Advance cuts 400 staffers in Alabama: thoughts on the future of news–and the past

“Is it a local paper if you don’t have an editorial board to weigh in
on matters of local importance, to call out the school board and
complain about lousy streets? Is it a local paper if you rely on
stringers to cover the big football games and miss the Cinderalla story
that a beat reporter would’ve nailed?”
–What the future of news looks like in Alabama after Advance cuts staff by 400 | Poynter. http://bit.ly/LsG2Gd

In 1995, Jeff Jarvis and Steve Newhouse hired me to create and edit New Jersey Online, the first Newhouse online site, which drew from three local papers.  Here we are in 2012, 17 years later (!), and Newhouse has just laid off 400 people at their three Alabama papers and created a hub structure for managing operations. Steve Myers has a terrific piece about the layoffs at Poynter where he asks questions about how the papers will be able to operate locally with such deep cuts.

Meyers also quotes management as saying “The Mobile newsroom, which after vacancies are filled will have about
half the current staff, “will be a hyperlocal operation.” The staff
“will cover the hell out of local news.” “

He also says: “Advance seems to think a local newspaper is three things: a small group
of reporters, advertisers who need your paper whether it’s published
three days or seven, and some readers.”

Welcome to the present reality, folks. We’re in a value-based economy here on the hyperlocal news front, not one based on brand, distribution or who’s friends with the Mayor.  The level playing field is now about big corporate entities trying to scale down to the size of, say The St. Louis Beacon so they can pay their bills, turn some profit, and survive.

Here in Oakland, where a small team of us run Oakland Local, a future of news non-profit web site and training organization, we’re adding advertisers and audience as the local paper, now managed out of San Jose but with a just opened “community newsroom” downtown, struggles to copy our model (and that of many other hyperlocal sites) and involve citizen reporters (even though they can’t appear beside the union folks). 

Like the Alabama Newhouse properties, the Bay Area News Group papers are also being run as a hub, and they seem to be surviving, if not thriving–but the word is that more cuts are being planned there, as well.  Certainly, the paper’s ability to cover Oakland has diminished as Oakland has become less of a profitable focus for the hub organization, but hunger has driven flexibility, as seasoned general-assignment reporters cover not one, but two to four beats. 

Here in the East Bay as  Oakland Local–and our cousins Berkeleyside and The Alamedan-grow, my sense is that we are both picking up readers who no longer turn solely to the local paper and new readers who never cared about the paper in the first place.  In Oakland, OL’s audience is notably younger, browner, and more entreprenurial/activist/small business/creative class that the core audience for both the local paper and the local alt.weekly; in Berkeley, Berkleyside is developing a huge following based on an insider voice the local paper never achieved, and in Alameda, the newly revived local non-profit news site is covering stories the paper also doesn’t seem to see.

The good news: relevancy drives audience.  The bad news: it’s economically  brutal.

What the papers have that the hyperlocals don’t is infrastructure and scale. While Myers is correct that selling locally will be tough without local salespeople, the reality is that alot of the great money is in regional and co-op buys, which most hyperlocal sites are not set up to handle.  The myth of print distribution means that a run of papers, read or not, can sell a buy to a regional advertiser who will also be willing to do a smaller online buy, state-wide.  An Oakland Local can’t (yet) compete with that, though that day will surely come.

Newhouse has been printing and distributing papers since the early days in Bayonne, NJ and I don’t see them getting out of the business anytime soon.  But in this economic climate, cutting staffers, consolidating operations and–as much as possible–trying to act like a lean startup–is unavoidable. 

Welcome to the future of news, where the Minimum Viable Product isn’t just a tech idea, it’s a real way to produce local community media.