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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Beyond demographics: embracing a unified audience for local news

July 13, 2023 | By Richard E. Brown, Media Revenue Consultant@richardebrown17Connect on

I have a request: Please stop the fearmongering and exaggerated claims surrounding the future of local news. Local news is still here, and it’s going to stick around. 

With approximately 15 years of experience in news media revenue sales leadership, I am driven to address the frustrations and challenges faced by local news outlets in connecting with advertisers and audiences.  

Yes, local news is still here, but it is facing challenges. The ad model that supported it for hundreds of years has been critically impaired. So, while I believe in the importance of local news and see its value on a personal and professional level, I also see some issues that need to be addressed to turn things around.   

The ad business will never be the way it once was. But whether the revenue that sustains local news comes from advertising, subscriptions or other means, it all starts with serving local communities.  

My perspective stems from countless conversations I’ve had over the years with local organizations, sponsors, and community members who genuinely express concerns about the content produced in local news media. They find it frustrating when local news outlets overlook crucial community topics. However, overcoming these challenges requires a complete rethink. While that’s no small ask, reconnecting with the community, attracting more subscribers, and increasing revenue are achievable goals.  

Audiences of all ages 

But let’s think about audience for a moment. Media companies are often focused on “attracting younger audiences.” Ok, sure. On the surface that makes sense since keeping that audience funnel full should maintain audience size or help it grow.   

However, I’d say that, instead of patronizing and pandering to the youngs (i.e., hiring some younger people to communicate with the younger people, and maybe one day they’ll have a story on page three), local news organizations must strive to be authentic and become an integral part of the entire community served. 

Though subtle, a slight condescending undertone related to younger audiences has become apparent. Fact is, these so-called “younger” people are fully grown, adult, tax-paying audiences with their own families, income, and ability to afford subscriptions and the products advertised in publications. They should be treated as such. 

This type of thinking is applicable to other generations and demographics as well. Rather than overly-segment coverage, think about serving broader audience needs. There are informational resources that are universally sought after, regardless of age or demographic. These extend beyond the traditional topics of weather and politics, encompassing areas such as finances, health, entertainment, local culture, and advocacy. 

For instance, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials have young grandchildren and/or children and they universally seek entertainment events and activities to enjoy together. They are all concerned with local greenspaces, educational funding, maintaining infrastructure, sustainability, and much more. In terms of the local news, they have a lot in common.   

It is crucial to invest time in understanding the needs, interests, and concerns of the entire community. By providing content that resonates with their daily lives and challenges, engaging in meaningful conversations, listening to their feedback, and addressing their worries, you establish trust. You foster genuine community connections instead of fragmenting content to target certain groups.  

This approach is going to be uncomfortable because it requires a creative shift in outlook. Think of this perspective as something like: Star Trek fans are Star Trek fans regardless of age group or generation because it appeals to a consensus of wonder and exploration inherent across generations. For local news, this sense of shared engagement can arise from pride in the community and access to informative resources. 

Furthermore, the current structure of local news heavily relies on a skewed interpretation and representation of news. While it is important to cover national and regional political issues, a lack of local community coverage and insight can lead to subscriber and advertiser avoidance, resulting in churn and attrition. Additionally, there are numerous outlets competing for attention on the national stage.  

If one is in the local news business, the mandate is different. It is essential to deliver reliable, informative, relevant, and resourceful information that is specific to the community and audience. This approach is a vital component in enhancing subscriber engagement and retention. Your goal is to establish a platform that fosters a profound sense of connection, where the community feels anchored and takes pride in supporting it.  

Also, while disasters often dominate the headlines, it is equally important to remind people of the positive events occurring, especially within their communities. People need hope, a sense of connection, and pride. These can be found in the contributions made by ordinary citizens, organizations, and companies that enrich and inject vibrancy into these communities. 

From a revenue standpoint, this shift will transform your platform into one that people genuinely esteem and feel compelled to support, rather than feeling obligated (or worse, disinterested). 

And, once a local news organization re-establishes its value proposition with the community and engagement picks up, interest in advertising sponsorship will follow. Businesses are always looking for engaged audiences to enhance their brand value and generate interest in their products and services. This means they “fish where the fish are.”  Tethering a local news organization to the community provides clear value to advertisers, along with a sense of belonging and support they’ll get from being associated with a trusted local news brand and supporting something of value within their community.  

Delivering the news 

Moreover, the traditional approach to presenting news assumes that one or two distribution methods can meet the diverse needs and interests of a growing audience. However, serving your whole audience goes beyond a print and digital reader dichotomy. The key lies in finding different ways to conveniently deliver information and create an excellent user experience.  

Transforming local news involves becoming a reliable source of information, whether it’s on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis. Since (valuable) information is not bound to any specific medium, it can be effectively shared across all platforms. 

For instance, imagine a subscriber who reads in-depth content about well-researched parenting tips specifically tailored to children diagnosed with ADHD in their local community newspaper. They can keep that issue of the newspaper and refer to it whenever they desire. Additionally, they receive a newsletter highlighting family activities in the community, condensed online articles, podcasts, and social media posts related to parenting. They may also receive text alerts to inform them about topics or events that matter most to them.  

This comprehensive approach enables community readers to stay well-informed, nurture personal development, and maintain a strong connection to what matters. However, the key ingredient in all of this lies in identifying and utilizing the most valuable information available, with the local community as a resource. 

It all comes back to the audience 

That said, it’s important to note that while this multi-medium communication approach has become more commonly employed, what it often lacks is relatability and cohesion. Relatability stems from the understanding and belief that local news organizations genuinely comprehend their audience—knowing who they are, what they look like, what aspirations they hold, and what truly matters to them.  

Cohesion is about enhancing the overall experience and connection with the subscriber in a way that is simple and easy to digest. Create an atmosphere that makes readers feel as though they’re being met where they are with the most topical and relevant information, which helps them navigate their daily life.  

The single most important part is to ensure content is topical, relatable, and relevant to the impact of the day-to-day life of the reader. Unfortunately, this essential essence is still missing in many local news platforms. 

Here is the sticking point: authenticity and genuine engagement are key to unlocking this. News organizations across the country are striving to engage with their audience, but it’s crucial to stay true to the identity as a community news organization. It is essential to embody and reflect the values and aspirations of the audience they serve. Celebrate the vibrancy of the area, acknowledge the past, embrace the present, and look to the future with innovation and creativity.  

Successful news organizations are deeply connected to the community. It’s not just about providing resources or making efforts to be inclusive; it’s about genuinely loving and connecting with the audience you serve.  

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