Scalable Data Reporting Could Solve Newspaper Profitability Problems

August 11, 2012

The old economic model for newspapers is dying. As other mediums soak up print’s once dominant share of ad sales, advertising can no longer support legions of reporters. And yet, consumers sill hunger for news about their community and a sizable group of advertisers still want to reach those readers.

But the old content model for newspapers has been busted up too. Where news organizations could once attract readers with, “All the news fit to print,” that strategy has gone the way of department store emporiums. News consumers, like department store shoppers, have been peeled away by a series of category-killers for every desire.

Over the last ten years, the Internet has fostered specialty sites for sports, entertainment, politics, real estate, cars and every last slice of what used to make up the Sunday newspaper. Then, came increasing specialty with amateur blogs on one end and high-end subscription sites on another. With Daily Kos for the everyman and Politico Pro for insiders, newspapers are experiencing their own version of the hourglass economy.

Lacking their content emporiums, today’s newspapers have been stripped down to three key components, brand awareness, sales pipelines and the newsroom’s ability to provide local context. Today’s readers care little about the sausage making of content, only that the story is told from a local angle and neighborhood street names get spelled right.

News organizations can do other things than report from a local context of course, like help build community, provide news analysis and report relevant data like police blotters and school performance scores. But technology is quickly changing what is economically possible with data reporting. Startups like Everyblock, Journatic and Narrative Science, using relatively small teams of people query databases, scrape websites and scan and retype PDFs on a massive scale many times over, every day, then those small teams inexpensively repurpose that information for millions of local readers

Data reporting, the process of collecting large amounts of information, normalizing it and then mining the results for news, is scalable and may make it possible for newspapers to profitably reach into the communities newspapers once served.

Not so long ago, data reporting was accomplished by getting a copy of the town police blotter and retyping it for the town newspaper once a month, an expensive and unscalable process requiring full-time journalists to basically run errands rather than conduct interviews or analyze data. So, when print advertising disappeared, so did suburban and community newspapers, the laboriously hand-gathered blotters, prep and minor league sports scores and local event calendars.

But now data reporting is all about scale. Whether it is collecting, normalizing or reporting it, more is always more for small teams that barely grow as the data pools get larger. Already, the potential efficiencies available make it only a matter of time before most data collection and reporting is outsourced or white-labeled outside the newsroom as Journatic and Narrative Science are attempting to do.

The scalability of data reporting makes it less expensive to produce. The scalability of data reporting makes it easy to cover many areas. From a business perspective, this is a potent cocktail that offers new areas to sell ads and target readers in a way never before possible.

But scalability alone does not make for a successful news publication – newspapers still need local context to provide value to readers. If data reporting is provided with a modicum of community context and original reporting, it can be the backbone of a new breed of community and hyperlocal publications.