what we presented in our report.
The real value of our report isn’t in its ability to reveal specific ways to generate income as a hyperlocal; the value in it is to learn how to research customers (audience) in a manner that can create plausible revenue opportunity in an individual market. In other words, the “cookbook” is designed to guide a fact-finding mission on relevant business markets – and how to put those facts to use.
What was challenging about framing the report this way was admitting that we were never going to find “the secret.” Early on, our team had its share of growing pains – philosophically. It is of no surprise that this was a frustrating mission. But over time, and with quality guidance by a cohort of Medill professors (experts in the field), the conclusion was made that with the proper research sustainable revenue generation was possible. The caveat: doing this sort of research and market evaluation is going to take time, a little money, and perhaps a large number of staff members to help. This is not a one person job.
Another significant facet to approaching the revenue problem our report outlines is the audience-based approach. Often times, in our team’s view, local news publishers with traditional media backgrounds neglect the real value in knowing their audience. Editorial decisions – the content a media product produces – should be driven by audience needs, not individual foresight on behalf of a hyperlocal. First and foremost, give the audience what they want. The revenue will follow.
Most importantly, constructing this report taught our team the value of knowing the business market ad nauseam. Interestingly enough, our main lesson was quite obvious – especially to a group of journalism students: the more information you have about a given market, the better decisions you can make to capitalize on. The difference was separating what you think you know with what you should know – pretend you know nothing and research the market until you are blue in the face. Using this approach, our report suggests, will reveal valuable pieces of information you may not have ever discovered.
Special thanks go out to a number of individuals: Our course leaders, professors Rich Gordon and Owen Youngman; Rachel Davis Mersey, our audience research expert; all of the Evanston, Ill., residents that participated in our in-depth audience interviews and surveys; the local businesses in the Evanston market that put up with our phone calls, drop-ins and pestering; the Local Fourth technology team for putting up with our stubbornness to make a buck. The list goes on.
Lastly, if our report is intriguing enough, please make an effort to come to the Local Fourth final presentation, where our team will present a more in-depth account of our business findings – as well as the details of the media product we developed as a tool in the hyperlocal space.