Since early in 2022, I’ve been blogging here on KinshiPress about the explosion in local news publishers. Initially that was driven by a gut-feeling that something exciting is in the early, formative stages. These publishers are mostly non-profit, mission-driven, and powered by WordPress.
There’s now data to back that up: The Institute for Non-Profit News is reporting strong growth for local news startups.
This growth is happening, but why now? Why didn’t it happen 10 or 15 years ago? Many of the tools and motivations that these publishers are using also existed back then.
I don’t fully know the answer, but I read this post from Cal Newport with interest. It’s a long post that spends some time talking about that initial period on the internet 10 to 15 years ago. He says that many people launched online projects with the goal of finding and building communities to support their work. This is Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” idea. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these creators failed, and Newport has an idea of what went wrong:
Instead, the social-media giants effectively rerouted these connections through a small number of hulking algorithmic hubs, around which the collective creative output on the Web now ebbs and flows. If you’re a [publisher], the logic of this system makes it difficult for you to find and cultivate a dedicated group of fans. You can submit your [news] into the stream, but, once there, they will be chopped up and commoditized.
Are things different in 2022? Yes, Newport thinks so:
A shining example of the 1,000 True Fans model is the podcasting boom. There are more than eight hundred and fifty thousand active podcasts available right now. Although most of these shows are small and don’t generate much money, the number of people making a full-time living off original audio content is substantial …. According to an advertising agency I consulted, for example, a weekly podcast that generates thirty thousand downloads per episode should be able to reach Kelly’s target of generating a hundred thousand dollars a year in income.
Newport says this didn’t happen because of a technological breakthrough:
The real breakthroughs that enabled the revival of the 1,000 True Fans model are better understood as cultural. The rise in both online news paywalls and subscription video-streaming services trained users to be more comfortable paying à la carte for content. When you already shell out regular subscription fees for newyorker.com, Netflix, Peacock, and Disney+, why not also pay for “Breaking Points,” or throw a monthly donation toward Maria Popova? In 2008, when Kelly published the original “1,000 True Fans” essay, it was widely assumed that it would be hard to ever persuade people to pay money for most digital content. This is no longer true. Opening up these marketplaces to purely digital artifacts—text, audio, video, online classes—significantly lowered the barriers to entry for creative professionals looking to make a living online.
All in all, Newport’s article is well worth a read. It gave me a better understanding of why we might be seeing the rapid growth of local news publications in 2022. At the end of the article, Newport has some notes of caution about why this moment might be fleeting and potential dangers to watch for.