Thinking Local and Long Term Media Viability

Mike Kole has a pair of good posts on our evolving media and the progression of two outlets that are going from dying to dead. Newsweek is dead, and WXNT is dying.

For me, the wildcard is knowing the economics of these efforts. Are they entirely unprofitable or are the profits just lower than they have been traditionally? Kole’s description of WXNT, in particular, reminds me of the progression I’ve seen in local newspapers. They are confronted with the increasing fluidity of the Internet mediascape. And, by this, I don’t just mean that things change more quickly. I also mean that, since media has become digitized, content behaves more like a liquid than a solid. When something was fixed in a book, you had to labor to copy and/or transport it. Now, content can mostly just flow from place to place.

Confronted with this new challenge, it seems to me that newspapers have reacted in exactly the wrong way; and WXNT seems to be doing the same. Rather than focusing on the content least likely to be outsourced, they let that content go and offer the content that looks most like a commodity. They let go of the local content that requires shoe leather and effort and, instead, offer opinion, wire services, and – in WXNT’s case – nationally syndicated talk shows. (Now nationally syndicated sports shows, apparently).

The profit margins may well be better for that easy to produce, easy to obtain content in the short term. But, in the long term, you’re going to get undercut time after time with that stuff. Someone will offer it for less (or free), and margins will continue dropping. The locally produced stuff may be slower and more expensive, but it’s less replaceable. I don’t know whether you can make a profit producing that kind of content, but I have a strong suspicion it’s the only real bet for long term viability of our local papers and radio stations.

Comments

  1. gizmomathboy says

    Hyper local should be the future of local media. I remember reading a quote by an editor of some small paper, something like “everyone likes reading their name in the paper.” I know I find it interesting to read a friend’s name or an organization I know about in the local rag.

    Of course, I actually pay for a paper subscription which makes me sort of an outlier in my demographic I think.

    However, I think there might be a place for things like ThinkLafayette.com, propublica.org, and other focused media. However, I’m not certain about that either.

    As you wrote, we don’t know how much of it is them not being profitable or not being profitable enough.

  2. Michael Petry says

    Good Post Doug. The problem with most media is that the paper or radio station may be based locally, but of course the ownership is based in a corporate headquarters(Emmis excluded) somewhere else.
    And the problem arises when a solution for one individual actor is inconsistent with the solution for the industry as a whole.

    If say EVERY local station produced 100% local content, some would survive and some would die, but the survivors would definitely be better off.

    However, instead of dying, the zombie stations are able to limp along carrying syndicated programming which probably wouldn’t sustain them if they were 100% on their own, but it’s enough to sustain them when a corporation can group 100 or 200 together and consolidate some back office work, then they can survive too.

    What sucks about this is that they survive just enough to eat away at the local stations, to the point where it’s really difficult to be a local station.

  3. says

    I might throw in my own two cents in a post of my own. But WXNT’s problem isn’t isolated. It is being felt by AM radio stations all over the country. 90% of the commercials they run are PSAs that, from what I’ve been told, radios are forced to air (at a reduced/no rate?) when they can’t sell that ad space. Even the successful talk radio station in town, WIBC, seems to be airing more and more of these types of ads. WIBC has also eliminated a lot of local talk. Just this year, they cut Ed Wench’s drive-home show by an hour for an hour of Dana Lasch. And 2 hours of the evening was cut from Denny Smith to air the pre-recorded 2 hours of Lasch’s program. Their weekend programming used to have a good chunk of local stuff (Carl Brizzi, Larry Downes) but all that’s left is the gardening show.

    And really, talk radio, much like it was 20 years ago is once again a dying format. When Nielson changed their radio ratings from manual journals that let the user selectively decide what they “listneed” to and for how long to automated sensors, it turns out people were listening to a lot more music and a lot less talk.

    It also hasn’t helped that talk radio hosts openly make most of their money from their websites/fan clubs/whatever. And that provides an avenue for the hardcore fans to decide when to listen to their favorite hosts on their own time, and hosts don’t have to worry about the more casual listeners who won’t buy their books or pay for a podcast subscription.

    On a more Indianapolis basis, television news stations have absolutely thrived in this environment. They’re delivering the news of all types in the format people want and seem to be doing well, and people are watching. Though since these stations generally also serve for the greater central-ish Indiana area, I’m concerned how this impacts media viability that is specific to Muncie, Kokomo, Lafayette, Bloomington, etc… and if stories slip under the radar since most of the reporters live in Marion or the donut counties.

  4. Joe says

    Matt, I disagree. I can’t stand watching any of the local Indianapolis news stations. Best I can tell they’ve devolved into an arms race for who can hire the hottest weather person. So if I want to know what (say) Jim Shella has to say, I’m better off subscribing to his blog.

    As far as the death of local radio, I don’t listen to WIBC at all but their ratings are up the last few months. (http://ratings.radio-online.com/cgi-bin/rol.exe/arb049) The only radio content I always try to tune in for is the 20 minutes of Bob & Tom that is only on Q95 – the local segment of the show. (I’ve listened since I was 12, don’t hate.)

    Most all of the audio/video I consume – 5 minute NPR news summaries, BBC, audio content from ESPN, podcasts from WFNI, tech stuff from 5by5 – it all goes through an iOS app (Downcast) where I listen to it when I can. I am not sure if I’m “the future” of how everyone will consume content or just an edge case.

    I take my local paper (Daily Journal out of Franklin) because they do the best job of producing local content close to where I live. And I don’t envy local media the transition from older subscribers (and advertisers) who insist on paper copies being distributed. And it does seem newspapers have never recovered from Craigslist killing their classified ads market.

