The rise of the Internet did few favors for media already there when it raised its cyber-head about 20 years ago. Media outlets, especially newspapers, have seen advertising revenue drain away at an unsustainable rate to any number of online venues from Craigslist to Facebook to Google. While “legacy media” leviathans like The New York Times have the global reach to drive enough web traffic to their sites to make up somewhat for the loss in print-ad revenue, it’s often been a very different, and often tragic, story for local media.
Whether — and how — local outlets can find new sources of money was the topic of a “Chronogram Conversation” event last month at co., the new co-working space on Route 9 in Rhinebeck across from the Dutchess County Fairgrounds. In a Scandinavian-style setting with a lot of exposed blond lumber and reasonably comfortable seating, a packed room heard that local media’s path to survival leads toward adopting more of a public media model. That is to say, converting readers and subscribers to “sustaining members” and advertisers to “donors,” and finding deep-pocketed believers in journalism’s mission can save media in smaller communities.
While the evening’s panel contained several local media titans — Chronogram publisher Jason Stern, La Voz publisher Mariel Fiori, Ulster Publishing publisher Geddy Sveikauskas, Radio Woodstock owner Gary Chetkoff, Radio Kingston director Jimmy Buff and Lisa Green of the Rural Intelligence web publication — keynote speaker Jim Friedlich set forth the thesis in his remarks.
“There’s a rise of journalism as philanthropy,” said Friedlich, a former Wall Street Journal writer who went into the business end of newspapers and now is executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. That nonprofit owns the Philadelphia Enquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and, according to itself, develops sustainable business models for local journalism. “There’s more media acting like public media, saying, ‘You can get this for free if you want but if you want to support us, we need it and want it.’”
Newspapers in smaller cities and towns have been aggressively rolled up into conglomerates, said Friedlich, with the results not often being great for those newspapers or the communities they serve. Friedlich described Hearst, which owns the Albany Times Union, as being “relatively benign.” Gannett, owners of the Poughkeepsie Journal, “have pretty consistently taken cost out of its properties but still maintained a basic substrate,” Friedlich said. Digital First Media, a private equity group which owns the Daily Freeman, “frankly are sort of pernicious pricks when it comes to reinvesting in the community,” he said. (Fun local history fact: Digital First corporate ancestor Journal Register Company in 1998 bought Taconic Media, a chain of Dutchess County community newspapers, including one which covered Rhinebeck. It would, after a decade of cuts, shut down the chain entirely, depriving eight communities of papers whose history went back decades and in a couple of cases centuries.)
But, said Friedlich, there’s reason for hope “There’s a broad and encouraging trend of local ownership…major investors who care about their communities investing back into big properties,” he said.
Amazon god Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post was cited, as was MD and entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong’s buy this summer of the Los Angeles Times and Red Sox owner John Henry’s buy of the Boston Globe. (Friedlich’s description of Henry, who besides owning one of the richest teams in baseball is also owner of English football giant Liverpool F.C., as a “local entrepreneur” seemed a little low-key.) All three men, Friedlich noted, shelled out hundreds of millions in these shows of faith in legacy media.
As did Gerry Lenfest, whose institute Friedlich runs. Friedlich said Lenfest, who bought the Philly papers back in 2014, believed newspapers were too important to the community to be vulnerable as for-profit ventures. Friedlich said Lenfest, who died in August, wanted the papers used as a lab to test things that might help revitalize journalism nationwide. Non-profit web-based operations like the Texas Tribune and Vermont Digger also offer hope, as they and others like them have attracted dedicated support from the communities they serve, Friedlich said. Locally, Radio Kingston is funded by Peter Buffett’s NoVo Foundation.
Fostering cooperation between media companies which have always seen one another as rivals is important too, said Friedlich. “The idea is we should hang together or we’ll hang separately, as a famous Philadelphian once said. There’s strength in news organizations that used to compete collaborating.” To that end, the Lenfest Institute organizes coordinated coverage among newspapers, radio, TV and Spanish-language media to focus on topics of community interest like prison recidivism and economic justice and poverty, said Friedlich. “Twenty newsrooms that had competed all contributed to this single well of coverage.”
Friedlich closed his remarks with a story from his reporter days about finally landing an interview with Apple god Steve Jobs. Friedlich said he asked some softball and flattering questions of Jobs before getting to a tougher one. He asked how Jobs felt about having lifted the entire concept of the Macintosh’s graphical user interface — screen icons, the mouse, etc., as opposed to ye olde DOS, where all commands were typed — from Xerox, which first developed the concept some years prior. “He said, ‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.’ I said, ‘That’s really cool, Steve.’ He said, ‘Actually, I stole it from Pablo Picasso.’ I would urge you to steal, because there’s so much great stuff in local journalism. Steal away.”
Minds seem to be open
The panelists then took up the topic, offering a variety of responses in a discussion that was somewhere between a brainstorming session and a group therapy appointment.
