Earlier this year, the News Revenue Hub was commissioned by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment to assess the state of local digital news in New York City (NYC). Would we find a news desert or oasis? What we learned, of course, was a bit more complicated.
The Revson Foundation and the Mayor’s Office first raised this question of a news desert in light of major NYC news organizations reducing not only their staff, but also their coverage of local issues—and many local outlets struggling to achieve financial sustainability (or shuttering altogether).
Our goal was to identify the digital news outlets currently serving the five boroughs of NYC and then determine if any would be good candidates for implementing a membership program. (Note: We did not assess the quality of the content, or set out to conduct a comprehensive research study.)
Our ultimate conclusions were based on the knowledge we’ve acquired helping nonprofit and for-profit news outlets across the country build membership programs. Let’s dig in.
What Makes NYC Unique
Before we examine the specifics, a word about what makes NYC unique. It’s the most populous city in the country, broken into five distinct and diverse boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. It’s worth noting that print newspapers still do well in NYC, possibly more so than other areas of the US. That’s not to say there isn’t an appetite for digital content, rather, it’s important to understand that print still has a strong role in the city (as anyone who has traveled by subway can attest).
NYC Landscape Review by the Numbers
8.5M+: The number of people living in NYC
5: The number of boroughs in NYC
90: Our initial list of potential candidates
25: Our short list of candidates
11: The news outlets who participated in an interview with us
6: The number of those 11 who have potential to succeed with a reader revenue program
How We Did It
To begin, the Hub’s data scientist Erin Boon compiled a list of 90 digital news outlets in NYC that had a local civic engagement focus (think: work that produces informed citizens) and whose websites were user-friendly. Our list did not include major news outlets like WNYC or The New York Times, nor did it include smaller outlets that cover topics such as restaurant openings and closings, events, etc., of which there are many in NYC.
We then whittled down the list of 90 based on criteria that would indicate a potential to succeed with membership, including size and engagement of an email list; willingness to collaborate with other news outlets; and a track record of reader fundraising. Perhaps most important was the news outlet’s desire to explore reader revenue as part of its business model. After applying these criteria to the 90 outlets, we came up with a short list of 25 candidates; 11 of those accepted our invitation to an interview. Our findings are based on the conversations we had with these organizations.
For a complete breakdown of the research process and a full list of criteria used to come up with our lists of candidates, please read the full report.
Rising to the Top of the List: City Limits
City Limits is an investigative news outlet serving all of NYC with a mission “to inform democracy and equip citizens to create a more just city.” They rose to the top of our list for many reasons, including their clear focus on public service journalism, a viable email list, and an existing pool of supporters. Adds Hub data scientist Erin Boon, “I think they are a good example of the theme we rallied around from the findings—that the biggest hurdle to launching a membership program is getting the org and its readers on board—and City Limits is very much on board.”
What We Found
So. Oasis or desert? Overall, the digital news landscape in NYC is not as lush as it might seem. For one, while the list of 90 outlets might seem plentiful at first glance, keep in mind that they serve over 8.5 million people across five boroughs. And each borough has its own diverse community with a distinct set of issues and interests.
So while there isn’t what we would call an overall news desert, we found there to be a hyperlocal news desert in many pockets of the city. Hub CEO Mary Walter-Brown elaborates, “The study revealed that entire boroughs are underserved in terms of local news coverage. It becomes even more profound at the neighborhood level where some residents have few to no options for local reporting on issues like community planning and public safety.” In addition, almost every hyperlocal outlet interviewed said that if they weren’t there to cover the neighborhood, neighborhood news would not be reported at all. That seems a precarious position for the information needs of local residents.
Perhaps one of our most interesting findings is that bloggers have taken the place of trained journalists to fill audiences’ needs for local news. One blogger we spoke to who had over 200,000 monthly unique visitors to his blog, but he had no professional training or staff (compare that stat to a more traditional news outlet we interviewed that had staff members but less than 70,000 monthly unique visitors). Based on the high traffic to his site and others similar to it, there seems to be a hunger for local, community-focused content, but a shortage of outlets that provide it. This was unexpected and may represent a state-of-the-news landscape in which would-be bloggers or intentionally small outlets have been raised to the main stage of local news because of a lack of other options. It’s also possible that the sites of these smaller outlets were well designed and easy to use, making them attractive to readers seeking local news.
Surprisingly, of the 11 outlets we interviewed, more than half were one- or two-person operations. Adds Walter-Brown, “What’s concerning is that many of these news outlets don’t appear to have succession plans or long-term sustainability strategies so if their leaders retire or get another job an entire neighborhood could lose access to its local news source overnight.”
It should be noted that the majority of the outlets we spoke to relied almost exclusively on advertising for their revenue. This could be a risky move, considering that advertising revenue for news outlets has fallen from $65 billion in 2000 to less than $19 billion in 2016. But many of the outlets we spoke to showed very little concern about their primary source of revenue drying up, with the one larger-scale outlet saying they they could continue to rely on advertising revenue simply because they knew what they were doing.
Surprisingly, five of the 11 showed little or no interest in exploring membership as a new revenue stream, claiming to be content with the revenue they already earned from ads. Their unwillingness to explore other business models clearly showed they would not be good candidates for launching a membership program in which reader engagement is a top priority.
When all was said and done, we came up with a list of six outlets who could have the potential to succeed with a membership program, with one being a very strong contender (see sidebar). Though this potential varies across outlets, they all understand the importance of creating a good user experience for their readers; have an audience large and engaged enough to support some form of membership program; serve the critical information needs of local residents; are willing to collaborate with other local outlets; and are eager to grow with new revenue.
Walter-Brown concluded, “There is a lot we still don’t know about many of the digital news outlets in NYC that didn’t respond to our interview requests. By beginning to work with one or two news organizations, including Bklyner who joined the Hub in September, we hope to prove that residents are willing to financially support strong local reporting. Maybe then more NYC digital outlets will see that engaging readers and inviting them to invest in local news is worth the effort.”
Because NYC is unlike any other city, we can’t make any assumptions about the state of the digital news landscape nationally based on the above findings. The Hub is currently exploring the possibility of doing similar analyses in other cities, so stay tuned! And if you have an interest in collaborating on an analysis in your city, feel free to contact us.
Please note: This was not intended as a formal research study, but instead an investigation into the sustainability of local digital news outlets in NYC. We did not assess the quality of the journalism being produced by these organizations; we also limited our scope to include only those whose content was, to some extent, focused on civic engagement and whose website was user friendly. Ultimately, most of the information collected during this study was gathered from only 11 outlets, and while they gave us good insight on the state of local journalism from their own perspectives, we do not expect to have covered the news landscape in NYC completely.