NC Local for March 17: Project Oasis and local news startup success

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 17, including links to coverage of online abuse of women in journalism (and resourcesfor combating such hostility), good work from WSOC-TV’s Joe Bruno, The N&O’s Andrew Carter, and The Daily Tar Heel, and some optimism about local news sustainability)

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

Project Oasis, which was launched a year ago, is live — and it’s a wellspring of help, information and insight for the local news business.

Oasis is a collaborative initiative to build a database of the more than 700 digital-dominant, independent local news outlets in the United States and Canada, to share insight about how they are working to be sustainable, and to share research on best practices. Partners are the Center for Innovation and Sustainability of Local Media at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media; LION Publishers; the Google News Initiative; and Douglas K. Smith.

First, there’s a database that includes a map and list of all 710 publications, compiled in the middle of 2020 from a survey and research at UNC. You can sort the map and list by things such as location (there are 24 outlets in North Carolina), platforms, revenue stream, tax status (LLC, nonprofiit, sole proprietor, etc.), years in operation and editorial strategy. Each publication also has a profile.

The project also produced the GNI Startups Playbook for news entrepreneurs, with valuable guidance on building a product, finding and expanding an audience, identifying initial sources of funding and revenue, and setting up operations, including templates and a large list of resources. It was written by Ben DeJarnette of LION, with contributors Anika Anand (a LION deputy director and a UNC grad who grew up in Kinston); Conor Crowley of GNI; Phillip Smith of Journalism Growth Lab; and Smith.

And there’s a report that tracks trends in digital-native local news, written by Chloe Kizer, a Durham operations and growth consultant working with the UNC Hussman School. Among its key findings:

  • The number of these newsrooms grew by 50 percent in the past five years. One in five say they are fully sustainable, and another two in five say they’re on the way there.
  • They lean heavily on part-timers, contractors and volunteers; most have fewer than five full-time employees, and only half have personnel on the business side.
  • About three-fourths are commercial businesses; the rest are nonprofits.
  • Most rely on a single main source of revenue, usually local advertising (multiple sources are better, the report says).

Among the researchers were Kizer; Susan Leath, who was the CISLM director then; and my good friend Ryan Tuck of Cary, a journalist and consultant who, you remember, wrote this newsletter in the first half of 2020.

Tuck told me they began by assembling the existing research on these news organizations (including that of Penny Abernathy’s News Deserts team at UNC) and then designed the survey and did the additional interviews and research on which the database and report were built. The idea, he said, was “proving that local news business is a good business” and illuminating the path to sustainability.

“There are plenty of success stories in this space, and what is perhaps the most exciting thing is that they don’t look alike — in terms of the audiences they might be serving, in terms of their editorial mission. But when you break them down to something like widgets — the choices they made, and the types of ingredients they have as an organization — they look really similar.

“That, to me, is inspiring, because if you can do something which most journalists do have in excess, which is have a really sharp passion for a mission, the sort of choices you make around how to build that business are fairly transferable.”

Project Oasis’s products are all organic. They’ll be updated from feedback, developments and new insights.

    ➵ Here’s Kizer’s guide to using the information.

    ➵ Here’s more about the project.

One way to build your own

Want to start a news organization? Applications are now open through April 11 for the first cohort of the Tiny News Collective, a LION partnership with News Catalyst, to help launch sustainable local news outlets by supplying them with affordable resources and support. I wrote about how it works in my January 6 newsletter. (The aforementioned Anika Anand is also a TNC team member.)

If you’re interested, you can start with the application guide for essential information, including upcoming workshops, AMAs and office hours to get help, and a checklist to finish before you apply.

And more on sustaining local news…

🗞️ Is momentum building in Congress to support local news providers? Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative (and Steven Waldman, President of Report for America) say it is. Jacob reports the latest and lays out the options, including one that seems reasonably free of conflicts of interest — a tax credit to encourage people to buy news subscriptions.

🗞️ API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel writes about the “dreamers, problem solvers and pioneers” who are defying fears of the demise of local news — in ignored communities, in the fight for accountabiliity, in reporting on race, and in voting rights.