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Local ownership or local control

What is the fix for local journalism? Consider Conway’s Law.

einalem via Wikimedia Commons

Here I am, subtweeting AP’s ‘death of local newspapers’ story datelined Waynesville, Mo. this Sunday:

An interesting discussion thread commenced, including this from Simon Galperin:

This is an important distinction, though knowing Simon, he was arguing for community-owned media while I read it as “corporate-owned but autonomous” local media. That’s just my implicit bias framing my understanding of his comment.

Either way, I am not sure local readers care per se where the newsroom’s CEO lives. (Thought it is not entirely irrelevant — see below.) What readers do want is local media that is responsive to local needs and is entirely focused on understanding and serving the local community above all other priorities. (Their willingness to pay for such attention is open to debate.)

But, there is a tension between local control and non-local ownership in any company. And with a quasi-public good like journalism, where the mission can conflict with the business, it is complicated.

An aspirational (corporate) structure might be:

  1. A benevolent non-local ownership group that includes 25, or 75 or 150 other newsrooms.
  2. A clear set of corporate priorities, all of which evenly benefit all of the local subsidiaries.
  3. A centralized technology and administrative infrastructure that does benefit from efficiencies of scale but does not meaningfully constrain local innovation.
  4. Local leadership informed by local and national data and insights with the sovereignty to pursue local-only strategies and with the resources to execute them.

None of those factors are a given, but #3 and #4 and the gap between hope and reality is most relevant here.

The larger newsgroups have already centralized technology teams, print production efforts and administrative staffs. And they continue to work to consolidate systems and software to minimize costs, create efficiencies and enable collaboration— almost 400 daily newspapers use the TownNews BLOX CMS for example.

But a consequence of centralization is to increase the distance between local leadership, and the tools, staff and processes needed to do new things — especially when those new things require developers.

That distance, and it is about local understanding, shared goals and aligned incentives as much as geographic distance, makes getting “local things” done much more difficult.

For example, a local advertising project worth $75,000 is a meaningful number in many markets — it can pay for a reporter or editor or two. But if the work needs to be prioritized against a $750,000 national project — which project is going to move forward? And if you think that is an unrealistic hypothetical, welcome to the joys of media product management.

Unfortunately, from a local perspective that $750,000 does not make its way directly back to the newsroom to pay for more journalists. Rather, it is divided up among other newsrooms and corporate priorities. So while the organization benefits broadly, the feedback loop between cost, effort and benefit is difficult to see at the local level.

Corporate newsgroups are aware of this challenge, and local publishers and editors live it. Resolving the issue is typically seen as a product and project management task, but it is really a question of culture and audience focus.

An interesting and relevant adage passed through my Twitter feed last week:

At first glance, this might be understood as “culture beats strategy,” but it is more specific than that. Conway’s Law argues that the produced output of any group will, in important aspects, mirror the power dynamic of the group.

The future of local media is dependent on our relationship with local communities. Conway argues that voices not present in a process are disadvantaged. So when corporate-wide decisions are made at a distance from local readers, those decisions are by definition distorting local needs — either by omission or commission.

To be fair, this is not an indictment of corporate media, nor an endorsement of local ownership. But it is an exhortation that we must provide local readers a sense of ownership in our local journalism.That is potentially easier in smaller local organizations but it is not impossible for larger centralized groups.

But what it calls for is a re-examination of how we build our organizations and how we make decisions. Our internal structures have external consequences — and every newsroom needs to reckon with that challenge.

Also published on Medium