How local media leaders are embracing a digital strategyBy Domenica Martinello
It’s no industry secret: local media news publishers have been severely impacted by the shift to digital.
From print to radio to TV, traditional advertising revenues have been wiped out in favor of online alternatives and circulation earnings continue to dip. An endless stream of content is delivered right into the palm of our hands via smartphone, instantly available and often free.
The landscape has changed. But has your strategy?
During a virtual fireside chat, local media pioneers Mike Blinder, Publisher of Editor & Publisher Magazine and John Newby, Publisher, Owner, & Founder of TRULY-LOCAL & 360 Media Alliance applied their broad and deep knowledge of the industry to the question of digital transformation and future sustainability for local news media.
The building blocks of digital transformation for local media
A perfect storm of factors has blown through the local media industry over the last 20 years, leaving North America littered with news deserts.
Traditional, legacy, and community-focused publishing organizations chugging along and maintaining the status quo have left their communities feeling underserved. They are slowly (or not so slowly) starting to sink.
But it’s not all bleak. In fact, it’s exciting. It’s time for the forecast to change.
Our experts were clear: digital strategies will play a key role in a sunnier future for local media. It all starts with a few basic building blocks to consider:
- Advertising. In 2021, digital ad revenue saw its highest increase since 2006, jumping $50B in one year (IAB). More ad dollars are going to be spent online, and local media companies must evolve and adjust their strategies if they’re going to survive and thrive.
- Saving verticals. According to Mike Blinder, local media professionals have discussed aggregating the classifieds, which represents 50 percent of revenue for most dailies, since well before the advent of Craigslist. But the process has been “like herding cats,” he says. “We’ve done a lousy job at saving insert business and allowed it to go mobile without us being the facilitator.”
- Seizing audience. Are you creating the content and delivering the news in the way your audience wants? Your readership and viewership is hybrid; most news is consumed on mobile devices, through video content, on social media apps like TikTok, via podcasting, and in other non-traditional avenues.
- Monetization. The digital age has removed the barriers for the production and distribution of content. You could be creating the highest quality, most innovative media in the world and reaching massive audiences—but if you don’t have a digital strategy for monetizing it, you’re simply giving the news away.
- Adaptability. When it comes to adopting new technology and implementing digital strategy and best practices, local media is slow to adapt. Being more nimble, thinking outside the box, and embracing new avenues could give you a massive leg up.
“I think our industry, to be blunt, is a herd industry. We wait for others to accomplish something and we all follow suit. When it comes to digital, that's a huge problem. Because whoever gets the first shiny toy in the toybox is usually the winner.”
The relationship between leadership and digital strategy
If the local media industry does suffer from herd mentality, having the right leadership to pioneer the digital transformation is key.
Both experts agreed that there are some excellent leaders when it comes to the print product and the more traditional side of the industry. But do current players have the right expertise and tools to execute digital strategies?
Newby and Blinder are not so sure.
Blinder feels that there is no Steve Jobs or Elon Musk-type figure when it comes to pioneering digital strategy for local media. “There is no one digital god that will guide us,” he quips.
“Consider that a few years ago the buzz around electric cars was non-existent. It took someone from PayPal to start Tesla. We need to bring in people who are good at what they do, to come in and make [the digital transformation] happen.”
Newby agrees with the sentiment.
“Things are starting to change but until we go full steam ahead, I don’t think we have the knowledge within the industry to save ourselves—it will come from outside.”
Filling gaps in expertise and bringing in digitally-focused talent and visionary leadership is an important aspect of future sustainability and growth.
While some local media organizations are leading the digital charge in specific areas, long term success will depend on pulling it all together.
