Why Sidewalk News is bringing local news amongst the people

Photo by Joshua Earle via Unsplash.

One of my core journalistic beliefs is that, for a community to thrive, all of its members must have access to high quality local news. And that often isn’t the case — as a 2018 report by Fiona Morgan and James Hamilton determined, “Poor people get poor information, because income inequality generates information inequality.”

But I believe there’s a way to use public infrastructure that already exists almost everywhere in the country to bring the news amongst the people — outdoor advertising. There are 3.3 million out-of-home (OOH) advertising spaces in the United States, and the format already supports more than just ads — the FBI says that the use of digital billboards has played a part in arresting 50 of the country’s most wanted criminals in the last decade.

What Sidewalk News will do is help local news outlets use OOH advertising spaces like bus shelters and street furniture to engage with their community directly by putting their news onto these platforms.

Doing so serves three purposes. One is providing news to all members of a community without concern for their technological prowess or ability to pay. As media becomes more digitally-focused, lower-income and less-educated Americans are less likely to have access to high quality news than their wealthier, more-educated peers. Using OOH spaces levels the playing field by making all people equally able to consume this news.

Another purpose is to give community members a personal connection to a news story that may otherwise seem esoteric. Because each “news ad” will be tailored to its specific display point, the news can be “ultra hyper localized” to that particular spot. For instance, someone sitting in a bus shelter will learn from Sidewalk News about how a city-wide issue will affect the street she’s standing on, or the bus line she’s about to take. This will drive civic engagement as people become more aware about the issues surrounding them.

The third purpose is to advertise the media outlet by showing off what they do best — local news. By posting local news on outdoor displays, a reader on the street will see how the media outlet is covering news that is relevant to them. This also builds credibility and brand awareness of the outlet in the community, particularly with potential readers who may not be as familiar with their work.

With news outlets overstretched and under resourced, I don’t imagine that it would be realistic for my partner news outlets to fund this project. I had originally viewed this project as one that could only be funded through donations from journalism organizations or benevolent individuals interested in fostering community engagement. Increasingly, I think the model has the potential for multiple revenue streams.

One avenue for revenue will still be philanthropy from groups interested in local news, civic engagement, and public spaces. I believe these investments will be necessary to get projects started and build the infrastructure required to make them sustainable. But ultimately, there will be an option for sponsorship. Local companies and community organizations will be able to sponsor these “news ads” to show their commitment to supporting local news.

Out-of-home advertising exists almost everywhere; it’s already a part of our lives. I believe we have an opportunity to make it part of the way we consume the news.