Commentary from the Editors of the Larchmont Buzz
Last week, the billionaire owner of DNAinfo and Gothamist media (which also runs our local LAist blog), Joe Ricketts, abruptly shut down Gothamist…and then also LAist and similar publications in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Ricketts’ statement about the closings was that “at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure. And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.” But the closings happened just a week after staff at the New York publication voted to unionize, and insiders say that was the real reason for the shuttering.
The closing of these publications was a shock to loyal readers, who have relied on them for the kind of local reporting and events information that have been largely abandoned by major big-city media like daily newspapers and TV news shows. They are struggling, too, and no longer have the resources to have daily boots on the ground in individual neighborhoods or other specific areas of the city.
But the closings also highlight several other vulnerabilities in this kind of hyper-local news reporting…and the publications that have picked up the mantle to do it in recent years, including the Larchmont Buzz.
In general, there seem to be three major models for hyper-local media businesses.
The first that was tried on a large scale was the Patch.com model – in which a large company, AOL, opened a great many hyper-local online news sites, and attempted to share advertising, reporting and other resources among them. But the first iteration of Patch failed spectacularly, and probably for several different reasons. As many noted at the time, it likely tried to do too much and get too big too soon. But as others have also recognized, hyperlocal news is very idiosyncratic and very much dependent on local perspective. And Patch, according to a 2013 article in Gigaom, took an”inherently industrialized approach to what isn’t an industrial problem. In a nutshell, hyper-local news or journalism or content of any kind isn’t something that can scale to the point where a single massive entity like AOL can apply an assembly-line solution and profit.” (Note: there are still a few Patch.com sites around – including one in Hollywood – but these days they tend to publish a lot more non-local news, provided by the wider Patch network, than local neighborhood-generated content. According to the New York Times, however, that model is now financially profitable.)
Another model for hyperlocal news these days is the Gothamist path, in which a wealthy investor buys and at least partially subsidizes one or more publications, hoping to maintain economies of scale to some degree, while also developing excellent local coverage. But as we saw last week, this leaves each publication, no matter the quality of its work or the dedication of its readers, very much at the mercy of the wealthy owner. And if that owner decides to pull the plug, for whatever reason, readers lose not only a resource for future information, but also – if the sites are erased completely (as LAist was briefly before being brought back online a while later) – all of the past content, which is part of the local historic and journalistic record.
Which brings us to the third model for local and hyper-local news coverage – individual, partner or small group, locally-based owners and media sites…including the Larchmont Buzz, The Eastsider, Culver City Crossroads and even, to some extent, print publications with some degree of online presence, such as the Larchmont Chronicle, Beverly Press, Neighborhood News, and Larchmont Ledger (a relatively recent off-shoot of the older Los Feliz Ledger). In this model, local, neighborhood-focused news is provided by people who live in, know, understand and love the communities they cover – which can result in great content, very relevant to readers and not provided by larger media outlets. But although the financial stakes are somewhat lower than with the larger ownership models, these owners, too, struggle financially. And many, if not most, of their enterprises are at least to some degree labors of love in addition to official business ventures.
(This was highlighted in our area recently when Ledger publisher Allison Cohen shut down the print version of the Larchmont Ledger due to disappointing ad sales. The publication is still active online, but with content largely repurposed from the Los Feliz Ledger.)
It is definitely simpler and less expensive to maintain individually-owned and operated hyper-local media than it is to maintain multi-city or state ventures. Individual, local owners can also provide exactly the kind of local knowledge, perspective and insight critical for successful content. But the most individual and locally-owned news operations are also those that are most directly – of all hyperlocal media models – vulnerable financially, and most tied to reader and advertiser support for survival. And the more local the outlet, the more they depend on that local support — from reading and sharing of content to advertising, subscriptions and/or donations from the readers they serve.
It’s just something to think about as you surf the web this week, looking for options to replace your daily dose of LAist. There are a lot of great local and hyperlocal Los Angeles-focused media sites out there (blogger Eric Brightwell mentions many of them in this 2016 post)…but the more local they and their ownership are, the more they depend directly on you, their readers, for support. Because they (we), too, could be gone in an instant without it.