By David A. Jones Jr.
I love Louisville. It’s an accessible, welcoming hub of commerce and an interesting, forward-thinking place to live. We have many of the assets a true metropolitan city should offer: a healthy economy, fabulous parks, strong neighborhoods, terrific food, and a renowned arts and culture scene. And today we see cranes in the sky, as private and public investment promise to enrich our urban core.
Stuff is happening in Louisville – mostly but not all of it good. And unfortunately, it’s hard for Louisville citizens to learn what’s really happening because changes in the media business have savaged our access to local news. Today, Louisville has fewer than half the number of employed professional journalists than we did a decade ago.
I invested in Insider Louisville in 2013 because I believed three things. First, that Louisvillians cared about their city and wanted to understand it. Second, that crucial stories were going unreported as legacy media hemorrhaged reporters. (These same beliefs led me in 2013 to join an effort to support the founding of the nonprofit Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.) And third, that business innovation could define a new model to fund a fully staffed, digital-first newsroom.
With Insider’s experienced digital media entrepreneurs, I saw the promise of smartphones and tablets as tools through which a new generation of news enterprise could be borne.
Our investor group was right about the first two points. Insider’s audience of more than 150,000 regular readers proves that Louisvillians have a hunger for news. And our small but mighty newsroom has broken some amazing stories – amazing both in what we reported and in what others missed.
But we were wrong about the likelihood of commercial success. Google and Facebook now garner nearly 100 percent of new local ad revenue. And they’re winning this competition not because they’re evil, but because they’re good – for advertisers. On these platforms, businesses find customers, politicians find voters and charities find donors, all without anyone paying for the hard, messy work of reporting local truth.
And few individuals – especially but not only younger readers – will pay to subscribe for digital news, while all are repelled by intrusive paywalls and a barrage of drop-down videos and ads.
Content that people click on – whether cat videos, fake news or the trilogy of crime, sports and weather that powers local TV – feeds the global click platforms’ business model and vacuums revenue away from local newsrooms. Digital ad rates are too low to pay for a vibrant local newsroom. As a result: It’s now easy, and almost unavoidable, to drown in the vapid urgency of social media without understanding the local context of purported facts or the motives of purveyors.
These learnings led the investors in Insider Louisville LLC, to the same conclusion that investors in digital-first local news startups around the country have reached: You can’t make money publishing real local news.
Fortunately, innovators in other places have shown a different path to delivering essential civic journalism. A growing movement toward citizen-supported, community-owned, nonprofit local news is showing great promise.
Our role model is the Texas Tribune, whose 2017 Annual Report summarizes growth from startup in Austin in 2010, with 12 reporters, to statewide coverage provided by more than 40 staffers reporters in 2016. (For comparison purposes, the Courier Journal’s masthead listed 40 reporters in 2010, but fewer than 20 today.) MinnPost, Honolulu Civil Beat, Voice of San Diego, City Limits in New York and others provide additional encouragement.
Insider’s goals are ambitious: Triple the size of our newsroom. Bring explanatory journalism to all topics that matter to Louisville residents. Leave yellow-tape crime scenes, real-time sports and weather to the organizations that already cover them well.
Without real news we wander our city in the dark. But there’s hope: citizen-supported nonprofit news.
Our readers’ willingness to place a dollar value on Insider Louisville’s importance in their daily lives is an endorsement of our core values — a total commitment to the notion that our city needs and deserves real news. Insider’s news will always be free with no paywalls ahead, but member participation is needed to support a growing newsroom. Becoming a member isn’t about being part of an exclusive club, but rather a group of connected, engaged citizens interacting with community leaders and editorial staff for meaningful dialogue.
I invite you to join me in becoming an Insider Louisville member today.
David A. Jones Jr. is the chair of the newly formed nonprofit Insider Media Group Inc.