Kevin Davis: Public interest focus beats commoditization

Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis

Like many people in the news business, I still subscribe to my local paper. And like most consumers today, I rarely read it.

Why? Because, frankly, I know that I’ve more than likely read most every national, sports, business and entertainment story online, elsewhere before the ink is dry and the paper hits my driveway, newsletter hits my inbox or even before it’s up on their home page.

And it’s not just print. According to the FCC Report “Information Needs of Communities ,” the average local television station produces less than 20 percent or about one-and-a-half minutes of civic news in every 30-minute local television broadcast.

One can find information about the latest Kardashian to begin a modeling career anywhere and everywhere. Information about the salaries and perks the local city council just voted for themselves is increasingly difficult to find. Just ask the citizens of Bell, California how long it took for a beat reporter from the Los Angeles Times to uncover the corruption in their city.

So why do I still subscribe? Besides a vague sense of allegiance to the news economy, I read the newspaper for the occasional information that I can’t get anywhere else. Mostly, that’s confined to information about local and regional issues tucked inside the B-section that helps me better understand the problems my community is facing and what the elected and unelected are doing about it.

And there’s strong indication that I’m not alone.

All one has to do is look at the growing news businesses of folks like Texas TribuneVoice of San DiegoChalkBeatMinnPost and other public interest-focused nonprofits that see the gaping hole left by commercial media not just as a problem, but an opportunity.

These nontraditional, noncommercial news organizations not only look to provide the type of information that commercial media — both print and broadcast — produce less and less, but they also look to monetize those efforts.

Case in point, the Texas Tribune produces TribFest, a three-day event that “brings together some of the biggest names in politics to explore the state’s and nation’s most pressing issues: public and higher ed, immigration, health care, transportation, energy, the environment, criminal justice and government transparency.”  With attendance around 3,000 people range, the Knight Foundation reports that Texas Tribune nets over $400,000 annually from the event.

Voice of San Diego and MinnPost are embarking together on membership programs that are explicitly focused on providing citizens greater access to civic information and the people that provide it. With a historical average of $150 in donations per annum per member, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis is looking to grow membership for his organization from approximately 1,500 in 2012 to 5,000-10,000 members per year. That’s a realistic goal of $1.5 million in annual revenue directly from a population significantly smaller than the subscribers to a small to midsize newspaper.

Unlike the commercial news organizations in the same markets, these small, nimble news organizations are not looking for more efficient and cost-effective means of producing and distributing the typical news stories (world, national, business and sports); they are not producing that type of content at all.

These organizations aren’t competing with the Yahoos, Bleacher Reports and social networks for highly commoditized, non-differentiated content. Rather, they are focusing on the time and expertise-intensive, yet highly prized and differentiated content that is most valued by the communities (not advertisers) they serve.

If the leaders of these nonprofit news organizations are figuring out how to sustain their operations with civic and accountability news products and services, why haven’t local news organizations (presumably with greater resources and reach) followed suit? It’s good for the people, it’s good for democracy and it’s good for business.

This column originally appeared in NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.