European publishers can learn more from a successful US local news site than giants like New York Times or Washington Post. And 2021 is set to provide a lot of learning material.

One of the first things I tell journalists and “media people” (consultants, analysts…) from the United States is that they should think of most European media as the equivalent of local news in the States.

I’m not the first person to say this – some have stopped me and said they get it. For others it is obvious once I tell them. Sometimes, the same goes for Europeans, too, especially those working in media in big EU countries and for national publishers.

Consider that only five countries in the EU have a population larger than 20 million (OK, Romania is just below 20). A random regional newsroom in Germany could have a reachable market of around 7 million people. That is more than the population of thirteen smaller EU countries. The same is true when compared to American local news.

In terms of people, resources, and potential reach, the US local news media landscape offers more insights. Focusing on it can be a wiser and more productive approach.

US local news experiments to watch in 2021

Why is 2021 looking particularly interesting?

For one thing, there are a few initiatives and projects that were started or announced in 2020. They should yield the first results this year.

Last September Axios, “the punchy news startup” (as WSJ called the news site recently), laid out the goal of launching newsletter teams in several local markets under the brand Axios Local. Pilot markets are Minneapolis-St. Paul (Combined Statistical Area of around 4 million), Denver (CSA of ~3.5 million), Tampa-St. Petersburg (CSA of ~3 million), Des Moines (CSA of ~1 million). Also, Axios acquired Charlotte Agenda.

The goal is to have small teams (two people at the start for each city) and produce a daily morning newsletter as the main product. Technology, editing, and other support will be provided by Axios headquarters to keep costs down.

Whether this will end up as successful or not is hard to say at this point. However, it is worth mentioning that Charlotte Agenda is a profitable local newsletter with 55,000 free subscribers (it has been profitable for three years now). So Axios already has a proof of concept. If the news startup spins up more local editions it will be a sign things are going well.

In my newsletter last October I referenced another case just like this: Andrew Wilkinson, a tech entrepreneur from Canada, took to Twitter to explain how he recreated a local newspaper in the form of a daily newsletter which now has 40,000 subscribers and is profitable. 

He believes that with a $100-200k investment anyone can do it. In his case, he spent about $200k on FB and Instagram ads to get people to sign-up.

Another headline grabbed my attention this week: Tiny News Collective aims to launch 500 new local news organizations in three years. That’s a big goal, and it will provide a lot of potentially interesting case studies. The main proposal: “The Collective will be able to offer the platform, training, legal assistance, back-office services, and everything else for around $100 per month.”

The project is a joint venture from News Catalyst and LION [Local Independent Online News] Publishers, and is aimed at entrepreneurial journalists.

Another related trend – local newsrooms are moving to Substack, the newsletter and blog platform where you can easily set up a digital subscription tied to your publication.

Back in 2019, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote: “Substack has been around only a couple of years, but we now know that there is a model for independent writers that works. …I believe this model has enormous potential for local news.”

In the podcast “The Business of Content,” Simon Owens interviewed Tony Mecia who launched a local newsletter called The Charlotte Ledger. The headline reads: This local newsletter is thriving on Substack.

More case studies and report on journalism innovation

There is an additional reason why paying close attention to the US local news market might bring you more know-how. Namely, reports like this one: What types of messages, pricing, and perks motivate #ThisIsTucson super-users to become paying members.

#ThisIsTucson launched in August 2016, an all-local all-digital vertical (under the umbrella of the Arizona Daily Star, but it is separate in philosophy, target audience, and branding). The team consists of one editor and four writers, with support, sales, and marketing from the Star.

Quote: “#ThisIsTucson is an experiment to find a new business model for local digital journalism. As an intrapreneurship venture, we have rapidly grown advertising and event revenue, but we’re still not profitable entering our fourth year.”

If you dive into the report you will find a step-by-step guide with examples and results of what worked and what did not, though every publication and audience is different so you shouldn’t take those results for granted.

This is but the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned at the beginning, a lot of projects will continue to pick up steam. European publishers should pay close attention and extract lessons for their own markets.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash