Vaulting Into the Digital-First News Space

Jun 07, 2018

In a few weeks, four popular local news sites that shuttered abruptly last fall will all be back in action. The revival of three – Gothamist, DCist and LAist – are part of pioneering efforts by their new owners, their local public radio stations, to jumpstart significant local news and digital-first content almost overnight.

In deciding to try to graft a well-known online brand onto their recognized audio storytelling, WNYC in New York, KPCC in Pasadena, CA, and WAMU in Washington, DC, seized the opportunity to nab a loyal fan base and a stable of community-fluent online journalists, even though those sites had been dark for months. Next steps are a work in progress.

So far, local site fans have responded enthusiastically. All the sites launched Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns. Gothamist. which re-launched in late April, blew past its $100,000 goal and raised $200,147 in a month, setting a Kickstarter record for a local U.S. journalism project. LAist and DCist, which wind up their campaigns later this month, have raised 75 percent of their goals and expect to launch soon.

Co-branding the giveaways with station logos is deliberately light as the stations seek first to reinvigorate the sites’ online audiences. “We see Kickstarter as, not just a fundraising platform, but also as a platform for engaging with superfans of DCist,” said Andi McDaniel, WAMU’s chief content officer.

A sister site, Block Club Chicago, formerly DNAinfo Chicago, broke the journalism Kickstarter journalism record before Gothamist, raising $183,720 this spring. It will re-launch soon in its own pioneering fashion. After kicking the tires on various options, it decided to partner with Civil, which is developing a local news ecosystem using a blockchain-based model, said Shamus Toomey, co-founder and editor-in-chief. Civil is also providing the site with grant money and a content management system.

For local news startups threatened with closure, these developments are meaningful. Only a handful have landed buyers or supporters to continue their mission after an exit by their owners or founders. These four sites were orphaned when their corporate owner, DNAInfo, abruptly pulled the plug last Nov. 2 after staff members had voted to unionize.

For the public radio stations, their acquisitions mark a leap of faith that the re-launched sites will vault them to a stronger place in the digital news arena faster than if they started their own online news sites.

Jim Schachter, WNYC’s vice president for news, saw the acquisitions as a compelling opportunity. “WNYC has been very good at what it does for a very long time: radio with a digital presence,” he said. “The important thing to know is that Gothamist’s digital audience was larger than WNYC’s local digital audience for reading.”

WNYC purchased the three “ist” sites in February with donor help. WNYC then sold LAist and DCist to their local public radio stations. The parties decline to disclose prices, however, Bill Davis, founding president and CEO of Southern California Public Radio, the umbrella for KPCC, considered it an “outstanding” deal.

“It was a confluence of opportunity as opposed to a well-thought-out strategy,” he said. As part of the transactions, each station got the site URL and brand, story archives, email lists and Twitter followers. And all are picking up key editors, some reporters and freelancers.

“The Twitter handles alone probably would have been worth the acquisition price,” he said. Moreover, of LAist’s 27,000 email accounts, "less than 2 percent crossed over with our database,” he added.

The stations also believe they will be reaching new audiences. While demographic data is still being mined, “we can safely conclude the audience will be younger, more ethnically diverse and more digitally native” than KPCC’s current listeners, Davis said.

The stations will be able to tap into new content as well. While the sites delved deeply into neighborhood news and issues of each city’s built environment, such as redevelopment and affordable housing, they also highlighted “best of” features of their metro areas.

“That’s not our core franchise,” said Davis, “but when we actually looked at it, we’re not above looking at good places to eat and places to see. It complements what we do very nicely.”

The stations expect to pay for the expansion with the usual underwriting, sponsorships and fundraising. Early discussions revolve around asking readers to pay $5 to $7 a month for membership access. As important are securing new members and a younger, a more diverse audience.

Unlike the 2013 merger of St. Louis Public Radio with the St. Louis Beacon, which was anchored in a year of study and planning, the paths forward for Gothamist, LAist and DCist will play out day to day.

Jennifer Chung, who with her Gothamist co-founder Jake Dobkin, is spearheading Gothamist strategy at WNYC, said she sees possibilities for podcasts, events and membership campaigns that they never had the bandwidth to roll out on their own.

How content will be integrated into the stations’ audio experience is also a day-by-day learning curve. “Multiple times a week, Gothamist contributors are on WNYC’s air,” Schachter said. More than a month into the launch, “we are doing more cross-fertilization than I would have thought at this point.”

At the same time, he notes, “We’ve had reporters from both organizations (WNYC and Gothamist) cover the same stories because the Gothamist audience is very different from the WNYC audience.

"We are leaving open the question of whether Gothamist becomes the primary destination of our daily news report,” he said.