May 272012
what is the future of journalism

Warren Buffett’s purchase of local newspaper chain General Media Publications last week raised eyebrows and the question about the future of local newspapers.

Local news has bucked the trend of the big four gatekeepers taking over – most of us expected Google and Facebook with their local business listings, search and community functions to take over the market just as the web has stolen the income streams of the bigger metropolitan mastheads.

What’s more, us digerati believed social media services like Facebook and Twitter would give us most of the information about what is happening in our communities and make the role of the local newspaper redundant.

This hasn’t happened and there’s several reasons for this – a key one is current web services are great at connecting disparate communities but don’t do a good job of connecting local groups.

A bigger failure is both Google and Facebook blew the opportunity to dominate local news.

Basically, local news isn’t sexy, it’s much more of an ego stroke to be treated like a rock star at a conference or to negotiate a billion dollar purchase of a social media application.

Late nights reporting goings on at the local council or chamber of commerce isn’t sexy. So Facebook and Google’s executive focused on the shiny things.

That failure to execute by the big players has largely left the market to the incumbents and their income is largely untouched – Media General’s income is largely static, unlike the declines being seen by big city mastheads.

A similar phenomenon is at work in other markets, in Australia Fairfax’s regional newspaper division is far more profitable than any other sector while competitor APN makes a good return from their publishing activities in smaller communities.

Interestingly almost all of the local news incumbents are saddled with debts or poorly thought out ventures that absorb the profits coming in from their core operations.

Part of the profitability is because local newspapers are established brands. Locals know they will get news about their community that is immediately relevant to them.

For local businesses, they still have to advertise in the local press as that’s where their market is. Local customers might be reading about Federal politics, Kim Kardashian or Occupy Wall Street on the web, but they are still turning to the district news to find out what’s going on in their immediate community.

How this pans out for Warren Buffett is going to be interesting, Berkshire Hathaway tends to run a lean management philosophy in its businesses and this might be one of the saving attributes for their local media investments.

Stripping out the million dollar men who infest the top levels of the newspaper industry and investing in content – both online and in print – may well be the key to success of the local news industry.

Key to the local news success will be energising the advertising sales teams – there’s little point in skilling up journalists in new technologies or getting editors to “think digital” if the salespeople are stuck in the mentality of display print ads being the only thing that matters. This is the same challenge metro newspapers face.

Strong local media matters in both country and suburban communities. It’s essential to the spirit of the local town and a healthy local media is always a feature of a prosperous community.

One of the promises of the Internet is that local groups could seize back the news about their towns and suburbs, this doesn’t appear to be happening. Maybe it’s going to take Warren Buffett to fix it.

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