March 13th, 2008

Reinventing Local News Distribution On The Web

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Last month, four major newspaper companies announced a joint ad sales venture to “let national advertisers place ads on local Web sites with a single phone call.” When I read that, I realized suddenly why local newspapers are having so much trouble adapting to the web.

There’s no such thing as a local website.

Think about it for a minute.

There are websites that publish CONTENT pertaining to a particular locality — but a local WEBsite is an oxymoron, because all websites exist on the WORLD WIDE web, i.e. any website can be accessed (barring censorship) anywhere in the world.

A local newspaper, in contrast, is only distributed in a limited geographic region. Before the web, if a local newspaper reported a story of national significance, there were two ways for that story to get national distribution:

  1. A wire service distributed and/or rewrote the story
  2. A national news brand re-reported (and/or rewrote) the story

That was the solution to the problem of physical distribution — but now, local news content published on the web by a local news brand can be accessed anywhere in the world.

And yet it isn’t — because now the distribution problem isn’t a physical limitation, but instead a problem with ATTENTION. There is no way for that story to get attention on the web outside of the audience who already visits the local news brand’s website because they know the brand locally.

But what if there were a way for a local story on a local news brand’s website to get national attention?

And what if there were a way to do it without the help of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, New York Times, or any other national brand?

Well, there is way…

A local news brand’s content could get national attention on the web if every other local news brand linked to it on their websites.

Huh?

Let me take a step back to explain. I’ve been writing a lot about link journalism, a way that journalists can enhance their original reporting and even create a new type of original editorial content by linking to other content on the web.

Because journalists don’t link to anything, they are completely disenfranchised from the web’s link driven distribution system.

But what if journalists did start to link… to each other.

Bloggers have been doing this for years, which is why some top bloggers have better distribution on the web than many journalists.

Ryan Sholin has a list of top blogs that journalists should emulate in their effort to become web-native reporters — most of Ryan’s suggestions are masters of link blogging.

Now imagine if 1,000 newspapers where actively link blogging about issues of local importance — and linking to each other’s reporting on the same issues as part of their link journalism effort.

For example, take the killings at Northern Illinois University, a tragedy of national interest. This event happened in Rockford Register Star’s backyard, and they reported the story from a unique local perspective.

Now imagine if local news brands around the country, as part of their coverage, linked to Rockford’s reporting — and to reporting by the Daily Chronicle in Dekalb, and reporting from other Illinois papers.

If enough newspaper sites around the country did this, the original reporting by these local news brands could have effectively gotten national distribution.

Here’s a less dramatic example. Let’s say you’re a local journalist assigned to report on concerns about local water quality. A simple search on Google news reveals local stories on water quality from across the country, fodder for a great link journalism piece to complement original reporting on how the issue presents in your locality.

But the result would be that your link journalism drives traffic to other local sites — put another way, your journalism would contributing to the national distribution of the reporting by those other local journalists, on the issue of water quality.

It’s national distribution, using a distributed model, i.e. distributing content across hundreds of localities adds up to national distribution. (Yeah, it takes a while to wrap your brain around that.)

But not only is it national distribution, it’s content targeted distribution — you’re directing people interested in a topic to other content on that topic.

This is just scratching the surface, but here’s the key — local newspapers need to reinvent their business model. And the current business model is failing because it’s based on a shrinking distribution model.

So how do you reinvent the business model?

First you need to reinvent the distribution model.

(Shameless plug: Imagine if there were an easy way for journalists to share with each other links to their best reporting, and to vote up the best local reporting on issues of common interest, kind of a Digg for journalists, editors, and newsrooms, where they could combine the power of their links and create a new distribution network — then local news brands could really drive large quantities of traffic to each other’s reporting.)

Comments (4 Responses so far)

  1. Link Journalism is a great idea, already in use by the blogging community and thus by some fringe mainstreamer’s like the Washington Post’s online edition. I guess as long as there is a printed edition, backed by an online site, you will still have the old distribution model also running. (Silly to waste that re-blah-blah’ed-and-bashed content in their mind!)

    Also, just to share this, for it fits into your post;

    In Holland they just launched a regional “web site” for the entire state of “South Holland.” The site is:
    http://www.deweekkrant.nl/
    (Sort of a “supplement” to your weekly, local newspaper.)

    You choose your city and you will get specific stories about that city and your area that all other see as well. But the whole idea is to create a social network and let the readers start groups, share info, communicate.

  2. Sounds like you lobby for “Techmeme for journalism.”

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the big problem with newspapers online is that every newspaper is competing nationally (or internationally, if you speak the same language).

    I think that trying to send traffic back to the originating site is the wrong method though. We need to come up with a way for content to get every which where possible, but be monetized in every instance.

    In other words, newspapers need to adopt the Revver model.

  3. [...] Reinventing Local News Distribution On The Web – Publishing 2.0 (tags: localnews web2.0 publishing) [...]

  4. [...] newspaper needs to rip off”, that I in turn found through yesterday’s enewsletter from Publishing 2.0 in an article on reinventing distribution of local news [...]

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