Building the Local News Networks for Social and Cultural Impact

Redefining local news. It’s much more than crime, crashes, sports, weather and traffic


This article is the explainer for BNN Networks, a new media company launching a series of 14 local news networks across 100 cities covering niche news topics of social and cultural impact not consistently reported within the current local news ecosystem.

The Role of Local News as Community Glue

Local news impact communities and citizens more palpably than the national news most news consumers follow. Reporting on local issues and policy, the announcement of neighborhood events, and stories about neighbors and friends make the local news community glue. Pre-internet, print newspapers were seen as the community bulletin boards and functioned as a community service, albeit one that extracted a toll for advertising or gaining access to the news portal. The social media, citizen journalism, blogs and websites disintermediated the local news outlets’ portal model by giving community businesses, civic organizations and newsmakers direct channels to their constituencies and customers.

Local newspapers found that crashing ad revenues, a 60% drop over the past decade, couldn’t sustain their operations, and many folded or shifted to digital publications. As a final straw, the promise of transition to digital news as a viable ad revenue model has now faded, with digital revenues declining every year, less than half of what it was even ten years ago.

Nevertheless, local publishing startups abound and have proven sustainable when the publisher is personally engaged with the community. However, scaling local news into sustainable regional or national news networks is a different story because the business model collapses when the principal revenue driver, small business advertising, can’t cover the expenses of reporters and the sales force. AOL’s hyperlocal news network Patch.com is proof, losing between $200-$300 million over four years before pulling the plug in January 2014.

Six years ago, I proposed a new way to build a hyperlocal news network that would position local news as community glue but not have the prohibitive expense structure of a traditional news operation.


Building a Hyperlocal News Network

The Breaking News Network (“BNN”) was launched in 2009 based on the concept that local news should be a community service giving voice to both the traditional news media and community social media. After more than five years, the BNN is now the largest community news network in the world with the most comprehensive coverage of local news in over 400 cities across the US and Canada, plus the UK, Australia, New Zealand and India. I documented the history of the BNN in my 2013 post How to build a 350 city hyperlocal news network without anybody noticing.

BNN as a hyperlocal media network outlasted similar efforts by major media players AOL, Gannett and Digital First. What was the difference maker? The BNN was built on three unique principles that buck the traditional local news delivery model. The same principles apply to the development of BNN Network’s topical news networks.

  • Syndication. Cost of producing content, usually by paying journalists, is the key reason why the hyperlocal news network business model is unsustainable. However, once the content is published, publishers uniformly encourage its syndication to channel revenue generating reader traffic to their sites. Through its history, the BNN has been well regarded as a syndication vehicle by the news community because it never threatens publishers by cannibalizing their ad revenue, and in fact adds to their reach by directing reader traffic back to them. An example of this dynamic is demonstrated by the BNN’s collaboration with the three largest independent news networks in North America to syndicate 200+ publishers’ articles across the BNN’s city news feeds. For example, a Mother Jones article relevant to Ferguson, MO is syndicated instantly through the BNN’s StLouis feed so that it reaches the local audience most impacted by the story. The resulting curation gives the BNN greater breadth of local breaking news coverage than most local news operations across 400 cities.
  • Community inclusion. Local news should be positioned as a community service that facilitates the delivery and syndication of all voices of the community via social media. Unique in the news media, the BNN established a Media Amplification program that gives over 8,000 authorized community newsmakers the ability to post their community news and events through the BNN’s 400 city news feeds.
The local San Francisco online news sfgate.com is filled with content marketing from advertisers like FedEx and features galleries that have little relevancy to San Francisco. This detracts from its mission to serve the community (mobile presentation)
  • No ads, ever. Most controversial, local advertising needs to be discarded as a business model because it does nothing to support the publisher’s good will in the community. Readers don’t want to see the myriad of local ads typically required to sustain a local publication, and community businesses don’t want to be hounded by ad sales reps. On the editorial side, the need to drum up traffic to support the ad model forces publishers to clickbait, run top 50 lists on slideshows, post sexy pictures, and run non-news faux articles as content marketing for their advertisers.

