5 hurdles local digital news producers face in 2017

Just over one year ago, my career brought me to Boston. It was only the first change. In the past year, digital news content production has changed dramatically and put a particular new strain on local news media.

I’ve enjoyed my work over the last year and I’m proud of some great coverage of major breaking news events, but I haven’t posted much to this blog because I haven’t felt like I’ve come up with many answers to the larger questions facing our industry.

Instead of answers, today I am writing about the five questions that I am concerned about as a team leader at a local news organization. These are topics I am considering as I look for answers to define what my job will be in the next year.

Facebook Live

Local publishers will continue to struggle with finding differentiated content for this platform during 2017. It is admittedly easier for legacy television outfits (who already deal in video), than magazines or newspapers, but no local newsroom wants to be giving away content that can be monetized elsewhere (more on that later). Audiences, however, expect the Facebook Live experience to be a complete product and not a tease for another. How do we give content away for free and yet still benefit as a business? What types of content are best suited for gathering the audience without giving away the farm?

“Stories”

Both Instagram and SnapChat now have this feature, and Instagram’s version has the added benefit of allowing linking for verified publishers. The Pros of these platforms are younger audiences that are too big to ignore. But the Cons are plentiful: The referral benefits are unproven; traditional “hard news” items don’t resonate with the audiences; and legacy brands have difficulty shedding the weight of their legacy

News tune-out

People have every reason in the world to be fed-up with the state of the news media. Fake news, biased yellow journalists and an generally unappealing state of affairs have already given the entire industry a black eye — that’s on top of the typical tune-out we see in the data after every presidential election cycle. Shallow content created in an attempt to check every box on a consultant’s market research form may only further disappoint our consumers. Legacy local news brands that have to overcome both an association with older generations and the negative stereotypes of the industry, or risk seeing further audience erosion during 2017.

New content

I see this as the biggest opportunity to find those greener pastures, if we can come up with ideas that stick and force the lesser ideas to fail fast.  The line between local and national news has blurred more than ever, and we may not be able to survive if we keep doing only the content we have done in the past. In the local markets and niches, there may not be enough audience to support all of the existing publishers. Can we create unique local content without abandoning the stories that the audience truly cares about? How do we pivot toward a new paradigm to attract a new audience without turning off the audience we already have? Are there strategies for repackaging the content we are already doing that would make it attractive to different groups?

Monetization

The internet of content is a socialist community holding together a capitalist society, and local news organizations have struggled to put their square peg into that round hole. Audiences expect content to be free, so we sell ads. But the ads have abysmal rates of effectiveness and insufficient inventory to compare to previous forms of media distribution. Social media has the potential to reach audiences big enough to have profitability, but local content is not necessarily the right fit and Facebook does not seem to have a desire to share profits. Lastly, all predictions indicate that advertiser spending will contract during 2017. How will we afford to create differentiated content to grow our audience, support the pillars of our legacy for the existing audience and spend time on new forms of distribution?

Bonus concern: What will be next? 

Things have changed dramatically over 2016. Take Facebook video for example. At this time last year, local publishers were concerned with getting better at video uploads. Live didn’t exist one year ago, but has now grown into a favorite for the Facebook platform and publishers have had to equip ourselves to play in that unexpected sandbox. What new things will we need to learn over the next year? Will we be able to afford the price of entry?