Are local newsletters nationally scalable?
Clarification: This post has been updated to remove passages implying a merger between Axios and 6AM City. The linked article (fourth paragraph) discusses their independent expansion plans, but does not say they are merging. This was an error and misread on my part. Regrets for the incorrect description, which has been clarified now. (Post updated 4 p.m. Feb. 10, 2022.)
Newsletters are having quite the journalistic moment, with Substack in particular catching a lot of notice. So it’s no surprise that newsletters also are seen as a possible way for improving local journalism
One in particular is 6AM City, whose expansion plans were described a few months ago in an article by the Poynter Institute’s journalism business writer Rick Edmonds. He wrote that 6AM City was joining Axios Local, Patch, WhereBy.Us and others in what he described as “the crowded local digital newsletter space.” Edmonds further noted that this growing market for local newsletters matches “an opening left by shrinking legacy daily newspaper reports,” coupled with rising costs of print and digital subscriptions to them. He continued:
“The local newsletters, by contrast, have an attractive price point for readers — free. They arrive first thing in the morning and provide a quick read about news and local attractions. That’s also a fit for younger mobile audiences, most of whom have no affinity for the newspaper format in the first place.”
Now, 6AM City and Axios have announced ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶j̶o̶i̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶c̶e̶s̶ plans to grow each to 100 or more newsletters nationwide. This would more than double their current combined count of around 40 as of mid-January — 14 for Axios and 24 for 6AM City. (But with rollouts continuing, the number may be higher now.)
I am all in favor of experimentation to improve local news coverage, and there is something to be said for applying the popularity of newsletters in service of this. But based on previous scale-up efforts in the local news ecosphere, I’m also wary. We may have seen this movie before.
Patch: a cautionary tale
Turning the clock back a dozen or so years, Patch.com came out of (almost) nowhere to create a national chain of local news sites, building on a small group of such sites that started in Connecticut in 2007. When AOL acquired the small chain in 2009 and poured resources into it, Patch grew from a few dozen sites to more than 800 over the space of a couple of years. Hundreds of reporter-editors were hired to staff those sites.
But the model proved difficult to sustain, and many of those staffers later lost their jobs. Patch is still around, claiming to cover more than 1,200 communities nationwide — but with far less than a reporter per town these days. In 2019, its staff was reported to be around 150.
The roster of 118 Patch sites in New York state is composed largely of towns and neighborhoods in and around New York City. However, a quick investigation showed the depth of coverage by Patch is questionable.
The first 10 entries on Rochester’s Patch site included a sponsored-content link about heart health, an undated advertisement for local freelancers to contribute content to the site, a link to a city government news release and five auto-generated compilations (job ads, pet-adoption listings, hospital occupancy data and two sets of real estate listings). The two stories with a staff byline both were 80-word police briefs that were several days old. (One was about a missing child, the other about a stabbing.) The author’s profile on the Patch site describes her job as covering “more than a dozen states on the U.S. East Coast. You’ll most likely see my byline as far north as Maine and as far south as Virginia.”
Three calendar items and links to 20 posts from Rochester area Facebook or Instagram feeds rounded out the page.
Examining the Buffalo Patch revealed similar coverage, with the first two posts a sponsored-content link about Medicare prescriptions (dated Oct. 20), and the advertisement for local freelancers.
The next nine entries — spread over three days — included three posts with statewide stories from a “news partner” and six with bylines from two different Patch staffers, including the one who posted in Rochester.
The other Patch reporter, who accounted for four of the nine posts, is based in New York City (according to his profile) yet rather disingenuously began one post with “Hey, neighbors! It’s me again.” What followed was a 450-word post with items curated from four local news organizations and another sponsored-content partner along with a few calendar items. His other three posts were very much the same. (The Patch website also showed him as author of similar posts curating together local information for Spokane, Washington; Cincinnati, Ohio; Norfolk, Virginia; Des Moines, Iowa; and Mobile, Alabama.)
Further down in the scroll, as in Rochester, were 17 re-posts from Facebook or Instagram feeds and links to about half a dozen news releases (mostly from two area colleges).
I will give Patch credit for better organization and local curation than I found recently with an app called NewsBreak. Nevertheless, a comprehensive report on Buffalo- or Rochester-area news these were not.
Can local scale?
So what does this digression about Patch and its shortcomings have to do with Axios and 6AM City wanting to create a national chain of local newsletters? Mostly this: trying to cover local news on a national scale sounds good in theory, but is very fraught in practice.
Patch’s national expansion around 2010, when it actually did hire around 800 locally based reporters to cover specific areas, eventually had trouble making money and AOL sold the sites a few years later to an organization that downsized Patch to something like its current form. News reports say Patch is profitable now, but apparently not enough to invest in anything more than the skimpy coverage described above, with “local” reporters providing repurposed content about far-flung areas from some central location.
But Patch’s expansion back then also prompted a reaction from independent local news providers, who formed an association called Authentically Local. Their motto, and ethos, was “Local Doesn’t Scale.” Many of the news outlets affiliated with that organization are now prominent with LION Publishers, an acronym for Local Independent Online News publishers. Over time, Patch faded to provide the kind of local-in-name-only coverage described above while LION has grown to 300+ members whose sites offer coverage that is more in-depth.
Can the Axios and 6AM City ̶a̶l̶l̶i̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ plans to blanket the country with local newsletters succeed in proving the “local doesn’t scale” concept wrong? In other words, can they achieve at scale what Patch, BackFence and others have not been able to?
It’s an experiment that certainly deserves to be watched; newsletters are not websites, and the audiences and business models are different. But the outcomes of previous efforts to scale local news ought to inject a cautionary note.
Originally published at http://emergentjournalism.wordpress.com on February 5, 2022.