How BNN Networks extends the local news media ecosystem

Local News is Incomplete

Pew Research: http://www.pewresearch.org/files/2013/03/DN_Local_TV_News.png

Local news reporting is fragmented and incomplete. Traditional local news follows a well worn formula of crime, accidents, traffic and weather, and sports (71% of TV newscasts are devoted to these topics). The challenge is finding localized news revolving around topics that aren’t well covered by the traditional local news media because they may be too esoteric or narrowcast for the general news consumer. Fourteen specialty topics important to specific sets of local news consumers include:

  1. Arts and culture
  2. Civic sustainability and the sharing economy
  3. Education and personal development
  4. Environment, climate change and green tech
  5. Ethnic and cultural news
  6. Health and wellness
  7. Housing and real estate
  8. LGBTQ
  9. Local and artisan food movement
  10. Local politics
  11. Social impact
  12. Solving homelessness, poverty and hunger
  13. Startups, small business development and entrepreneurship
  14. Women and girls

The missing link is local. It is hard to find one local news resource that comprehensively chronicles any of the above topics in depth relevant to a city, say Cleveland, let alone a network that can cover the topic in 100 cities. News consumers who follow specialty news topics like tech startups will follow various national publishers like Techcrunch that do not parse their news feeds to the city level (i.e., there is no Techcrunch Chicago). National publishers of specialty topics can’t devote resources to continuous local coverage across 100 cities because the economics of dedicated local news coverage has proven prohibitive (Again, AOL’s problem).

A new kind of local breaking news powered by non-traditional news media

BNN Networks is creating a portfolio of topical news networks that curates and syndicates not only mainstream news media, but the non-traditional newsmakers — the local bloggers, indie news publishers, nonprofits, civic groups, academics, and enterprises — who report and analyze local news and events related to the specialty topic with an authority and sensibility complementary to the existing local news media. Each topical network is composed of 100 individual city feeds covering the major metro areas of the US and Canada, syndicating news via a dedicated website, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. In addition, national stories by specialty publishers are syndicated parsed to the city level. For example, Techcrunch articles about Detroit startups will be syndicated through the Detroit news feed in the tech startup network.

Prototype: CHNG News

CHNG News is a hyperlocal breaking news network devoted to highlighting leading thinkers and journalists who chronicle stories of social and cultural impact in 100 cities. The mission of CHNG News is to provide local news consumers with a comprehensive series of breaking articles on social and cultural impact related to their locale or community.

CHNG News collaborates with social impact organizations including the Social Venture Network (“SVN”), a network of innovative business leaders and entrepreneurs committed to social change, and BALLE / Be a Localist.org , a network of local economy leaders, to provide their members a media voice through CHNG News. It is officially launching in February 2015.


How BNN Networks impacts local news

Creating a new way for news consumers to follow topics they care about at the local level

The first year goal of BNN Networks is to create a directory of 14 local topical news platforms that will engage niche reader bases in 1oo cities and serve as “community glue” for local readers who follow the topic. Creating traction for local news has always proven difficult to do from scratch, and BNN Networks is well positioned to launch new topical news networks by leveraging the BNN’s established local reader base of over 700,000. The ultimate mission of BNN Networks is to be the local breaking news resource for any topical interest in not just 100 major cities in the US and Canada, but thousands of cities worldwide.

Exposing topical publications to local readership

Topical news publishers write for national, not local audiences in order to scale the necessary reader traffic for ad buys. Some of the best local journalism that local news consumers miss are published by topical news publishers like Colorlines and Feministing. For example, when Colorlines publishes an article related to Tucson Arizona, do locals in Tucson, who may be directly impacted by the article content, read it? They probably don’t know Colorlines exists. There is currently no way for Tucson readers to know about Colorlines articles in real time unless they already subscribe to Colorlines or the articles are syndicated through local Tucson news media channels (and they aren’t). Our topical news networks will syndicate the articles of hundreds of topical publishers like Colorlines through our city feeds to reach the local readers most likely to be impacted. I believe it is critical to sustain topical publishers by getting them discovered by, and extending their relevancy and reach to local news consumers.

