The term “micro news” is hard to define because many local newspapers have reached near-micro scale as they’ve downsized. I was talking with a colleague recently about what it would take for a digital upstart to go head-to-head with a paper in a market of roughly 250,000 residents.
I joked, “So you’re going to start with 25 reporters on day one?”
They replied, “No, we’re planning to start with a dozen, which is what the local paper has today.”
As the industry has shrunk, the lines have blurred. For the sake of this post, I’ll define a micro news organization as one with fewer than six reporters. You may say that a newsroom with six or fewer reporters will not replace what’s been lost. You would be right, and others have said the same. However, I’m not proposing that we replace what’s been lost. I’m proposing that we build something new, something quite possibly better than what we’ve had. Or, at a minimum, something that gives us what we need.
Imagine for a moment a swarm of niche sites focused on local news and information: one focused on real estate, another on development, arts and community events, technology and startups, sports, government and crime, and so on. Each is its own site that covers a niche aspect of the community, and each goes deeper than the local paper ever could because it’s not trying to aggregate “something for everyone.” Could this potentially add up to something more than its component parts? Could it lead to coverage of communities and conversations not represented in the local paper?
I believe one of the best bets we have is a bottom-up, small-is-beautiful movement of thousands of micro news organizations.
I’m not proposing that these micro news organizations will replace the New York Times, Washington Post, CBC, BBC, or other legacy media outlets. However, as they have demonstrated time and time again, small digital upstarts can have an outsize impact on the national news conversation. Their fresh perspective and close relationship with the communities they serve allow them to provide new kinds of value to readers.
“Small is beautiful” is not a new idea. And yet it’s new to hear the likes of media titan Rafat Ali, founder of paidContent (which he sold for millions to Guardian Media), say that it’s his “evangelizing function” in life to preach “that small matters and that small can make a large impact.”
A company like Ali’s Skift, with 60 staffers and revenue of $10 million last year, is not exactly a micro news organization. Yet I believe the lessons of Skift scale down. In fact, Brian Wieser, a senior media analyst at Pivotal Research, tells CNBC: “A publisher that aspires to be really high quality and small can also have a great business, maybe with lower risk in the long run.”
This opportunity to develop right-sized newsrooms lines up with my own research. As I spoke with dozens of reporter-led news startups across the United States and Canada, it became clear that these nascent business owners do not intend to grow beyond a relatively small size. They are unanimous in their focus on delivering quality over volume.
When I think of my own experience working in a micro news organization for almost a decade and all that has been accomplished in that newsroom’s 15-year journey — the stories the reporters continue to break, how they move the conversation on key issues, the relationships they build with readers — I have faith in this model. I believe being small is key to their success. Their newsrooms feel alive and everyone is engaged.