The New York Times sees the future of news as online and extremely local and in response has launched The Local, two Web sites covering communities in suburban New Jersey and in Brooklyn. They’re part of a broad strategy to extend New York Times content to every platform with a reasonable prospect of generating revenue.
This is the second of a series of Market Share columns that examines convergence and competition among local online media.
But The Local, as the venture is called, is more an incubator than a business.
“We are operating at a loss here now, and maybe forever,” says New York Times Editor Of Digital Initiatives Jim Schachter. “The Times does a huge variety of things that don’t pay for themselves, but are good for the journalistic enterprise.”
That’s by no means a license to lose money. “We’re taking time to figure out the best combination of journalism, technology and revenue streams that can sustain these sites — and make them a scalable business,” Schachter says.
In other words, they’re part of a broad strategy to extend New York Times content to every platform with a reasonable prospect of generating revenue.
“At least 75 percent of the site is created by people in the community,” Schachter says. “The only paid content is that being done by our two journalists.” Those full-time reporters double — or rather, triple — as recruiters and editors of a cadre of citizen-journalists. Training and supervision is assisted by a rich supply of unpaid student interns.
The first site to launch is based in Maplewood, N.J., reflecting a marketing bias towards upscale, suburban communities with a diverse population business base. But New Jersey came first for another practical reason: Maplewood resident Tina Kelley was the first reporter offered up by the Times metro desk.
Kelly, who describes herself as a “journalist/blogger, wife, mom, poet, knitter …,” says it’s gratifying to write about where you live. “I’m inherently invested in the quality of life here, especially in the schools. I can find ideas for the blog at the school drop-off, while getting my son’s hair cut, or when neighbors just walk by.”
Even so, Maplewood alone was a bit too hyperlocal to warrant its own Web site. So the Times added nearby Milburn and South Orange, expanding the site’s reach to a more feasible 60,000 residents, not to mention adjacent shopping malls and big box stores.
Still, from the outset the primary focus has been on the content, and citizen contributions are of a refreshingly high quality — including the video production, some of which is written, produced and shot by Kelly.
“I hook up the tripod and do a couple test shots, make sure I’m framed right, and shoot away,” she says. “Then I do my own editing.” Recent videos range from a profile of home brewers to eyewitness coverage of a police escort helping a family of ducks to cross a busy Maplewood street.
“We had Maplewood covered, but we couldn’t turn our back on the city,” Schachter says. So The Local launched a second site, serving two Brooklyn communities, Fort Green and Clinton Hill, two neighborhoods with a lot going for them: 50,000 people, vibrant commercial areas and such thriving cultural centers as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Tech High School and the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. It’s all covered by Brooklyn-based Times reporter Andy Newman.
Another advantage: neither community was Brooklyn’s Park Slope, which Schachter describes as “the most over-blogged community in the world.”
While the style is homier than The Times, you won’t confuse The Local with other chatty blogs. “We want these sites to have a journalistic impulse,” Schachter says. “We try to answer important questions like why [the threat of] swine flu is closing schools in Milburn and Maplewood.”
To ensure reliable stories from volunteer reporters, The Local recently enhanced its outreach efforts with a Virtual Assignment Desk, through which staff reporters — or even readers — can solicit stories on specific topics. Once someone volunteers, Kelly or Newman suggest questions and offer guidance and encouragement, often right out in the open on posted blogs.
A former freelancer, Kelly finds her editorial role especially gratifying. “Even though we’re frequently swamped, I try to respond quickly with useful feedback and get our writers into print in a timely manner,” she says.
To help standardize the supervision of citizen-journalists, the Times added editorial firepower in the person of a third full-time employee: Deputy Metro Editor Mary Ann Giordano, who recently covered the presidential campaign. Giordano has been drafting general editorial guidelines for The Local.
Curiously absent from The Local are the usual clutter of clickable ads typical of local Web sites. The New Jersey Local had one ongoing advertiser whose contract just lapsed. The Brooklyn site had better luck with Ecology Exterminating, which just renewed. Real estate ads that run in the print edition are duplicated online, but free of charge.
“This doesn’t work as a business the way we’re doing it,” Schachter is quick to concede. “We’ve got close to $200,000 in journalist costs alone and there’s no way on earth these sites can generate the revenue to cover that.”
And generating more revenue won’t be getting any easier as competition heats up. Despite its own financial challenges, AOL recently purchased rival hyperlocal New Jersey blog Patch.com, which also covers whole communities with just one paid staffer. Unlike the seasoned Times reporters, Schachter suspects The Patch writers draw only entry-level wages.
But waiting in the wings are a couple of secret revenue weapons from the Times print division. “We have a really excellent telesales force in several communities,” says Schachter. “And the Times has already developed a terrific self-service system that allows advertisers to buy and place messages with a credit card.”
Even so, The Local’s best and likeliest path to sustainability is keeping costs low. Schachter is serenely confident they’ll achieve it by continuing to expand the ratio of reader-generated content. After all, The Local enjoys one unique and powerful advantage.
“There’s no shortage of people willing to supply us with above-average content for free,” Schachter says. “We can help people find an audience. You can’t overestimate the power of saying ‘I was published on the New York Times Web site.’ “
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald appears every Monday afternoon in TVNewsCheck. Is your station or company engaged in a hyperlocal enterprise? Or maybe you have another story to share with your industry. Write to Arthur at [email protected]