Executive Session with Dan Kennedy

Kennedy: No Papers Getting It Right In Digital

Dan Kennedy, veteran media critic and assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, says newspapers are falling short when it comes to digital, with many hampered by clumsy paywalls and too much debt on their books.
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Newspapers are all missing the mark in digital, says veteran media critic Dan Kennedy, hampered in many cases by clumsy paywall adoptions and too much debt on their books to succeed.

Kennedy, whose book on community journalism, The Wired City, will be published this spring, has most recently focused his attention on nonprofit and hyperlocal news models. His conclusions: Nonprofits can be formidable but not necessarily a fit for every market. Hyperlocals, meanwhile, must find more non-advertising revenue solutions in order to produce a higher volume of meaningful content.

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Now an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, Kennedy said journalism students today need to think of themselves as the tech workers of the past two decades — nomadic between startups, ready for frequent failures and adaptable to an increasingly niche-oriented landscape.

In an interview with NetNewsCheck, he explored those students’ prospects in the field, along with the challenges facing the alternative newsweekly world from which he came to prominence through a longtime stint at The Boston Phoenix.


An edited transcript:

Brand Connections

 

Your book The Wired City, about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, is coming out later this spring, so let’s start with your take on hyperlocal and nonprofit digital news. Where are we in the life cycle of those two kinds of news sites?

If you look at some of the best-known nonprofit hyperlocal sites, it seems like most of them were created maybe half a dozen years ago, and there hasn’t been a whole lot added to them since that. That may speak to a couple of things. It just may be that there are certain communities that were better able to support nonprofit sites than others. In New Haven, you’ve got Paul Bass, the founder, and the local foundation community and it may be that there were some unique kinds of circumstances that have not been easy to replicate elsewhere.

The other factor that we may be looking at is that the [Internal Revenue Service] became very skeptical of nonprofit news after a certain point. Paul Bass and Voice of San Diego got approval, but after some of these other projects started to gear up, the IRS said hold on. We’ve got to step back and study this. This has had a pretty negative effect on the ability of nonprofit news to grow.

So we’re in limbo at the moment. I think it’s potentially a very positive way for local community news coverage to go, but it’s not clear that the conditions exist in every community to support such a site.

And what about the for-profit sites? Most of these sites are such endeavors and are small one- or two-man shops in many cases.

There are some wonderful for-profit sites and I write about a number of them in The Wired City. The ones I look at the most closely are The Batavian and CTNewsJunkie, and they’re terrific, but they have a really hard road ahead of them. They have to work very hard just to get the advertising they need to survive, and they are not able to have the level of staffing that some of the more prominent nonprofits have been able to have. This may speak to the larger problem with journalism, which is that the money now really has to come from elsewhere. If you’re asking the journalism to be self-supporting, it only works up to a certain point, after which there just isn’t enough money to do that much in depth.

What do you see as some of the more sustainable successes in hyperlocal news? What are the common denominators to those sites?

Paul Bass has done a terrific job of continuing to line up more and more nonprofit support every year. And he has been able to get that support largely out of the local community, so he does not have the problem of everybody depending on the Knight Foundation, which obviously can only go on for so long.

The Texas Tribune has really done a terrific job of developing different levels of membership and events so that they are particularly not dependent on foundation grants compared to some of the other sites.

On the for-profit side, it’s not that they’re not sustainable. It’s that people are just working incredibly hard just to keep going day after day. That’s certainly true of Howard Owens at The Batavian. He just works like a dog to keep the site going. He makes a fairly comfortable six-figure income for the site, but that still doesn’t pay for an awful lot of journalism. So it’s sustainable, but it’s really, really hard work.

You’ve opined on your blog recently about OC Register publisher Aaron Kushner’s move to double down on print, bucking just about every newspaper trend by adding staff, coverage and pages. What should we make of this move? Is Kushner a curiosity? An outlier? Do you see any viability to this tact?

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