How to Approach Local Media Relations in the Facebook Age

I recently picked up a copy of my community newspaper from my driveway and was about to drop it next to the fireplace for kindling, when I noticed an exciting headline:

“Pontoon Brewing Co. to become Sandy Springs’ first brewery”

It is hard to remember the last time I read a newspaper headline and thought, “that’s great news.” Inside the article was color on the owners, how our city councilors voted, a new Georgia state law that allows for beer sales at retail by manufacturers, and how the location was chosen. I marked my calendar for their December soft opening and shared the news with my husband.

The retired head of my J-School used to say that local newspapers will never die because people will always want to see pictures of their kids in the newspaper. Andy Yost, chief marketing officer at USA Today Network–which owns USA TODAY and media outlets in roughly 100 markets–shares a similar sentiment that local newspapers were “Facebook before Facebook.”

In a time when our nation’s most storied news outlets are called fake news, and more and more people are consuming news on social media, what is the future for local and hyperlocal news outlets?

Readership is still there – Even though there are roughly half the number of local journalists working today compared to 1990, and circulation numbers have been declining, there is still a captive audience. Local news remains a primary source for political information among most voting age Americans.

Revenue models continue to evolve – While traditional ad revenues continue to decline, local outlets are still seeing success from banner ads online, and many are considering membership or premium subscriptions to drive revenue. In October, USA Today Networks announced they would test a membership model, that provides exclusive content and local deals, at four of their 109 local papers.

Niche is Next – At a time when consumers are getting more and more accustomed to personalized content, ads and recommendations, news may be next. Look no further than the hyperlocal news outlets online and in print that focus on specific neighborhoods or even blocks in a city. Matt DeRienzo, the executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers (a nonprofit that helps hyperlocal news outlets develop a business model that sustains local journalism), points to another interesting trend: refined coverage. DeRienzo notes that the model where multiple local outlets are writing the same story on crime, sports, government is on its way out, and more specialization is critical to success and maximizing resources. “When Charlottesville Tomorrow launched, they made a decision to cover a certain number of things, such as land use, education and public policy,” DeRienzo told Editor & Publisher. “They don’t cover crime or car accidents at all.” In the simpler words of Ron Swanson, they are making the choice to “whole ass” one thing.

Another important question is how professional services firms can best work with local publications and where thought leaders can add value. In our experience, there are three keys to successful local media relations:

Local angle & impact – Whether you’re discussing local business moves or a national trend with impact on the market, be prepared to answer: “How does this impact residents and local businesses? What do they need to know?”

Local spokesperson – It’s tough to sell a NYC spokesperson to a Tuscaloosa paper. Local spokespeople are critical to provide on-the-ground insights on local trends and issues.

Local reporter relationships – As with any media relations program, person-to-person relationships are key. Spokespeople must be willing to take the time to meet local reporters and influencers face-to-face, have backgrounder convos, and stay on their radar with regular touchpoints.

Back to my community paper…I finished the issue with a clearer take on our city council candidates and latest business news. And as a bonus, the “Soapbox” section gave me a better sense of my neighbor’s views on everything from respect for the flag to the desire for beer nuts in popcorn…and I didn’t even have to log on to Facebook.

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