Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week kicked off Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, as a virtual event. The first of four keynotes was a Q&A with Richard Gingras, Google’s senior vice president of news. Find more takeaways, video recordings, presentations, and insights here.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
“Brand lovers” will drive a bright and successful future for local news despite a global pandemic and looming recession that has some industry publications on the brink.
That was the message from Richard Gingras, Google’s senior vice president for news, who kicked off Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week as its first keynote speaker Aug. 10. The four-day conference casts a spotlight on successful digital operations that are growing revenue, increasing audience, and proving a return on investment for their efforts.
Last year’s in-person event was attended by more than 300 local media executives. This year’s event, originally planned for May, doubles that attendance. Nearly 600 people registered to attend the rescheduled conference via a series of webinars, featuring keynote discussions each morning and several afternoon breakout tracks focused on audience, strategy and sales.
Gingras talked about the Google News Initiative — the title sponsor of Digital Summit Week — and the company’s efforts to preserve and grow news startups through financial support and technology investments. He also talked about what’s working for local publishers amid a rapidly changing news environment.
It’s all in an effort to create a more sustainable news ecosystem that expands business models and different voices in the industry, he said. He has learned that “brand lovers,” or those who visit a news site more than 15 times per month, are the ultimate audience that every publication should aspire to gain. He recommends measuring brand lovers as a percentage of the total target population — not total users. One publisher has a 68% brand lovers score, for example — an admittedly difficult percentage to reach, Gingras said.
Here are eight more tips from Gingras based on what he has seen work at various local news operations:
1. Local ownership is crucial
Without “skin in the game,” Gingras said it’s difficult for local readers to gain loyalty for a new community publication. Local ownership knows what information is appropriate for the community they serve.
Local ownership has “been the one very obvious signal to us” throughout every Google News study and partnership, Gingras said. That includes the Google News Initiative and the Local Experiments Project as well as the more recently launched Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, which dispersed $40 million to 5,600 local news outlets internationally.
2. Community information matters
Too many well-intentioned projects have failed to gain audience or financial support after the first year because they focused too much on accountability journalism, Gingras said. While that coverage is important, a strong foundation of community information — restaurant openings and local events, for example — is needed to attract and retain an audience that is often reluctant to consume hard news.
In fact, a Reuters Institute Digital News Report revealed that fewer than 10% of people are consuming news on a daily basis, so increasing the percentage of people willing to consume local news has to be the goal, Gingras said.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to build engagement to the point these sites are important enough to these communities to attract and retain advertising,” he said.
3. Need consistent revenue
Subscriptions and particularly memberships have helped build a baseline revenue source for local news startups that are seeking to build an audience from scratch. However, only 30% of operations surveyed as part of the Journalism Emergency Relief Fund said they have a membership or subscription business model in place today.
But at least 60% of those organizations surveyed intend to add audience revenue to their strategic plans moving forward. Such campaigns help reinforce the need to audiences that news organizations count on their support.
“Our communities may not understand you need them as much as they need you,” Gingras said.
4. Engagement with community matters
Almost every publisher Gingras meets admits to not having a strategy around researching and understanding what their potential audience actually wants. At best, they only have metrics that identify the interests of their existing audience.
“Those tell you nothing about the larger market and their needs,” Gingras said.
They haven’t actually talked to the community or gained meaningful input that shapes the publication’s editorial direction. Meetings, surveys and town halls help publishers better understand what issues their potential audience actually wants them to cover.
To that end, the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge was recently launched — with the application deadline extended until Aug. 12 — to fund projects and ideas that reach and inform underrepresented and diverse audiences. Each recipient is eligible for up to $300,000, or 70% of total project costs.
5. New audience engagement technique matter
Most successful publishers are embracing email newsletters and the importance of gaining a direct link to their audience, Gingras said.
“Are you doing everything possible to attain email addresses of everyone in your community?” Gingras asked, suggesting that helps gain the brand lovers that publishes should covet.
6. Develop new local advertisement models
Revenue streams may never return to pre-pandemic levels, let alone to the levels once seen during news media’s glory days. But that doesn’t mean advertising is an ineffective method to gaining revenue, Gingras said.
In fact, one Google news partner, Village Media in Canada, relies almost exclusively on creative advertisement programs to gain revenue. Only recently has Village Media started a supplemental membership model.
7. Rethink what it means to be a local news site
Evolving story formats and other creative editorial approaches help publications embrace the changing ways that readers consume news. That way of thinking shouldn’t apply just to the writing and presentation of the facts but also how those facts are reported, Gingras said.
Constructive journalism, also known as solutions journalism, helps potential readers realize the news outlet wants the community to succeed just as much as every other resident.
“Craft the local news so it can be seen as constructive and effective in allowing the community to be healthy as it moves forward, “Gingras said, suggesting that local news outlets should be seen as advocates for the community.
8. Provide the community a sense of what’s important
By creating more tools such as the coronavirus search trends and the fact-check explorer, more journalists can find local stories that are backed by data. Google is working to provide more data-driven tools that help local publications identify the characteristics that define the communities they cover, Gingras said.
“We’re trying to create connections with the audience so they know you represent their best interests,” Gingras said. “Not that you’re taking a position on a specific issue but you advocate for problems you feel the community needs to address.”
More from the LMA Digital Summit Week Monday keynote: Q&A with Richard Gingras, vice president of news, Google, Sponsored by the Google News Initiative | Watch the recorded session