Technology and Local News
What are new technologies that can help sustain local news ? How can local news get and leverage user data? How can small publishers take advantage of social media and minimize the negative impacts of social platforms?
The key to getting people to pay for local news is to get an excludable good that readers are willing to pay for. Technology can, for example, collect data, create online subscriptions, seamlessly accept payments, and erect online paywalls. Technology also holds the promise of revenue producing products like event calendars or podcasts — a mobile-first technology. But, local newsrooms are resource strapped and need easy-to-use products that can enhance their access to technological innovations, or they risk falling farther behind.
Stop the Presses
Technology can also reduce the cost of distributing news by moving print content online to websites or mobile apps. The challenge for small newsrooms is using legacy CMS systems for both print, websites and other online channels. Platforms like Facebook (Instant Articles) and Google (AMP) try to address this by making it easier for publishers to get content on their platforms. But, the jury is out, says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Sarah Anne Ganter in their excellent paper on news media and platforms:
The limited data, lack of benchmarks, and problems of comparing various metrics across channels make it very hard to evaluate whether relationships that in the short run may help deliver reach but in the long run are seen by senior editors, product people, and managers as risky are actually working out.
Though it’s difficult for publishers to evaluate the ROI for publishing native content on platforms, editors have “fear of missing out” or FOMO, says Nielsen and Ganter. The hope is that content on platforms will expand content’s reach and load the top of the funnel, with the hope of increasing the number of paying subscribers or drive traffic back to the website.
So, how should local newsrooms navigate costs of online publication? If newsrooms move to an online-only format, they may save money, but how will they measure their “circulation”? How can they get people to pay for online content? Do they publish directly to Facebook or Google? If so, how do they get useful data about their readers and advertisers?
Rather than following the large newsrooms to platforms where content competes with national news and personal updates, local newsrooms should maintain their own quality websites and apps, with gated content. Local newsrooms should try and lower costs and produce a quality, niche information local news product, available for a subscription or membership fee.
Personalization and bundling
The second advantage of using a native app and homegrown website is the publisher maintains control of their user data. This data can be used for personalization. The app, for example, can recommend stories, for example. User data can also help editors bundle together story combinations that people want to read and are willing to pay for.
Audience information and advertising
Generally, the publishers should cautious about relying on revenue from advertising. That said, small papers may still have an information “monopoly” for their city or region. There may be local businesses who want to advertise to a limited audience (or signal they support the community by supporting the paper.) Ideally, local news can use reader data to offer targeted advertising and reports for sponsors.
Automation and bots
On the production, side technology can lower the cost of local journalism by automating repetitive tasks like writing stories. First, algorithms can write stories with a set of predictable facts, freeing up journalists investigate more complicated stories. The L.A. Times Homicide Report Blog, for example, uses an algorithm that reads the coroner’s report and writes short stories about homicides. A reporter reviews the work and can add to it, but the algorithm writes the first draft.
Today, algorithms are most adept at using structured data. Imagine newsrooms using this technology to output financial reports, weather, sports scores, even the police blotter. As the technology evolves, natural language processing could parse unstructured data to create more complicated stories.
Local news audiences also want local newsrooms to be more than a watchdog, says media researchers Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali. They found communities want publishers to be “good neighbors” and to be involved in finding solutions to community problems. So bots could extend the reach of the newsrooms to build relationships and provide value to communities. For example, a Twitter bot at NICAR answered questions about the conference.
Small town newsrooms already have differentiated product — information about that particular region — and bots could repurpose the information publishers already have to answer questions or proactively provide readers with information about their community. Large publishers like The New York Times are already dipping their toes into the water and building bots to engage readers.
The advantage of the bot or algorithm is that once it’s built, it’s automated and low cost. The downside is building a bot or algorithm to write stories. Staff with technical expertise have higher salary costs, and Ali says, small-town news rooms already have trouble recruiting young journalists. So, creating this technology requires hard to come by, expensive skilled workers. But, maybe there is a turn-key solution where bots or story-writing algorithms could be built and deployed like a white-label SAAS product. Quartz opened a bot studio last November with funding from the Knight Foundation.
The potential exists for small publications to use the same technological innovations that are shoring up national newsrooms, but the barriers remain significant: staff, funding, time, resources and the will to change. What is “the job to be done” for a newsroom and staff — professional information providers and content creators — in the next hundred years and what technologies and business models will best serve those ends? The industry is ripe for new products and ongoing disruption.