For example, when Colorlines publishes an article related to a city, like Tucson, the BNN Tucson feed @breakingtusnewssyndicates the article to local reders

Uniquely community inclusive

Although mainstream news organizations have staff writers and/or contributors, very few have tapped into non-traditional newsmakers who use blogs and social media to get their word out. BNN Networks curates non-traditional and credible community newsmakers — politicians, civic groups, performing arts organizations, nonprofits, — who are attuned to local issues specific to their domain knowledge, and use social media to expose news and catalyze discourse.

Creating a new media paradigm for national and regional advocacy

The most transcendent feature of the BNN Networks is its facility to harness community voices across 100 cities to support and advocate for large scale causes and campaigns. We call them “Advocate Networks”. For example, our first topical network, the CHNG News Network collaborates with two socially conscious business networks, the Social Venture Network(“SVN”) and Be A Localist. Their members are authorized for amplification nationwide to drive messaging of social impact down to granular local levels. In aggregate, the 400+ authorized members of SVN and BALLE constitute an advocate network that can be coordinated to expose and market movements, campaigns, fundraisers and initiatives at national levels. Multiple advocate networks can collaborate for a common goal. For example, a feed the hungry campaign can be supported by various advocate networks comprised of food banks, homeless support organizations, food companies.

The building of these social media powered advocate networks is unique to the BNN and BNN Networks in media, and is a nascent, perhaps game changing marketing paradigm. The concept lays the foundation for BNN Networks’ business model.


Launch Methodology

Our admin team based in India, with four years experience assembling, developing and curating news feeds for the BNN, can launch a new network in the span of three weeks. Each new network can be developed without coding. Coding can be costly and always needs updating; it’s far more efficient to partner with third party applications to augment functionality and design. We choose to use Wordpress as the website platform because of its extensibility and content management capabilities. Dlvr.it drives our social media feed delivery, Rebelmouse renders our social media feeds into an elegant front end display, and Grouptweet powers our Media Amplification Program. Over the past five years, we have curated over 10,000 news feeds across 400 cities from both traditional and non-traditional news sources that we deem relevant to community news.


Measuring Impact

Typical one day analytics 1/27/15. 16,400 posts were made with 91,000 clickthroughs across an aggregate 400 city feeds (dlvr.it analytics)

The news curation and syndication processes are all automated so that every weekday on the BNN, between 12,000 and 17,000 news items are posted across 400 city feeds, with daily aggregate clickthrough rates of between 40,000 to 100,000. The BNN’s clickthrough rate is much higher than average for online newspaper Twitter feeds due to our curation of interesting local news feeds.


Business Model

Again, no ads.

Sponsors — socially conscious brands, nonprofits, foundations and organizations — can support the building and sustenance of the topical news networks. BNN Networks collaborates with sponsors by amplifying and extending the message of their writers, advocates and affiliates across potentially hundreds of cities. For example, the potential sponsors for the local food news network would include retail food chains, artisan food products, nonprofits and foundations that help feed the hungry, organizations advocating GMO free food and food banks. A sponsoring retail chain with hundreds of stores using social media for outreach can have its stores authorized by BNN Networks to engage their communities through the local food network. The power of a 100 to 400-city news network is its facility to bring top down messaging to the community level, where word of mouth marketing and buzz really happens.

Future trajectory

I’ve been told BNN Networks is a kind of audacious media concept. Launching 14 topical news networks in 100 cities will create massive local media presence by providing a 360 degree view of everything happening in a city. They are not redundant, each network will have a specific content stream and audience. The Breaking News Network also started out with an audacious media play in 2009 by “bombarding” news consumers with a 24-by-7 ticker tape of interesting curated local breaking news. Local news consumers love our feeds for the content, their community inclusiveness and good will, the commitment to social impact, and of course, no ads.

The goal of BNN Networks is to provides media voice to tens of thousands of community newsmakers worldwide who are making a difference in their topical and geographic arenas. With that validation, BNN Networks’ next step would be to scale globally from 14 localized networks across 100 cities to a worldwide network covering local issues across 1,000 cities.