Blinder quickly listed a few areas he sees media leaders pioneering in:
- Building audience revenue (Hearst Connecticut)
- Sponsored digital and multimedia content (Pamplin Media)
- Boosting profitability by using white-label vendors (Kirk Dougal / Hometown News Media Group)
- Innovative verticals (Shaw Media)
- Influencer marketing (Shaw Media)
- Sustainable model for digital-only that supports local journalism (Village Media)
Key solutions for the local news publisher’s toolbox
There’s only so much you can do with a hammer. You need a wide array of tools if you’re going to find unique solutions to problems like diversifying your audience, your advertising, and your revenue.
And don’t drag your feet.
According to Gordon Borrell and Borrell Associates Inc., research shows that in 10 years time, 90 percent of all local ad budgets are going to be spent digitally. Pre-pandemic, that percentage was hovering around 50. Are you ready for 2032?
What you should be doing today:
- Lead generation
- Brand awareness
- Sponsored content
- Email campaigns
“Rather than worrying about whether you’re selling a banner ad or OTT ads within video content—just put all the tools in your toolbox. The more niche media you have to rent, the better” from a monetization standpoint, says Blinder.
What you should be considering for the future:
- Blockchain technology
- Text message campaigns
- Data journalism
AI can help you generate quality content without increasing the cost of the newsroom, while automation and blockchain technology can streamline billing, reporting, and other tasks.
As a use-case example for AI’s capabilities, Newby says he used AI to help write a recent column for his newsletter.
That AI-generated content received more comments and engagement than any previous column he’d written.
Advice and final takeaways from local media experts
1. Find out what they want and give it to them
It can be as simple as that. In fact, it’s the one piece of advice Blinder got early on from an industry mentor that has stuck with him his whole career. It applies both to your audience and your advertisers.
Blinder thinks in these simple terms:
- Which eyeballs do I need to own (audience)
- How do I own them (what do they want and where are they getting it)
- How do I put together the right salesforce to sell these eyeballs to my advertisers
2. Stop overthinking print vs. digital
Instead of thinking in terms of an outdated rivalry between digital and print, start selling solutions for advertisers—which is the key to sustainability for both.
“My ads are 90 percent digital. And while digital content itself is much more profitable, I’m never giving up my magazine because it’s a differentiator,” Blinder says. Just because print is black and white (and read all over), doesn’t mean your approach has to be.
3. Play in the current sandbox but look at what’s coming down the road
For Newby, this future-gazing approach is the key to success. You must assess what you need to do today to be sustainable, even when it’s the “lowest bar of entry” efforts such as video, podcasting, newsletters.
"But you should also be looking at the next phase,” Newby says. Keeping up with future technologies and innovations is what successful leaders with a growth mindset do.
4. Adopt a “ship it, then fix it” attitude
Or another way to put it: fail fast, fail cheap. With print, you can’t simply put something out and then quickly and easily revise it. With digital, you can.
Be adaptable to the flexibility a digital strategy affords you by trying new things and taking risks. Discover what works and what doesn’t, and then keep pushing.
5. Collaborate more effectively
It’s notoriously hard to get the industry to play together, our experts say. News publishing, online only, broadcast media, and other sectors can feel siloed.
It’s time to rethink what collaboration in local media means. Collaboration is not just about sharing information, but collaborating and sharing technology. Newby reiterates that he thinks blockchain and AI will be big collaboration tools, while Blinder mentions how vendors will be key to future collaborations within local media businesses.
“Our competition is not each other, but Google and Facebook,” both Blinder and Newby assert.
6. Better branding
Local media needs to get its swagger back and expand their idea of what they mean to their communities.
Local news is craved more than ever, and has a bigger readership paired with bipartisan support.
And yet “we do a sucky job of telling people who or what we are. Without local journalism, a community dies,” Blinder says.
It all comes down to a digital strategy that prioritizes better promotion, better branding, and better marketing.
“Branding is the foundation of everything—you can’t market until you know what your brand is. Do we really know who we are, and does the community know who we are?” Newby questions.
Both experts agree: the community needs to think of local media with passion.
And the right digital strategy, paired with effective tools and sales expertise, can help propel you into a bright, sustainable future.