Earlier this month, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellent in Journalism published what most people assumed was another grim assessment of the future of newspapers, ostensibly demonstrating how the nation’s newspapers — based on a survey of 38 outlets — were missing the boat, digitally, even as print revenues dropped like a rock. The graphic they used illustrated the underlying point: a small arrow pointing up represented new digital revenue, and the giant arrow pointing down represented print losses. For every buck from digital, papers are losing $7 in print.
But the reasons for alarmism are actually fading, and the smart money should actually be on the emergence of local papers as huge winners. The Pew report underscores some of this. To say that most local papers are woefully behind the curve in online advertising is a massive understatement. More than a decade after Google changed how we think about context-driven online advertising, most newspaper efforts are focused on banner ads and online classifieds, which make up 76 percent of digital revenue. That means there are a lot of opportunities that are as-yet unexplored.
Targeted strategies, in particular, weren’t considered by a majority of papers, and mobile might be the most under-used strategy of all. Mobile ads made up 1 percent of digital revenue. Yet there is no doubt that mobile is one of the driving forces in personal communications, and the importance of getting local information on the go is unlikely to fade as devices become more powerful and location-aware technologies become ubiquitous.
Not only have newspapers been slow to develop these new revenue channels, they’ve been loathe to invest in selling them, too: there are triple the number of traditional advertising sales reps than digital reps. And while that’s not indefensible in a world where print revenue still brings in big (if declining) bucks, it shows there is additional room to grow.
And the audience for online local news is there. A must-read first-person account in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review from a former editor at one of AOL’s hyper-local Patch site says that the reception to his reporting was so good that he quickly exceeded his ambitious unique visitor goals, with “unique visitor” numbers that totaled more than half of his turf’s population.
All told, this suggests we’re at a critical point in the monetization of local digital news: there is an clearly audience for local content, and there are a myriad of local advertising strategies and technologies that have been both under-explored and under-sold. Yes, exploiting this reality isn’t simple and will likely take both technological know-how and money, but it’s also clear that most local papers haven’t come anywhere close to maximizing the opportunity that’s now in front of them.
For years, it has been fashionable to dismiss the local paper as a relic of a bygone, non-connected era, destroyed by the storm of modern media. But as mobile makes “local” more crucial, it’s clear that the dark cloud has a silver lining.