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Google-McClatchy’s Compass Experiment: Can it find a sustainable model for local journalism?

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Over the summer, Youngstown Ohio was in danger of losing its daily newspaper. The family that had owned The Vindicator, for 132 of its 150 years announced in June that it would print its last edition at the end of August. 

But now, Youngstown is becoming a lab for new models in post-paper local journalism. 

Print will still play a role in the new local news ecosystem. Ogden Newspapers, a family-owned group that publishes a newspaper in a neighbouring county, bought the name and subscriber list and will deliver a daily newspaper in Youngstown.

But beyond The Vindicator surviving in some form, national digital players quickly stepped in to fill the void that they felt would exist after The Vindicator of the past stopped printing. Foundation-funded investigative group, ProPublica, is setting up shop in Youngstown, and Mahoning Matters, the first of the three Google-funded Compass Experiments managed by newspaper group McClatchy has just launched there. 

Compass Experiment General Manager Mandy Jenkins said that the goal of the three-year project is to come up with new sustainable business models for local journalism.

The hope is that smaller, more nimble local digital news operations can experiment and find solutions that have eluded legacy news organisations. 

But widespread success for local digital news projects has been elusive, and it’s fair to say that there isn’t a formula that has guaranteed sustainability. 

Now McClatchy and Google hope that they can develop models that will scale, providing a template not only for Youngstown but for hundreds of communities in the US that have lost their only news source. 

Google-Funded Project Steps In

When the Maag-Brown family announced that The Vindy was shutting down, General Manager and family member Mark A. Brown blamed Google and Facebook for driving down digital advertising rates. But now Google is funding an experiment in Youngstown to try to find models for local journalism.

Google is providing millions of dollars of funding for the Compass Experiment, but it will be managed by newspaper group McClatchy. And the project recently launched the first of three local news laboratories in Youngstown. The town fit the criteria set out in the project – a small to a mid-sized city that lacked local news service. 

But there was another factor at play in the decision. In June, McClatchy named local digital news veteran Mandy Jenkins as general manager of the Compass Experiment. She has held several high profile digital media positions including the editor-in-chief of News Corps’ UGC service Storyful and as the managing editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome

Beyond her qualifications, Jenkins is an Ohio native who studied journalism at Kent State University just 40 miles from Youngstown. She wrote about how her university classmates had reached out to her immediately in the wake of the announcement. I don’t think Youngstown was a sentimental decision, but Jenkins’ local connections must have played a role.

She said, “We at The Compass Experiment want to help Youngstown find a path forward.”

This isn’t charity, though, it’s a clear-eyed effort to tackle the challenges in local journalism. 

Jenkins told me: “With Compass, we are trying to address the toughest issue facing local and hyperlocal media: Sustainability. We want to build local news products that can be self-supported without sacrificing quality journalism that addresses the information needs of the community.”

I asked her what the business model would be, and she said a mix of revenue sources. She also said that advertising and sponsorship would be key initially, and has been quoted as saying membership might play a role as well. 

The Business Challenges of Local Journalism

The answer reminded me of one of my favourite quotes from serial local news entrepreneur Jim Brady, who Jenkins worked with on both the oddly named TBD local journalism project in Washington DC and at Digital First Media. Brady told me years ago that the revenue solution for local news wouldn’t be “a silver bullet, but shrapnel.” At Digital First Media, Brady and the late Steve Buttry used to talk about stacking digital dimes to make up for the loss of digital dollars. 

But Jenkins’ career shows how hard this goal has proven to be.

TBD was supposed to have had a runway of three years to find a sustainable path for local digital journalism, but its parent company started making cuts only six months into the project. It closed for good two years after its launch. 

Digital First Media was supposed to show the way forward for local digital media. Instead, it has shown the way for what happens with the pivot-to-hedge fund ownership that has swept through the US newspaper industry. In my mind, I can see the 19th Century political cartoon à la Punch showing a ravenous vulture picking clean a carcass with local newspaper titles written on the bones.

This isn’t to detract from Brady’s or Jenkins’ tireless efforts to find a digital way forward for local journalism. It is simply to highlight how difficult the challenge has been to find a replicable, scalable model for financial sustainability. Print advertising and readership is collapsing, and the advertising model that has long supported local journalism has collapsed with it. 

Mahoning Matters Builds on Canadian Success

Now Jenkins has another high-profile chance to find a path to sustainability for local journalism. 

The entire Mahoning Matters staff is from The Vindicator so they not only know the community but have deep connections and local contacts. The team has held several community forums in partnership with the local library before launch, and they have reached out to local leaders. 

The meetings led them to decide that even with their relatively small staff that they would cover not only Youngstown but the Mahoning Valley. 

I praise their ambition, but I wonder if they are trying to spread themselves too thin. I also wonder about their news agenda. When the site launched, Jenkins wrote, “we are focusing on topics of utmost importance to those living in the region, which includes coverage of government, healthcare, housing and the local economy as well as community-centric features like obituaries, local events and high school sports.”

It’s broad and sounds like what almost any local newspaper would want to cover. But how will this be different than The Vindicator? They will need something else both editorially and commercially to make the Youngstown experiment a success. 

For Mahoning Matters and the other Compass Experiments what might be the difference between success and failure isn’t Google’s millions but rather the network of players in this space that the search giant is building.

The Compass Experiments are already tapping into promising models that Google has identified, such as Village Media in Canada. Jenkins first met the CEO of Canada’s Village Media, Jeff Elgie, at the Google News Initiative in March. Elgie has built a network of successful local news sites in Canada, sometimes launching in the wake of newspaper closures like the one in Youngstown. 

Elgie also has taken a page from the Washington Post and licences his platform to other local sites, adding another revenue stream to the Village Media business. It led Jenkins to choose Village Media’s platform for the Compass Experiments. 

Jenkins was impressed with how easy the platform was to use and also how rapidly they were able to build a site. “From announcement to launch, we built up our Youngstown team and site in a little over two months,” she told me. 

She added, “Even aside from the platform, we are also adapting Village Media’s local business model, which focuses on local advertising and sponsorship.” 

Mahoning Matters is only the first of the three Compass Experiments, and Jenkins says that she and McClatchy are busy identifying candidates for the other two experiments. 

It is a challenging time in local media, but hopefully, at the end of the three-year Compass Experiment, we’ll have more models for local media success that can begin rebuilding some of the local journalism that communities have lost.

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