    But I still don’t understand their model. Best I recall (can’t pull up their rates easily), it was either the same price or cheaper to take the paper instead of just an electronic subscription. But we don’t use it – we look at the Target flyer, the JC Penney flyer, and the grocery coupons that come on Saturday. The rest goes straight into the recycling bin *unread* or I put it on the garage floor if my car is leaking oil.

    But for my money, as far as cutting costs, my personal opinion is that local papers should drop the national coverage. Why would I want to read the AP wire story that they took at 7pm the previous night, when that news story will be 12 hours old by the time I see it?

    If you’re a small paper in Indiana, you’ll never compete with national organizations, and with the Internet, people can get that news elsewhere. It’s the local stuff that you have the exclusive on that will enable you to make your money.

    • says

      The TV stations are still TV stations and recognize that most of the time their ratings are highest when people need to know traffic/weather/school closings. But that doesn’t discount the hard hitting reporting, investigative journalism, and fun news bits a lot of them do. Mary Mills did a great set of segments on alternate modes of transportation around Marion County by taking them herself. Bob Segal’s “Where are the Jobs” investigation blew the lid off of the IDEC’s phony numbers and arguably led to a Senate bill being introduced in 2013 to make IEDC more accountable.

  5. guy77money says

    The large city newspapers are on life support. I am not sure that even the online editions will be able to generate enough revenue to support a staff that can put out well edited and written content.

    Another problem is the kids (early 30’s on down) don’t read the local newspapers and forget anyone under 30 subscribing to a paperof the morning newspaper. All the national news can be found on so many web sites and if you want your news with comedy turn on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. The only hope is to find a way to (like google who targets what you buy) build algorithms to push the reader the content they will be more apt to read and pay for. Kicking up the local content would help but this is an expensive option for newspapers that are hurting financially. What concerns me is the newpapers were one of the last bastions in society to keep politicans and businesses from running amok. I am not sure if blogs and T.V. newscasts can do (although they seem to be doing a good job in Indy) as good a job as the print media have done. I suspect by 2025 their will be very few print newspapers left in the country and even the online editions will be immensely different in content.

  6. Joe says

    Guy, I’m 35. I don’t think the problem is the youth of America, it’s the media not understanding what people want. They’ve been cutting costs before the Internet became a problem.

    Look at the Indianapolis Star. They got rid of their longtime sports columnists and replaced them from a guy from Denver. What perspective on the local sports scene has he ever offered?

    I get that experience costs money. But Gannett chased all that experience out the door when they bought the paper, and that was before the Internet came around.

    • timb says

      NOT having to read, or even look at the smug photo attached to his know-nothing column, Bill Benner is the best thing that ever happened to Indianapolis. Corporate whores and all around genial back-slappers should thrive in other disciplines, not newspaper-ing

  7. says

    Reminds me of people blaming Hostess’ demise on changing food preferences. There’s still a cookie aisle in my grocery. You can still find Little Debbie and Moon Pies. Even if that was the case, they had twenty years to see it coming.

    The roots are deep; I would mention, in particular, the mad corporate scramble for chunks of the cable/telecommunications pie in the 70s and 80s, that resulted in removing the controls of the ’34 Communications Act. Turning a giant media conglomerate (or even just one run by someone who thinks that way) is like turning a supertanker: it takes 250 miles of ocean to move 5ยบ. The guy who owned no more than seven radio stations had to defend his brand. The board that oversees Time-Life-Warner-Avco-Chase-Kellogg’s-Yum! just sells things for scrap when the profits dip. There’s no incentive to be ahead of the curve, or even atop it. Just continue milking that cow until it’s dry.

    No doubt modern communications have hurt print media. But the fact that most abandoned their core business and chased the entertainment dollar over the last twenty-five years put them on life support to begin with.

  8. Barry says

    I worked as a print journalist for daily newspapers from 1983 to 1995. I see good news and bad news in the demise of current media formats. The bad: The business model when I worked for Gannett was 80 percent paid advertising and 20 percent subscriptions and single store sales. Today, you don’t need to buy a newspaper to look for a house, a car, tires or a piece of furniture. The vendors provide those ads directly through their websites. Circulation is falling as the readership ages, which in turn lowers the price publishers can command for print ads. The print business model is unsustainable. Content does matter to a point. Local news, sports and vitals are very important to people, but it costs more and more for newspapers to deliver local news to their print and online subscribers. Also, newsmakers like sports teams, businesses and politicians can create and distribute their own news directly to the public with no annoying media middle men. And if you complain about a lack of objectivity, just tell that to the Big Ten Network, which peddles a highly successful and uncritical sports-journalism-type product. Where does that leave us? The good news: The wide open world of ideas where barriers and costs of entry are minimal and the possibilities are limitless. We have far more choices and voices than we did even 10 years ago and we’re better for it. The best example I can think of is none other than Masson’s Blog.

  9. MarcD says

    I can’t speak to success or failure, but “hyper local” for Cincinnati TV news has come to mean :

    – 20 minutes of police blotter and fires, making everyone think their susceptibility to tragedy is orders of magnitude greater than what it actually is
    – 5 minutes of some branded form of weather, emohasizingthe size of their Doppler tower (compensating?)
    – 5 minutes of bandwagon Bengals coverage.

    The paper isn’t much better, with nary any detailed coverage on Council or Commissioners and focused on the same crime heavy stuff.

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