The Uphill Battle of Keeping Local News Afloat

When the Greenwood, SC newspaper Index-Journal reported on a complaint that Dairy Queen was apparently serving up human meat in its burgers, they weren’t expecting to go viral. Unsurprisingly, the complaint was revealed to be baseless. But the story captured the imaginations of the online world – being shared widely across social media before ultimately being covered by the Washington Post.

That’s where it all snowballed. The Washington Post functioned as an aggregator, pushing the whimsical piece out to its huge following and driving new mentions in publications around the nation.

However, if you think that the coverage resulted in enormous traction and interest for Index-Journal, you’d be wrong.

“Here’s a little secret: viral stories don’t translate into a lot of web page views for small-town newspapers,” wrote Matthew Hensley, the paper’s assistant editor, in a piece that closed with a heartfelt request for subscriptions.

With shrinking circulation, cuts to staffing budgets and the death of the print classifieds section, local newspapers have long been on a financial knife-edge. And the ease of which readers can now access national media online – and largely for free – has made it even more difficult for local papers to gain traction.

In the case of the viral Dairy Queen story, readers either shared social snippets or read versions of the story republished in larger outlets. Even when those papers linked to the Index-Journal’s original article, click-throughs were negligible. Hensley notes, for example, that a grand total of 18 readers visited from AllRecipes’ take on the article.

The challenge for local news, then, is how to distribute content to new markets and audiences outside the traditional business models supported by historic media and their immediate geographic footprint, as well as beyond the viral sharing and liking that has become the mainstay of the social media giants and content aggregators. 

Many, like Index-Journal, hope that subscriptions will help deliver the cash infusion needed to keep the lights on. But more and more expect to get their news for free, making this an increasingly less viable option as time goes on.

A more promising approach is syndication through new regional content partners. Here nascent regional and local content aggregators use AI-powered technologies to seek out, enrich and ultimately “purchase” content from local newspapers on behalf of an entirely new cross-section of buyers.

These buyers may represent consumer marketing for retail corporations, grassroots advocacy for national non-profits or associations, and political pollsters looking for the pulse for national and state elections. What they have in common is that they want to know what’s being said and reported at the local level in order to plan their next strategic steps.  Synthesizing the national outlets doesn’t provide this insight, and the local media provided by the small-town newspapers directly reflects the opinions of their constituents and not the agenda of national organizations.

As the Index-Journal case shows, viral sharing and influencer marketing won’t deliver the eyeballs and subsequent ad or subscription revenue that local publications need to stay afloat. But new business models using the latest AI tools represent an all-new opportunity for local news to see their work unearthed – and to be paid for.

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