Anyone watching the headlines lately knows that local newsrooms across the country are hurting, and some have disappeared altogether. Many more still are barely operating, publishing news as a shadow of their former selves. Amid these closures and cutbacks, news deserts — areas that have no locally-based media — are blooming.
In losing their local media, these areas are losing some of the vital ways they used to connect as a community. Births, deaths, local sports, city council, and businesses opening or closings are all left to be passed around as rumors on social media.
This is where the Compass Experiment comes in.
We are a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news. Over the next three years, we will launching three digital-only news operations in small to mid-sized U.S. communities that have limited sources of local, independent journalism. Our goal is not only to support the dissemination of news in these communities, but also to make the local operations financially self-sustaining.
Local news is where I started my career and I feel it is the bedrock of our industry’s connection with the audience. Local news tells their stories, lives in their communities and earns their trust through the kind of accountability that comes when you might run into your area reporter at the grocery store. We cannot ensure local journalism will survive for the long-haul without a focus on sustainability, which is why I sought to be a part of this initiative in the first place.
While we are very early in this project — so early, in fact, that I technically haven’t started yet — but here are a few things I want to share about our plans so far.
1. We aren’t going to be in the business of parachute journalism.
I have no interest in dropping journalists into unfamiliar places and giving the locals the news we want give them. The best community journalism is created by people who know it best. This is why we will be actively involving communities in the development of the sites and hiring local journalists who already know and love the area.
2. All sites won’t be the same.
All communities are not the same, so why would we assume they all need and want the same out of their journalism? We won’t be replicating the same cookie-cutter approach to every site’s coverage, but rather taking a custom approach dictated by the needs of each place.
3. These sites will have to be self-sustaining at some point.
To help solve the problems facing local news in the long-term, we have to focus on the business model. The reason this is an “experiment” and not a “project” is that we are using this opportunity to innovate and adapt new potential sources of revenue for these local sites.
4. We won’t be doing this alone.
We know there are many bright minds already working hard to create sustainable local media across the U.S. and the world. I believe we can get further, faster by working together. So I’m going to ensure we also are learning from what’s already going on out there and collaborate with those who share our goals to find new paths to what can help community news operations everywhere.
5. We won’t be doing this in the dark.
As part of the aforementioned collaboration, we’ve set up this site to share our progress and our failures along the way so that others can learn from them, adapt them and spread them as needed.
Where we are now
Right now, we are in the process of selecting the location of our first site. The sort of communities we have in mind would ideally meet the following criteria:
- Has a population of roughly 60,000 to 300,000
- Is not part of or close to a major city — we’re looking to cover communities where people work and live
- Has an engaged citizenry that votes, volunteers and is already focused on making their city a better place
- Has no or few sources of local news, or recently lost a local news provider
We want to hear your ideas. If you live in a community that is hungry for local news, let me know.
If you want to be a part of what we’re building, drop me a line.
If you’re already working on this problem and want a collaborator, I’m here for you.
I didn’t join The Compass Experiment only to make incremental improvements to the three communities where we’ll be starting new sites. I want to be part of a movement to make local news sustainable everywhere. I hope you’ll join me.
Mandy Jenkins is the incoming General Manager for the Compass Experiment. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter (DMs are open).