What Local Journalism Needs Now (ONA Take-Aways)

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The recent Online News Association event in Austin was great – full of passionate, committed local journalist-entrepreneurs all trying to figure out the same puzzle.

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Here’s what I took away from the conference:

People don’t realize how close we are to print’s final collapse (and last layoffs). This will be a giant publicity and fundraising window for local journalism… but will entrepreneurs be ready, or in shock? I think we’re less than 24 months away from print economics turning negative and teetering newspaper companies simply shutting the doors.

Building new brands for communities is the key to saving local journalism. Whether the community is a whole state (e.g. Texas Tribune) or a small city like Berkeley (my hometown… thanks, Berkeleyside), the key work is building a brand and editorial voice that the local population will embrace, and also support financially.

We need far more money to prime the pump. The local startup ecosystem is tiny right now. Only a handful of ventures have million dollar budgets; most entrepreneurs are struggling to raise their next 25k or 100k, and can’t pay themselves. Foundations are holding back most of their capacity, waiting to see what happens. Local and regional digital journalism needs an infusion of tens of millions of dollars… or it won’t get off the ground.

We must acknowledge that we’re competing with the whole world, not just other local journalists. Local brands must rise above the noise to attract audience attention and dollars. And that noise is global – not just local public broadcasting and legacy print, but every digital bit of information, entertainment and social app on the planet. And we’re competing for funding with every good cause on the planet.

We need more young entrepreneurs. It takes a ton of youthful energy to be an entrepreneur and build brands – to weather the personal sacrifices and startup challenges you face over many many years. Right now, most local entrepreneurs are older ex-journalists; younger ones seem more drawn to the healthier national media landscape. How can we attract more of them to local?

We need conviction about business models. There’s lingering doubt here. The non-profit model is popular now, since the local ad dollars are gone (you won’t be making a profit even as a for-profit). But culturally, some still wonder if a for-profit model might be better, potentially have more fundraising and recruiting mojo, and less politics. Those who’ve experienced one model tend to be drawn to the other.

We must overcome the scale issues. It’s no coincidence the biggest nonprofit entrepreneurial success so far has been in a Texas-sized market. The bigger the operation, the better it can support the fixed investments involved: tech, audio/video, analytics, marketing, fundraising, insurance, legal, benefits, deep investigative journalism, etc. We’ll likely need some national networks to help overcome this scale issue.

We need legal muscle. In the old days, everyone knew ‘not to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.’ Newspapers had lots of cash and the best lawyers. Those days are gone (pro bono won’t fill the gap), and governments and bullies will increasingly use the law as a barrier and weapon against local journalists. I’m writing a separate piece about this… let me know if you have any insight or data to share, thanks!

We need a ‘burn rate’ or urgency concept for non-profit journalism. Even journalism non profits should get judged on a ‘burn rate’ – how much they make of their funding how quickly. We don’t have decades to establish these brands; they must break through in their first two to three years, otherwise funders and audiences (and the best talent) will lose interest. For journalists who’ve spent decades in stable organizations, generating this urgency doesn’t come naturally.

We need an impact measurement for non-profit journalism. How should funders decide if their investment is paying off? Completeness of local government/civic coverage (government, crime, schools etc)? Number and size of scandals or fraud exposed? Brand awareness? Audience engagement? Since funding is so limited, we need a high ‘market’ bar for what success looks like… and if or when a venture should be reconstituted or the plug pulled.


All the above will get figured out – but better sooner than later.  I applaud the Texas Tribune founders, who are generously spending time helping others with an attitude of not overthinking, but getting as many entrepreneurs and journalists out in the field and funded as possible.

If you’d like to chat about any of this, or about your own local venture, please shoot me an email (dmargulius at gmail). I’d love to help if I can.

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Fun photo mosaic via The Online News Association’s Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab: ONA board candidates talking up their credentials.


Dave Margulius is trying to figure out how to help local journalist-entrepreneurs succeed. A lifelong entrepreneur, he previously co-founded and ran Quizlet Inc., a leading education software company. He also co-founded Boston.com for The Boston Globe, back in the stone age of online journalism.

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