The future belongs to the independents

1885 Newspaper Publishers

1885 Newspaper Publishers

Look at the pictures of these men.

Set aside the fact that they are all middle-aged white men, consider the other traits they have in common.

They all owned newspapers in 1885 that were not part of chains. They weren’t concerned about scale. They owned their newspapers at a time before big department stores bought inserts on Sundays or recruitment agencies bought blocks of help wanted ads. They sold their papers for a penny apiece. The term “professional journalism” was not a phrase they had ever heard in their lives. If the newspaper they published in 1885 was still alive in 1985 and they strolled into the newsroom, they would have been shocked at the multitudes of reporters sitting at desks and found the whole notion preposterous.

The news business was very different in 1885.

There are two trends in local online journalism today.

One trend is “throw a lot of money at the problem.” This is the faction that says “scale” is what is needed in local news. The proponents give us Patch and Main Street Connect.

They ignore the fact that no chain in the history of mass media has ever begun as a chain. Frank Gannett owned but one newspaper at one time, as did E. W. Scripps, Joseph Pulitzer, and even William Randolph Hearst.

The first great newspaper chains were built one acquisition at a time (and they weren’t publicly traded companies).

The other trend is the independent online publishers. These are mostly bootstrapped operations.

But the independents are also the ones with the greatest percentage of sites that are actually making money.

There are at least a dozen, and perhaps as many as 20 local independent news sites pulling in more than $100,000 in annual revenue. Tim Armstrong would be in heaven if even 10 Patch sites pulled in that kind of revenue.

The future doesn’t belong to the insta-chains. It belongs to the independents.  Like the newspaper publishers of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, they are building real businesses, forging alliances in their communities, defining the future of journalism, serving their communities, and building the foundation of long-term profitable businesses.  They are doing it through hard work, with little to no investment capital, and showing real progress.

I know this not because it’s how I view myself.  I know this because I personally know most of the men and women doing it.  I’m a witness to what is really working, and what isn’t.  Those who focus too much on “scale” are missing the real scale being built in a hundred different towns and suburbs.