Ken Doctor has decade-long view for member-supported Lookout Local news project


News industry analyst Ken Doctor is leading a new project in the next decade: Lookout Local.

A recipient of funding from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge, “Lookout Local Community Partners Plan employs state-of-the-art tech to connect two big dots in the development of local news media for the 2020s: reader revenue through membership and authentic digital and physical connection with those most involved in civic life,” according to the project proposal summary. “We empower a new level of community connection with our readers and create a flywheel effect, generating journalism-building dollars from membership more quickly.”

“Membership sales are fundamental to new local news growth,” the proposal summary continues. “Sold individually, they can work well with considerable effort on the part of the publisher. Augmenting single sales with group sales — through earned, ongoing relationships with civic groups — will accelerate membership adoption and improve retention.”

In total, 87 projects were awarded in the first GNI Innovation Challenges in Asia-Pacific, North America and Latin America. Google said the funding will enable individuals and companies to develop sustainable business models by diversifying revenue streams and/or increasing audience engagement.

When Lookout Local was first named one of the 87, Doctor provided context for it in a post for NiemanLab. We caught up with Doctor to learn why he thinks this project is needed right now.

First, tell us a little about Lookout Local:

Ken Doctor

Doctor

Lookout Local aims to change the national conversation about what’s possible – and what’s necessary – in local news for the 2020s.

We’re applying the best lessons of national digital news publishing disruption and innovation to local news. Our belief: With an investment in both journalistic and business talent and on best-in-class, relatively inexpensive technology, we can now offer communities new standards of local news, information and analysis. And we can make it self-supporting as a business, driven by the twin revenue streams of membership and sponsorship.

Finally, our public benefit company structure establishes our intent to act long-term in the public interest, building new durable trustworthy institutions both providing local news and supporting community betterment.

Why do you think the project is so important to your targeted audience?

The “news desert” meme is well understood. Less grokked is the increasing prevalence of “ghost newspapers.” These are still daily printed products, with some digital access, but produced by incredibly hollowed-out newsrooms. The loss of local reporting on the most basic local issues increases monthly, and I’m afraid that the muscle memory of local news is atrophying. The good news: Lookout will prove that there are enough reader citizens willing to pay for a high-quality local news product, smartly presented to them on their phones.

What’s going to make the project a success in your mind?

First off, scale. If we want enough reader revenue to really support a substantial news operation, we need to offer would-be payers a substantial value proposition. At launch, Lookout will offer that product in its depth and volume.

Second, talent. We’ll pay competitive salaries to staff Lookout with the kind of journalists and business people who will merit both reader and ad support.

Third, the product. We anticipate that 80% or so of readers will read us on their phones, and are creating a product that acts on that understanding.

How do you see the membership and community partners part of your project working together?  

While we understand and appreciate the fundamental social revolution Facebook has wrought, we believe that [in-real-life] social, better activated through a strong, innovative digital news company, can produce great results. Our strategies involve authentically helping civic groups in their quest for civic betterment – and gaining their members’ support of Lookout at the same time.

Do you see this project serving larger metros, smaller-midsize markets, or all of the above? And if so, how?

We’re aiming sub-metro. Many of the same principles, we believe, will work in metro markets, but they are both more complex and more costly to serve.  So, our first market will serve a population between 250,000 and one million, and we believe that’s the best ground to work first. Importantly, we are totally focused on getting our first market launched and its metrics to success. Then, we hope to see the model spread as rapidly as the larger society requires.

How far along is the project?

We are well along on funding Market 1, and intend to complete soon, making announcements early in 2020.