When local news does what it can do best

February 13, 2019

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here

A lot of the things local news has to deal with are complicated: corporate owners, readers with new behaviors, ad revenue, Facebook.

It’s easy to forget that sometimes, simple things that local newsrooms do the best can still work. The Student Spotlight project from The Daily Dispatch in Henderson, North Carolina is a great example. The short version is this: This small newspaper that serves a poor county got sponsorship to feature hard-working local students. In its first year, the project broke even. This year, it will bring in a profit.

You can read more about the project here, but first, some quick lessons:

  • You don’t have to have a big staff or a lot of resources to try something new. The Daily Dispatch has 14 people, including the guy who gets the papers from the presses.

  • You do have to make time away from the news cycle to do something new, and for publisher Nancy Wykle, that was tough. But since starting two community engagement projects, she said, “You will find the time if it’s important.”

  • Starting something can be the hardest part, especially when you don’t have data to back up your assumptions or all the skills to pull it off. That didn’t stop The Daily Dispatch. It got just enough in sponsorships to cover the first year. Staffers also used the project, which includes in-house videos and Facebook Live videos, to build up staff video skills. “Our community has been very forgiving as we’ve learned what we’re doing,” Wykle said.

  • The Daily Dispatch staffers didn’t wait for everything to be perfect to get started, but once they started, they kept tabs on how the Student Spotlight was performing, including by tracking site engagement and video views. That allowed them to approach new sponsors with data that backed up the idea. And in year two, Student Spotlight will bring in a profit.

  • Be honest about what didn’t work. Wykle said that in seeking sponsorships, “we had no knowledge going in.” And be reasonable about what success looks like. While it would be nice to have a sliver of The New York Times’ newest 265,000 digital subscribers, what counts as progress where you are? In Henderson, where they weren’t even thinking about digital subscribers a few years ago, a nearly 20 percent gain from 189 to 225 digital-only subscribers is a win.

National and even regional media might be able to swoop in and do great work when big news breaks. But they’re not going to tell us about Lakaiyah or Angela or Tanner, and their stories matter.

Screenshot, Daily Dispatch

While you’re here…

  • The Local Media Alliance and the Local Media Consortium are looking for newsrooms that want to be part of their first branded content project. Apply here.

  • Check out this new way to help you better understand your readers from The Center for Cooperative Media.

  • Who says there’s no good news in local news? NewsMatch reported that last year it raised $7.6 million, including a 50 percent increase in donations from individual donors.

  • And my colleague Al Tompkins wrote something that I’m guessing a lot of you want to hear: A new study found that when “asked to describe what their ideal local news program would look like, respondents fairly consistently chose depth over efficiency.”