Why do we insist that local journalism has to scale?

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Philadelphia Magazine profiled Jim Brady and his new local journalism startup that just launched. Brady is most well known for heading up TBD, a DC website that many hailed as one of the most ambitious experiments in local journalism. It hired a staff of digital natives and closely collaborated with already-established, independent bloggers in the DC metro area. But Allbritton Communications, the parent company of Politico that had backed TBD, pulled the plug only a few months in, long before it had any chance to prove its model. As former TBD staffer Steve Buttry told Philadelphia, “TBD didn’t fail. If they had executed the strategy and it didn’t work, that’s failing. It wasn’t given a chance to succeed.”

But in assessing Brady’s prospects, Philadelphia‘s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood joins the many who have adopted the unchallenged assumption that a local news outlet can only be considered successful if it “scales.” That is, it ignores the hundreds of examples of niche, local bloggers who have figured out ways to sustain themselves financially and instead focuses on only corporate or VC-backed entities that try to simply mimic large-scale institutions.

The closest the city got to having a broadly useful online-only news outlet was Axis Philly. And it failed badly. Created in 2012 with a $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, Axis was led by a CEO named Neil Budde, who earned $225K a year but by all accounts accomplished very little. (Jim Brady was offered the job but passed.) “Neil had a talent for spending, he really did,” says former Inquirer columnist and Metropolis editor Tom Ferrick, who ran Axis after Budde. “He went top-flight on almost everything. I literally had my jaw drop over different people saying, ‘We owe this person this amount of money.’” When I ask Ferrick what exactly his predecessor contributed, he replies, “No one quite figured that out.” “I accept some of that as fair criticism,” Budde told me, but added that he was led to believe Axis would receive more grant money.

The problem with many of these failed journalism startups is that they replicate the structures of legacy media outlets, and by doing so weigh themselves down with the exorbitant costs that legacy news orgs must endure. They rent out office space, employ full-time editorial and advertising staffers, and, because they’re owned by a corporate or venture capital backer, must generate enough revenue not only to fund the staff, but also bring in a healthy profit in order to justify the investment. AOL’s Patch was a noble venture, but couldn’t sustain the profit margins that are expected by AOL’s stockholders.

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Many of the local journalism success stories are often overlooked by reporters who love to declare local journalism a failure. They’re one or two man operations, often working out of their apartments and using a standard WordPress CMS and $8-a-month hosting. Want to profile a successful local journalism outlet? Then interview the blogger behind Prince of Petworth or check in with the husband-and-wife team who launched DC’s Homicide Watch. Or check out the thousands of city-based food blogs that have become powerful recommendation engines that drive real foot traffic to restaurants and food trucks. For most of these, you won’t find a multi-million dollar business with 10 percent profit margins, but you will get insight into local journalism’s future as a sustainable business. Think of them as the mom-and-pop stores that are rising up to challenge the corporate behemoths who until now have dominated the media landscape.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.