The Symbiosis of Publishers and Brands Can Sustain Local News

By Noah Greenberg, CEO of Stacker, a mission-driven organization empowering publishers by advancing sustainable models for journalism.

There’s no secret around the challenges faced by local newsrooms throughout the country. As a result of consolidation and closures, more than 3 million people have been left with no local newspaper at all and at least 1,000 of the publications that remain have become “ghost” papers, producing little to no original reporting. As staff count shrinks, news outlets are being forced to do more with less.

In contrast, the increased interest by corporations to leverage their own data and industry expertise to produce newsworthy stories has resulted in an influx of incredible new content, searching for an audience.

It is said that today “every company is a media company.” A growing number of non-media companies are hiring reporters and building newsrooms — not to churn out content marketing, but to produce quality journalism using the same editorial standards as traditional media. Over the past few years we have seen these companies turn a corner in terms of quality and depth of reporting, resulting in a new, valuable source of service journalism.

At first glance, it’s easy to see these as competing interests in a zero sum game for audiences. But as you consider the underlying needs of both parties – news outlets and brands with data – there is a real dependence on each other that can help news outlets thrive, and help brands find audience for their research.

History Repeats Itself

Zillow was one of the pioneers of this movement, investing in a Chief Economist to drive their newsroom as early as 2015. Today, the company’s research vertical provides a deep well of thoroughly reported articles that provide an objective look at the real estate market for millions of readers every month. Thousands of outlets have been able to incorporate Zillow’s content, at no cost, into their editorial mix with a simple message making clear to their readers the source of the reporting. For over a decade, partnerships like this have allowed news outlets to cover real estate trends without dedicating staff to that beat, and in turn freeing up reporters to focus on the local stories that only they can tell. Several other companies, from NerdWallet to LendingTree to Coinbase are doing the same, launching full-fledged newsrooms and making content freely available to news outlets.

This trend can lead to a more collaborative relationship between brands and publishers, without sacrificing the integrity of the journalism we read every day.

For better or worse, local news organizations need to find new approaches to providing a full range of coverage for their readers. AP revenues have declined by 25% in the past decade, but that doesn’t mean the need for third-party content has gone away. Publishing quality stories produced by alternative outlets has always and can continue to allow publishers to devote resources to putting boots on the ground to do what they do best: Focus on local news.

But in the future, news outlets won’t have to pay a dime, thanks to this new wave of brands underwriting journalism.

For this to work, these emerging newsrooms need to meet certain standards. For years, most companies were hiring college interns to put together subjective “how-to” pieces or other similar content, but a lot has changed. Now companies are hiring journalists to build their newsrooms and lead content strategy. Maggie Leung, joined NerdWallet after a 20-year career in mainstream journalism that included stints at CNN, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Michael Schreiber, built out the newsroom and content strategy at Credit.com after a career at the New York Times, Frontline and ABC News. Coinbase is looking to poach top talent from a top tier finance publication. The list goes on.

This new normal will require guidelines and standards. Publishers should be transparent about the source of these pieces, clearly labeling them as content generated by an outside, named entity. Brands underwriting journalism need to apply the same principles and standards as news organizations. The articles should not be puff pieces about the companies that fund them, but rather fact-based reporting concerning their sphere of influence. To help differentiate these pieces from traditional “Sponsored Content,” they must be provided free of charge, and the relationship between publisher and provider  needs to be made clear.

The upside for the underwriting companies in all of this is that they get the halo effect of being associated with journalism that educates and adds value to consumers’ lives. If done right, brands will establish themselves as authorities in their respective industry.

What I’m proposing — and where things are already heading — requires us to rethink our assumptions about how good journalism is funded, and where it can come from. Done carefully and with integrity, this new model will provide a tremendous value for local newsrooms in the form of well-researched, no-strings-attached reporting, available at no cost. I believe that five years from now, we will see a plethora of win-win relationships between local news outlets and brand-funded newsrooms, and we’ll all be better for it.

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