Jeff Jarvis Tries To Save Local News (With Spreadsheets!)

Local news always seems to get the short end of the stick, both in terms of coverage and advertising dollars. And as the entire newspaper industry continues to struggle for survival, the prospects for local news looks particularly bleak. It just doesn’t pay to have a reporter cover a neighborhood farmer’s market when she could be covering the Mayor’s office or something with broader appeal. And so traditional news organizations are abandoning local and hyperlocal news.

Don’t worry, though. Media consultant, blogger, and CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis has a few ideas for how to replace the local newspaper with new business models for news at the hyperlocal level. He just gave a presentation at an Aspen Institute forum on journalism today (live stream).

His answer is to organize local bloggers and citizens into a metro-wide network in each of the top 25 markets, and sell local ads across their sites. Each hyperlocal site would remain independent but join a loose federation for ad sales, distribution, and shared costs. Jarvis sketches out what a new news organization might look like at the local level, and goes out on a limb by offering actual spreadsheets showing some assumptions about audience size and how the business model would work. There is also a spreadsheet for doing this through a non-profit.

As everyone from Esther Dyson to Michael Kinsley and Marissa Mayer pointed out at the forum, the numbers don’t look very realistic. The model assumes in a metro market of 5 million people, the hyperlocal network will be able to get 1.75 million readers (35 percent penetration) in Year 1, growing to 3 million readers (60 percent penetration) in Year 3. The corresponding revenues for each market go from $5 million in Year 1 to $20 million in Year 3.

For a large local blog, that could translate into total revenues of $126,976 in Year 1, going to $331,640 in Year 2, with corresponding income for the blogger of $42,777 in the first year, going to $148, 269 in the third (see table below).

These numbers are way too optimistic. In order to get to those revenue numbers, the model had to be pumped up with SMS alerts, Twitter coupons, a “donation system for watchdog journalism,” and other lines of revenue which may never an out. Most people are just not that interested in what is going on in their neighborhoods. A local blog network would be lucky to get 20 percent of a metro area’s population as regular readers across multiple sites.

Former Slate editor Michael Kinsley asked Jarvis, “If it is as easy as you make it sound, why aren’t you off doing it?.” Google product chief Marissa Mayer was a little more diplomatic, but suggested the numbers need a “sanity check.”

To be fair, Jarvis and CUNY are presenting the models for discussion and to show how an alternative, semi-distributed local news organization might emerge that can pay for itself. The numbers are wrong, but that hardly matters. They are a starting point for a reconception of how local news can be organized.

“Aren’t you reinventing the wheel?” Kinsley asked him. “I think it needs some reinvention,” responded Jarvis. “We wanted to see if there is a vision for the future of journalism.”

When Jarvis was asked who the dominant species would be in this new ecosystem, he answered: “No one owns the whole thing anymore. No one can afford to own it anymore. So the key thing is how do you take part in the network.” His numbers might be way off, but at least he is trying to rethink the news.