There’s a crisis in journalism. The old business model has collapsed, and it’s not clear what the new one should be. News was once subsidized by local advertising and the classifieds. As they vanish, their legacy makes subscribers reluctant to foot the entire bill.
The crisis primarily affects local news. The New York Times and Washington Post have gotten bigger and more profitable as newspapers outside of NY/DC/LA have shrunk. We’re losing watchdog capabilities, meaning that corruption in small-city governments becomes more likely. But more importantly, we’re losing an essential aspect of local flavor, local color, local character.
Fifteen years ago, I helped run a hyperlocal, microtargeted media outlet in a very small town. I like to think that its values—especially its irreverence—not only reflected but also shaped the values of the community as a whole. The advertisers it depended on have now all moved online. No such print publication is sustainable these days.
A few intrepid journalists start hyperlocal online publications. Most struggle. It seems to me that one way to ease their struggle would be to create a platform on which you could publish local news. You’d have your own text and pictures, maybe even your own layouts, but you’d share a publishing engine with others. Instead of the bloated Content Management Systems of the dinosaur newspapers, you’d have modern technology organizing workflows and providing user-friendly interfaces.
That’s what software could do for journalism. That’s what Substack should be: a small-group locally-oriented publishing platform, to help put out the fire raging across newsgathering. Instead of an individual newsletter platform, to help big-name journalists walk away from the flames.