Walling off the local news garden: A-OK

Written by Michael on February 5th, 2006

Unlike national news outlets, local papers have good reason to be tempted by last week’s talk about withholding news content from search engines.

The story stirred up a predictable tizzy among futurists. Newspapers’ job is “to inform the public to what’s going on,” wrote Chris Tolles in an intelligent but presumptuous post (not pegged to the search engine story, but quite applicable). Search engines, wrote one Techdirt contributor, are merely “making that content more valuable by making it easier to find.”

Alas, these generalizations don’t fit small markets.

What Tolles describes is the job he thinks newspapers should do . . . in the future. But don’t mistake his prediction for a sustainable business model. Today, newspapers do much more than provide news content: they sort, prioritize and distribute it; they pair advertisers with content that fits their needs; and in small markets they even design the damn ads.

Someday, maybe, a model will arise to support pure newsgathering operations of decent quality. But until then, mere reporting simply doesn’t pay for itself, especially at the local level, where there aren’t enough rich people to support philanthropic drives like NPR’s or enough outlets to support economies of scale like the AP’s.

Moreover, whatever Techdirt may assume, local newspapers have a very different relationship with Google News than Agence France Presse does. Unlike national outlets, local newspapers have little use for non-local traffic. Non-local readers who stumble in from national aggregators don’t fit a local newspaper’s niche; visitors won’t be buying locally, so they only dilute the value of the paper’s pageviews.

As I wrote yesterday, local papers need to become the dominant information-and-connection brand within their communities. They won’t do that with news alone, and they certainly won’t do it with news outside their niche.

So what’s the harm in opening local news content to search engines and news aggregators? Don’t laugh: competition. Unlike national outlets, local papers retain near-monopolies on original reporting within their niche. This eliminates a major value aggregators and search engines provide consumers: diversity. Until local papers no longer have the dominant local news brand, small papers who hand their headlines to a local aggregator are asking people to start turning to another brand for the news.

As Carl Howe argues, newspapers provide the increasingly valuable service of cutting through all the crap. (Several of these links, by the way, come courtesy of Howe’s own post on this subject.) Newspapers judge what’s important to their audiences, and arrange it accessibly. This is as important as newsgathering itself. But aggregators like Newsvine aim to do the same thing better and cheaper. If they succeed, they’ll use that advantage to demolish the brands of local papers. And when that happens, Newsvine won’t be paying for the level of newsgathering that newspapers now do.

If, however, local papers can quickly co-opt the innovations of aggregators and search engines and tweak that technology for local use, they have a fighting chance at remaining the dominant local information brands. That should be their goal.


3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Chris Tolles says:



    One word –WAL*MART. The idea that a set of local monopolies are going to be maintained in the long run, with the audience increasing its rate of online adoption (where there is little or no brand for a loot of local papers) is a bit of a stretch.

    I think a lot of the doom and gloom is misplaced, mind you — but the point of my post is that there’s a new race to own the streetcorners online — and those streetcorners are the pages of google news and Topix.net.

    How often does the average 25 year old start looking for a restaurant review on the home page of the local paper, vs. Google? A good working relationship with the online folks is going to be a major asset for the newspaper going forward.

    (Which is why we have the investors we do at Topix.net :-)

    Chris Tolles

  2. ben says:

    I always love to see Mr. Tolles say something he believes in. There is a huge amount of new local content being created by places like Topix.net or for that matter Tribe.net and insiderpages.com. This is where consumers are going to find Local information. As we try to bring the advertising value of the Local Internet to small merchant on http://www.merchantcircle.com, we are finding that the local newspapers don’t have the audience that we can get to with all of the new local vehicles that are being created.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks for the comments, Chris and Ben. For better or worse, I’ve responded here.

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