The March 8 edition of the Northwest Current newspaper asks readers to help it replace revenue lost when the Washington Post Company closed its regional newspapers in 2015. This isn’t a new plea: Erik Wemple wrote about a similar ask from Current Newspapers Publisher and Editor Davis Kennedy in 2015. Then, the Current papers asked readers for a $52 contribution; now it is asking for $60. In both cases the reward for ponying up is a “free personal classified ad.”
But the real news comes midway through Kennedy’s plea:
Based on our loyal readership and our 50-year reputation for quality editorial and award-winning journalism, we plan to add new editorial features, expand circulation, and launch a new interactive website in March. This new website will allow you additional avenues to access our local news and events and our advertisers to maximize their marketing message throughout the metropolitan area.
Kennedy has not yet replied to a message asking to hear more about the Current Newspapers’ digital strategy. That said, it would not be difficult for the company to dramatically improve its readers’ web experience. Right now, you can use its site to download PDFs of print issues. You can find contact info and arrange advertising. And…actually, that’s pretty much it.
Current Newspapers’ website might draw laughs in 2017, but here’s the thing: In a 2008 interview, again with Wemple, Kennedy surveyed a local-news landscape that was about to swell with digital competitors, including the Post‘s loudounextra.com. Putting money into the Web, Kennedy said, “is a major investment. How much revenue comes in from that versus the cost?”
The intervening nine years have largely proved Kennedy’s skepticism correct. Loudounextra.com is gone, as are TBD.com, Borderstan, Hill Now, and the original incarnation of Patch. As difficult as it is to make money off of local print journalism, making money off of local digital journalism is even harder, not least because digital ads cost far less than print ones. Last October, Jack Shafer asked a question that won him a lot of furious tweets from future-of-news types: “What if almost the entire newspaper industry got it wrong?” Shafer was writing about a study by two Texas academics that shows local publishers’ print editions reach “many more readers than the supposedly promising digital product in home markets, and this trend holds across all age groups.” For many traditional newspapers, the push to find readers online has just not worked out.
And that’s assuming your audience wants local news in the first place. Keeping track of city council can be a tough sell in a place like the DC area, where a lot of people are focused on national matters. (It’s rather rich that the lowest-information voters may be found among some of the country’s most politically astute.) But a recent interview with Sarasota Herald-Tribune deputy managing editor Tony Elkins should chill the blood of anyone trying to hack out a living in local news.
“I’ll be completely honest, local journalism scares the shit out of me right now,” Elkins told Kristen Hare. He said he wasn’t worried about the economic climate; he was more worried because none of his friends read any local journalism. “No one cares what’s going on in city government,” Elkins said.
How will Current Newspapers’ new site avoid all these banana peels on the digital sidewalk? Washingtonian anxiously awaits an interview.