City Council incumbent Carlos Menchaca was re-elected for the 38th district on November 7th. DNAinfo was at every council meeting, campaign event, and on the street talking to voters. It’s investigative reporting helped shaped the race. Yet by election day, the hyperlocal news outlet had shut its doors.
Journalists are fierce advocates for the importance of micro-local news. But they have been less successful in finding a business model to support it.
The owner of both DNAinfo and Gothamist, Joe Ricketts, announced the shutdown of the local media outlets on November 2nd. And now BKLYNER, another local Brooklyn news site, says it will be forced to shut down at the end of the month if it doesn’t generate more revenue. “Local newspapers are dying, and local news sites are shuttering every week,” BKLYNER publisher and editor Liena Zagare wrote in a letter to readers.
Caroline Spivack, a former DNAinfo reporter now at the New York Post, says the loss of her former news outlet may have already caused irreparable damage to the news scape. DNAinfo reporters took the time to be present in the community, which is something not many outlets have the time and resources to do anymore. “The reporters at DNAinfo were absolutely tireless in really getting to the heart of a story and really being there,” she said. “It will definitely be missed by a lot of people.”
Spivack’s recent reporting on the 38th District City Council election became a vital source of information for voters. She uncovered questionable campaign finances behind one candidate and the hypocrisy of another. Delvis Valdes was running on a platform to reform public housing yet was himself listed by the city for failing to address issues in his own properties. Spivack was at every meeting, sometimes the only reporter, taking time to dig into this race and be there “for every beat of the drum.” In a statement about local media in New York City, Menchaca said that the closure of DNAinfo and Gothamist has left a void in local reporting. “Publications that focus on specific communities provide news and information overlooked by traditional, corporate sources,” he said.
Why are such outlets struggling? Digital advertising was once viewed with high hopes as a way to support digital, particularly local, media. But, it has proved less successful in practice than in theory. Steven Waldman, a longtime journalist and author of the landmark FCC report “Information Needs of Communities,” is trying to address what he calls a “crisis in local journalism” with his new venture, Report for America. The foundation-supported venture has a goal of placing 1,000 journalists in underserved communities. National news is doing quite well, Waldman says, even though there have been a number of changes, but local news is challenged. “Brooklyn is becoming a news desert,” Waldman said. “There’s lots of loose ends, not just in rural areas but in cities, areas that are not getting covered.”
Though DNAinfo had already been shut down by the day of the election, voters in Red Hook said they had come across Spivack’s reporting when researching candidates and that it had helped inform their decision. “There will be other races where there won’t be opportunities or there won’t be DNAinfo there to really suss out the minutia of what goes on with these races,” Spivack said. “And it’s a shame.”
In a letter posted on the DNAinfo website Ricketts wrote that while it wasn’t an easy decision, the business wasn’t economically viable. “While we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient,” he said. “I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling.” The announcement was made a week after journalists in the New York offices of DNAinfo and Gothamist voted to unionize.
Ricketts measured the impact of DNAinfo in its economic success, but was it supported by the right business model to achieve this? Howard Owens, the founder and CEO of Album, Inc., a startup providing technology for local news publications, wrote in a commentary piece for Street Fight, that DNAinfo’s closure was a failed business, not a failed opportunity. “DNAinfo had no real business model: if you’re getting nine million people to your content every day there’s no excuse not to make money,” he said. “It’s simply not clear to me that there was a strategic, disciplined effort to generate revenue from these enterprises.”
Research by Monica Chadha, “The Neighborhood Local,” published in Digital Journalism, looked at the state of hyperlocal news outlets across the U.S. The research showed that most outlets have relied on banner ads, generating 39% of their revenue from that source, followed by grants and, in lesser proportions, classifieds and subscriptions. Banner ads require either a large or a very engaged readership, not common characteristics of a hyperlocal news audience.
One way that outlets like DNAinfo add to their impact is when larger outlets follow up on their work. Stories written by DNAinfo reporters were often picked up by other news outlets
In her Dec. 6 letter to readers posted on the BKLYNER website, Liena Zagare, the outlet’s publisher, wrote that “no one covers Brooklyn with the same tenacity and integrity as our small but devoted staff. We’ve won awards, and more important—we’ve gotten results, from new laws to new crosswalks. We’ve exposed a secret oil spill, cast light on a police commander’s brutal record, and advocated every day for Brooklyn’s communities.”
She called on readers to help save the local news outlet. “Revenue from advertising and classifieds that once fueled local news is now being lost to Facebook, Google, and other global internet giants,” she said. According to her letter, BKLYNER needs 3,000 subscribers, which equates to 1% of its readership, to donate $5 per month. Otherwise the outlet would stop publishing at the end of December, according to Zagare. As of December 13, the site said it had gained 611 subscribers. It is also reported that local small businesses had asked for an opportunity to subscribe at a higher rate, so a $10 per month category was created.
Zagare did identify the heart of the business problem. Advertisers that once shared an interdependent role with community newspapers are shifting to Google, Facebook, and other social platforms. “The whole industry is having to shift dramatically,” Waldman said. People have become more comfortable paying for content, Waldman says, but not yet at a local level. And as news organizations have tried to survive they have been forced to make cuts and, in some cases, that means losing reporters. Effectively they have lost presence in some neighborhoods. How do they then turn around and ask for the community’s support?
Community support is key. In a survey of 1,880 readers of seven hyperlocal news outlets, the University of Kansas found that neighborhood involvement was a critical factor in the sharing of local news. Word-of-mouth proved much more valuable for hyperlocal outlets than either email or social media. The University’s research, “Who Gets Vocal about Hyperlocal,” found that hyperlocal news bridged some socioeconomic divides between news audiences, including education, income, and employment. The report concluded that, like Spivack did, it was worthwhile developing relationships with people in the community who can act as ambassadors.
Many larger news outlets have battled over the last decade with changing business models and struggled to sustain readership and earn a steady stream of revenue. Now, it appears, such issues have filtered through to local Brooklyn news outlets.
UPDATE: On January 2, 2018 BKLYNER announced it would stay open and continue publishing. After its campaign to save itself, asking readers to subscribe, the local news outlet gained 1,774 subscribers, according to a note published to readers.
EDITORS’ NOTE: The Brooklyn Ink continues to be one of the local news outlets reporting on Brooklyn neighborhoods. As its reporters are journalism students, however, the coverage ebbs and flows as students move on and new ones learn the borough. Nonetheless, if you have a tip about something interesting or something you think we should investigate further, let us know here.
Graphic by Tess Orrick