Jed Williams exiting LMA with optimism for the future sustainability of local news


Jed-WIlliams-Headshot-300x300Last week, on a call with the Google News Initiative team, Richard Gingras, Google’s VP of news, made a comment that breezed by me at the time, but which I’ve reflected on considerably in the days that followed. His point, and I’m paraphrasing: there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of local news, and the models that will emerge to secure its essential place in the fabric of our communities. 

I’ve wondered about the future of local news a lot during my tenure at LMA, with heightened urgency in 2020 given the new waves of disruption crashing down upon our shores. Am I optimistic — truly, genuinely optimistic — about local media’s future? I won’t lie; I take a long pause before answering this. But, anchored by a sense of realism and a willingness to confront the hard facts (Stockdale Paradox, anyone), my answer is yes. Emphatically yes. I am optimistic about the future, even if at times the beacon of light is obscured by present-day shadows. 

I’m so energized about the future — and the need for new, progressive, audience- and community-driven models to author local media’s next chapters — that I’m pushing my (figurative) chips to the center of the table and making a bet on building part of that future. Next week I depart LMA after a remarkable four-year journey to embark on my own venture, one vision and one version of a modern, digital-only, primary news, information and community experience that aspires to reimagine local media’s possibilities for the 2020s. I’m partnering with respected media analyst and longtime friend Ken Doctor to build Lookout Local, coming later this fall to its first market, and in time expanding to additional communities. 

My tenure at LMA has given me a truly unique seat at the nexus of many emerging ideas, developing trends, and evolving models. All of these inform my thinking about the art of the possible, the reality and hard truth of the present, and the urgency to build the bridge between the two. 

So, why am I optimistic? And about what, specifically? 

Fair questions, both, and hard questions. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m relentlessly honest and rigorously analytical. If I’m “being real” here, the current data points and trendlines aren’t anything to write home about. The digital advertising market was already imperiled before COVID-19 washed ashore. Couple this with fast-evaporating print ad revenues for newspapers and static-to-down traditional local ad dollars (political spending notwithstanding) for broadcasters — paired with the persistent “will enough people actually pay for local news and information to sustain it?” question — and we find ourselves in a business briar patch. 

Newspapers with multi-year print-to-digital transition plans have seen these upended in the span of months, if not weeks. Broadcasters continue their search for a more controllable, locally-driven earned revenue future that’s less reliant on the non-local whims of retransmission consent fees and political placements. And digital upstarts wrestle with gnawing questions of ownership structure, sensible revenue diversification, and sustainable growth strategies. 

Hmm, about that optimism, Jed … where is it again? 

I’ll tell you where it is, in my eyes at least, but before I reveal the easter egg, I need to caveat it. What I’m about to say doesn’t necessarily look a lot like the local media environment of the present. It surely looks a whole lot different from the ecosystem of the past. 

It may still have the whirring sound of a printing press somewhere in the background, or it may not. There will still be hulking TV towers, but they won’t be irrevocably anchored to “news at 5, 6, and 10.” It will certainly still have components of “big J” journalism, and always should, but not exclusively so. Because local media isn’t just about speaking truth to power (though that is, of course, vital) — it’s about meeting and engaging local citizens where they are, as they are, to solve their specific jobs to be done. That includes covering city hall and the state capitol, but just as importantly, involves diving into and reporting on the things that matter most to our daily lives … things that are most relevant yet often least reported. These gaps must be filled, too.

Yes, local media must be audience-centric and on some level, audience-supported. We know this. But that’s only the beginning. Beyond studying consumption patterns and running reader surveys to inform “write this, not that” decisions, local institutions must engage with and empower their communities in ways that reconnect them to local media’s origins while reimagining community betterment for modern-day challenges. Ultimately, if local media is doing its job, fully, colorfully, dynamically, it is fostering more vibrant, engaged communities that collaborate to solve problems. It is telling the stories of all its citizens. It is informing residents what they should know, while also inspiring and activating them with ideas for what they can do, from something as simple as how to spend a Saturday night to something as heady as how to take action on crucial civic matters. 

An audience-driven, community-empowered, uniquely-voiced, modern local news and information experience is one that I believe can succeed. And will succeed. We’re seeing pop-up examples of it blooming already. It will be data-rich. Solutions-focused. Revenue-diverse. And yes, that includes smart local and regional advertising and sponsorship integration (I refuse to abandon thoughtful advertising and marketing approaches), alongside multiple reader-supported streams. 

The crux of all of this is, however, is ownership. Local ownership, or at least leadership, matters more than ever. So too does governance structure, steadfastly aligning the mission and business goals of the operation. Most of all, owners and operators must be entrepreneurial. And that’s what I’m most enthused about in local media — the growing legion of smart, scrappy, and unencumbered by “that’s the way we’ve always done things” entrepreneurs that are popping up across the landscape. Some are emerging from within legacy enterprises (I can rattle off a list of great leaders that I’ve collaborated with at LMA), shepherding new futures for established organizations. Others are brand new. There’s plenty of room, and need, for both. I’m ready to step into the batter’s box and take my swing as one of them. 

As I do, I exit LMA with an overwhelming spirit of pride and gratitude for the work, learnings and relationships that have defined the past four years. From launching experiential learning programs such as Chief Digital Clubs and expanding Innovation Missions to architecting and launching Accelerate Local and the many labs, funds and projects that live under its banner and continue to grow, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and needed across the ecosystem, it’s been one heck of a ride. A ride I’ll always reflect on with fondness, thankful to so many (far too many to list here, but you know who you are) for making it so exhilarating. A ride I’ll now enjoy in a new way as LMA’s biggest champion. 

Now it’s time for my next ride. And that ride will soon leave the station. Onward local media!