“I’m proud to say, in 45 years of doing this, I’ve made no money at all,” said Sveikauskas, noting that while Ulster Publishing is not a 501(c)(3), it does tend to a not-for-profit financial status. “I thought doing a weekly was more fun than doing a daily, and fortunately we had a daily bad enough that that worked out for a while. It doesn’t work, now, quite as well,” he said. Losing one percent of market share a year “adds up when you’re really proud of what you do and don’t want to do any less.”
He continued, “Now the trouble with getting together is everybody thinks they can give more value than anybody else…It’s very difficult to do that when the entire marketplace is tiny. If 100 percent is small, getting people who have five or 10 [percent] together doesn’t help that much,” Sveikauskas said. “I don’t know if we can resolve that.
“The difficulty is that I don’t have any partners,” he continued. “I have advertisers, people who give me money for services. I don’t have partners. I don’t want partners. That’s not really a partnership, when you have somebody that gives you money to say good things about them. I just can’t get through that one, but undoubtedly the model of the future will consist of people more amenable than I in that regard.”
Stern was more sanguine. “There’s kind of a model that we hold very closely that [the community] is a unified fabric,” he said by way of explaining his publication’s relationship with those who buy space in it. “Our readers and our advertisers are basically the same people…when we’re publishing we’re speaking to an audience that includes the businesses that support the magazine.”
Stern said “this sense of the community being a unified body” was essential to understand if a future entity wanted to reach sustainability. “This is particularly true in the local economy — in Chronogram, for instance, all of our advertisers are local and they own businesses…There the people we see behind the desks…the people we see in the street…We’re all in it together.”
But, he admitted, like Sveikauskas, “[Our] unified and philosophical approach to it…hasn’t really worked so far.” “Where are the dollars, Jason?” interjected Chronogram editor and evening emcee Brian Mahoney, making a joke that carried with an existential seriousness.
Stern said he would like to “get away from the model of selling advertising space” and “really get to know local businesses and understand what their goals are, what their marketing needs are, even if they don’t understand them themselves, and become much more reliable and insightful consultants.”
“Is it a zero-sum game for us?” asked Mahoney. “Is it limited audience, limited dollars and so we’re forced to compete and lock arms as we go down like Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and the creature, spiraling ever downward? Is there a possibility for collaboration?”
“I think the entire community is a collaboration,” Sveikauskas replied. “It’s not business and non-business people, it’s not artists and non-artists, it’s not freaks and non-freaks, it’s everybody.”
Sveikauskas added that he hoped the real authenticity and irreplaceable insight local media offers their community will be enough to pull them through. “In my view, which has not worked at all in my life, you write like a novelist. You capture the complexity of lives and relationships and nuance and values in a community and you kind of try to express it in such a way that people recognize it. ‘Yeah — this is the way it really is.’”
“I think we’d be happy to collaborate,” said Green. “We’re different in that we’re sort of a lifestyle magazine, only online. We only do ‘good news,’” she said — farms, restaurants, parties — “we can be an asset to another media group. So yeah, talk to me.”
Fiori noted that La Voz has exchanged an article with the Poughkeepsie Journal and was open to additional teamwork. “It has to do with what type of content you’re looking for so it could work from time to time.”
When you’re small and independent, you’ve got to collaborate, Chetkoff said. “The more [other local media] thrive and succeed, maybe they can feed us stories.” Chetkoff noted WDST had Mahoney on recently and has the Poughkeepsie Journal’s top entertainment writer John Barry on every week. “Collaborating is how we stay alive in this world of corporate dominance…We’ve learned in 25 years to pick our projects carefully and not to bite off more than we can chew because we want to do it right.”
Buff said Radio Kingston collaborates broadly and deeply — La Voz and Kevin Godbey’s Kingston Happenings website both get regular airtime. “We’re very open to collaborating with news, like the Kingston Times,” he said. (This reporter took part in a few broadcasts earlier in the year in his capacity as Kingston Times editor.) “We have in our Year 2 budget a line-item for a news person. Being able to collaborate with a local newsgathering organization would be great. It’s central to what we do.”
The panel was asked whether they thought podcasts could help their companies. Radio Kingston is “not looking to monetize” podcasting, said Buff. But he added that since the 168 hours of weekly programming Radio Kingston produces wasn’t enough to slake the community’s thirst for contributing local content, the station just built a podcasting studio.
“Podcasting is a conundrum,” Chetkoff said. “It’s really hard to monetize and there are so many of them out there how are you going to differentiate?” That said, WDST has trademarked the name Woodstock Podcasting Network and has been looking at the concept for the last six months. “We want it to be a gathering of great programming that people are making on their own and giving it to us. We’re the marketing arm. So if you have a show that fits — environmental, political, social, music-oriented. We’re going to be the umbrella to get it out to the world.”