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Cracking the Local Market: The Inherent Difficulty

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles
Published: June 27, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
[Editor's note: My apologies for the light posting schedule this week. I am in Orlando, reporting and writing for Theme Park Insider, as well as taking a long-scheduled family vacation, so I haven't been able to keep to a daily publishing schedule on Sensible Talk. We will be back to full speed soon, however. Thank you for reading!]

Publishers trying to serve a neighborhood audience, both readers and advertisers, face one big inherent problem: The audience.

It just isn't very big.

If it were bigger, then you'd be in the metro-publishing business, not the neighborhood one. That is also why, over the years, neighborhoods have been so under-served by professional print media. Maybe you'd get a weekly, in middle-class to wealthy suburbs. Or a shopper with a few local notices. But most of the real news of the community -- school lunch schedules, meeting notices, local council news, deaths, births and business deals -- were delivered in other ways: school flyers, church newsletters, word of mouth.

A publisher cannot afford to staff a full newsroom to cover a small market. Yet that's the mistake that many journalism entrepreneurs have made, and continue to make. They hire reporters, copy editors and senior editors before lining up the advertisers necessary to pay all those salaries.

The small market problem is made worse when publishing online. Every non-homeless resident of any neighborhood has a front porch, doorstep or mailbox at which to get a newspaper. But not even the most wired neighborhoods have 100-percent, always-on Internet penetration. If you publish online instead of print, you are giving up a percentage of the potential market. But even though you are publishing in a smaller "virtual market" than the real neighborhood, you aren't getting a break on rent, labor, insurance, advertising or any of the other costs associated with running a business in that community.

You might overcome that obstacle by using online technology that allows you to customize ad and news content, and track their viewership, far more powerfully than anyone can in print, potentially allowing you to charge higher ad rates. But that requires investing in sophisticated publishing tech up-front, something that can be more expensive than hiring reporters and editors. (Yes, free, open source tools are available, but you'll need to invest money and/or time to implement them knowledgeably.)

What about reader-submitted content, you might ask? That's a great idea, but you can't just launch a community and expect readers to fill it with interesting, accurate content. Any community needs leadership, and you will have to provide it. And that, again, costs money and time.

The solution, then, is to start small. Very small. Like, one-person shop small. If you are part of a large company, assign one person to each community. If you are going it alone, stay that way. Launch a simple blog and cover the heck out of the community (using some of the advice we're providing this week on Sensible Talk). Use the comments feature, online polls and Q&As to elicit participation by readers. Find the people who really want to, and need to, get community information out, and become the resource that enables them to do that.

Ultimately, neighborhood publishing is about service to the neighborhood, helping people, as well as advertisers, deliver and receive the information that they need. You have to be willing, and able, to do that for them. Your neighborhood site won't engage that community if you're publishing it only for your own, selfish ends.

The trick behind the solution though is to be the sort of person who can do it all - to report, to write, to handle simple tech, to sell and to lead a content community. Few can play all those roles, though we here at Sensible Talk would like to help you learn. :-)

Large publishers might believe that they can distribute tech, design and sales among many communities. But that creates the risk of cookie-cutter, generic, tasteless websites that Tom Noonan and Tom Grubisich decried on this site earlier this week. Nor can publishers assign reporters from outside the community to cover it.

To crack the local market, one must start from within.

"Cracking the Local Market: It's a Great Time to be a Journalist" by Chris Jennewein

"Cracking the Local Market: What Suburban Weeklies Can Teach" by Tom Noonan
"Cracking the Local Market: Beyond 2.0's Wizards of Oz" by Tom Grubisich

Robert Niles also can be found at

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