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How to save “local” hometown news: Make people pay for it

Local news: It ain’t dead yet.


Not by a longshot, if evidence in New York Times Farhad Manjoo’s column “A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People For It” proves scalable.


Don’t stop reading at the words “pay for it”.


Here’s the scoop — (uh, sorry, explanation) in an extended excerpt from the column:


“Hire some very good journalists; one or two are O.K. to start. Turn them loose on a large metropolitan area … or another city going through waves of change and whose local press has been gutted by digital disruption … cover stuff no one else is covering … ignore stuff everyone else is covering.


“Emphasize coverage that is actionable, that residents deem necessary and valuable for short-term and long-term planning — especially obsessive focus on housing and development, transportation, education and local politics. Package it all in a form that commands daily attention — probably a  morning e-mail newsletter — and sprinkle it with a sense of community, like offline and online  networking events for readers.


“How will you fund all of this? This is the most important part: Shun advertising. Instead, ask readers to pay for it with real money — $5 or $10 a month, perhaps even more. It will take time, but if you build it right, you just might create the next great metropolitan news organization.”


Heady stuff. But wait, there’s more.


Manjoo believes that the same basic formula — getting readers to pay a modest sum for something that really interests them — seems to be taking root in what might be called “avocation/avocational” journalism. Two tech savvy entrepreneurial journalists may be showing the way forward.


The Information, a daily tech news service, offers sufficient differentiation from the mega tech media by drilling down on selected tech stories — quality coverage instead of volume. With a subscription of $399 a year, it “publishes just two or three stories a day, often scoops and analysis, including a handy daily roundup of the most important stories of tech in that day. The effect is like that of a filter, and a necessary one. And The Information has broken many big industry stories, including last year’s news of sexual harassment allegations…”


“Stratechery offers a daily newsletter featuring strategic analysis of developments in the tech industry… [It] publishes one article a week for free; to read others, you have to pay $100 a year for the service.”


The amber caution light:


“Sure, there are reasons to be skeptical that this model could work in local news … Yet there are striking overlaps between what those [tech] publications do and what a subscription-based local new start-up would look like… wouldn’t [most tech readers] also pay for in-depth investigations into their kids’ school district, their city mayoral race or the traffic clogging their commute? There’s also the opportunity to pay for a sense of community….


” A subscription-based local news business would offer the same value [as tech news]. Statechery founder Ben Thomson on the overlap: ‘You’re selling people a feeling of being informed, of being good citizens.”