Online media pioneers focus on recreating local news ecosystems

The ISOJ panel on recreating the local news ecosystem with new models, networking and collaboration, brought together some industry veterans who are now taking advantage of online platforms to facilitate the development of local reporting on issues that matter most to the communities they serve.

With over 20 years of experience under her belt, Jamie Stockwell, the newly appointed executive editor at Axios Local,  launched into the conversation by sharing Axios Local’s strategy to expand coverage to 11 cities. Through its “Smart Brevity” style of writing, Axios Local hopes to be in 100 cities by the end of the year.

Five people on stage at ISOJ 2022 discussing news ecosystems.
Jim Brady, far left, vice president of Journalism for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, hosted a panel discussion on local news ecosystems at ISOJ 2022 on April 2. Joining Brady were, from left to right, Ken Doctor, who launched Lookout Local in Santa Cruz, CA., Jamie Stockwell, executive editor at Axios Local, Liz Dwyer, managing director of Word in Black, and Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media in Canada. Credit: Patricia Kim/Knight Center

“The format is a clean, pragmatic approach in local communities, hiring the top local talent that we can get,” Stockwell said at the April 2 panel discussion in Austin, Texas. “People who are already deeply sourced, who are very credible, authoritative reporters.”

Highlighting the unique advantage for journalists in outlets like Axios Local, Stockwell said without print concerns, and legacy newsroom constraints, journalists are able to do really important work, resulting in huge impact.

While many newsrooms were making cuts during the pandemic, Village Media in Ontario, Canada, grew its newsroom from 65 staff pre-pandemic, to 135 post-pandemic. Created about nine years ago, CEO Jeff Elgie said Village Media has grown to be an incredibly strong, digital-only local news site.

“We’ve learned over the years that reach is achieved by three key things. One of them is the size of our audience, Facebook in particular, as well as our newsletter subscriber base,” Elgie said. “The other is the actual size of our newsroom; the actual number of original reporters in the market. And the other is the scope of reporting that we do.”

Armed with these insights, Village Media has surpassed many daily and weekly newspapers in newsroom size and digital reach in the 16 cities it covers.

Ken Doctor, who coined the term “Newsonomics” in reference to the discipline of understanding the money flow within the print and broadcast transition to digital, launched Lookout Local in 2020, with its first site catering to Santa Cruz, California.

With a mission to spur greater citizen knowledge and participation in community betterment, Lookout Santa Cruz wants to replace the “flagging dailies in sub-metro areas,” beating newspapers at their own game.

“To pull in the larger audience, you have to do the kinds of things that your community wants,” Doctor said. “Including entertainment, guides, and now, puzzles.”

Implementing an earned revenue model, Doctor said diversification is of utmost importance. Advertising, a job board, and membership fees are some of Lookout’s streams of income.

At $17/month, Doctor said its membership is one of the most expensive in the country. “Since civic betterment is our key, we give 10% to one of six top community organizations,” Doctor said. “That has been very successful in showing our intent to the community.” Lookout also partners with donors to give students site access at discounted rates.

In the four months since she’s been Managing Director of Word in Black, Liz Dwyer said she wakes up every day thrilled to be a part of Word in Black’s mission to be the most trusted news and information source for, about, and by Black people.

Recognizing the void in terms of reporting in Black communities, and a lack of amplification for Black voices and solutions being generated at a local level, 10 of the nation’s Black publishers came together to collaborate, filling the void with Word in Black.

“You don’t have to be Black to read us, to subscribe, to give us money,” Dwyer said. “We are for profit, but at the same time, this is not centered in the white gaze. It’s centered in the Black experience.”

Highlighting the fact that journalism and business transformation have to go hand-in-hand, Dwyer said for collaboration to work, you have to have buy-in from the top.

Doctor agreed and said it’s really important to find like-minded people that you trust and who have the same models or similar models for optimal collaboration.

“We’ve always taken an audience-first approach,” Elgie said. “We’ve done that through building the technology that runs our sites, through paid audience acquisition efforts, not having to worry about printing a newspaper or meeting a press deadline. All our team ever thought about was the digital product.”

Elgie said actively engaging with both the advertising and reading communities have been vital to Village Media’s growth.

In launching Axios Local, Axios picked its first couple of markets based on where its newsletter subscribers lived, Stockwell said.

Doctor decried the idea that local news cannot attain profitable advertising revenue. “It is hugely important to the number one task in front of us,” he said. “Paying lots of journalists to do local journalism.”

Having a mission to strengthen the communities being served at a local level will help news outlets build trust and buy-in from local readers, Elgie said in response to a question from one of the attendees.

“The combination of consistently doing fair, accurate, and unbiased reporting, coupled with being that real community champion,” Elgie said.

Doctor said having a physical office space also breeds a sense of community.

In incorporating Lookout, Doctor registered the company as a public benefit company. This way, Lookout is a part of both the for- and non-profit communities.

“That community betterment principle is in there so down the road when we become successful if we should have people, especially evil doers, who want to buy us out, we do not need to sell it to the highest bid,” Doctor said. “The company has to take into account that public mission, which is the best protection we get.”

For this kind of local journalism to work, Stockwell wholeheartedly disagreed with Doctor who said it was not possible to be impactful at this level of granular reporting with only one or two reporters in a city.

“I think even one really excellent reporter can have a huge impact,” Stockwell said. “Particularly when unleashed from the constraints of legacy newsrooms and print concerns.”

The panel was hosted by Jim Brady, vice president of Journalism for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Brady, who joined Knight in August 2021, is a longtime digital media innovator.

From Lagos, Nigeria, Eniola Longe moved to the United States in August 2021 to pursue graduate studies in journalism and media at the University of Texas at Austin. After being called to the Nigerian Bar, she worked for one year in the legal field and decided to switch industries.