In this episode, I sit down with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News, to discuss the vital work they're doing in preserving and evolving local news across the country. Elizabeth, with her background as a Harvard Business School-trained academic (“failed academic” in her words, since she's now actively working in the field), brings a unique and insightful perspective to our conversation. I was particularly excited to step back and geek out a little to apply business theory to the challenges and opportunities in local news.
We cover a range of topics, from the importance of community weeklies and the criteria used to select titles for investment, to the progress of ongoing initiatives and finding the right balance between local ownership and the efficiencies of larger news chains. We also discuss the relationship between mission and profit in the news industry, and what wild success for local news could look like five years down the line. By incorporating business concepts such as jobs to be done, localism, and Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, we offer a fresh lens through which to view the future of local journalism.
(02:32) – The National Trust’s mission and why legacy news might be worth preserving
(07:12) – The importance of community weeklies
(11:41) – Evaluating titles for investment
(14:38) – How current projects are doing
(17:01) – Local involvement/ownership and benefiting from chain-like scale
(22:09) – Other lessons learned
(23:28) – The mission/profit relationship
(28:08) – What does wild success look like in five years?
(29:49) – Business theory applied to local news: business models
(33:18) – Business theory applied to local news: jobs to be done and localism
(37:54) – Business theory applied to local news: Clayton Chrstensen’s disruptive innovation theory
(44:21) – Business theory applied to local news: false rigor
(47:37) – Rapid-fire questions
Listen to the episode here:
- National Trust for Local News: web, LinkedIn, Instagram, Medium, Twitter/X
- Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro: LinkedIn, Twitter/X
- Colorado Community Media
- Maine Trust for Local News
- CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Executive Education Program in News Innovation and Leadership
- Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University
- Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy
- Membership Puzzle Project’s Guide to Membership
- Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society
- Harvard Business School
- Democracy Fund
- Denton Record-Chronicle
- Press Forward
- LNM episode with Sarahbeth Berman of AJP
- Sue Cross of INN
- Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos, With an Introduction by Walter Isaacson
- Elizabeth's dissertation
- Jobs to Be Done
- Stratechery by Ben Thompson
- Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation
- Alabama Media Group
- Golden Transcript (and its examination of its contribution to systemic racism)
- Superhuman email client
- Local News Matters: web, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
- Colorado Press Association: web, Twitter, Facebook
- Tim Regan-Porter: bio, Twitter
Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro is the CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News.
The National Trust for Local News conserves, transforms, and sustains community news organizations. We build stronger communities by keeping local news in local hands. As the only organization dedicated to strengthening existing sources of local news, we pair national expertise with local knowledge and commitment to ensure long-term, sustainable community news.
Previously, Dr. Hansen Shapiro was a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. At the Tow Center, Dr. Hansen Shapiro’s work focused on the future of journalism in public media and public policies to support local news. She has published research on combining audience revenue and engagement strategies, the relationship between news publishers and social platforms, and the opportunities and challenges of funding local and single-subject news. Her last research project, The Public Media Mergers Project, was an 18-month study of eight acquisitions of digital newsrooms into public broadcasters.
Previously, Dr. Hanse Shapiro led the news sustainability research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and was the Research Director for the Membership Puzzle Project’s Guide to Membership.
Dr. Hansen Shapiro teaches strategy and managing organizational change as an adjunct lecturer in the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Executive Education Program in News Innovation and Leadership.
From 2016 – 2017, she was a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a Center affiliate from 2017 – 2019. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from Harvard Business School.
Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro [00:00:00]:
It sort of drives me a little bit crazy that the particular kinda high profile failings of metro newspapers on the business side then just get that brush gets used to, like, paint the entire rest of the industry. And, you know, we have profitable papers in our portfolio, and we come across profitable papers every day. Also unprofitable papers. So, you know, this idea that the business model is forever and always broken, I think is just reflects a real lack of curiosity and, I'd say empirics on the part of its, you know, its adherents.
Tim Regan-Porter [00:00:39]:
Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. In each episode, I sit down with guests from newsrooms and others in the local news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them, as well as the crucial questions they face.
This episode is one I was looking forward to recording for a while, and I was only disappointed that we couldn’t go for another hour. I hope you feel the same.
I talk with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News. Elizabeth’s academic background brings a unique and valuable perspective to her work. Prior to the National Trust, she was a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Before that, she led the news sustainability research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and was the Research Director for the Membership Puzzle Project’s Guide to Membership.
Dr. Hansen Shapiro teaches strategy and managing organizational change as an adjunct lecturer in the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Executive Education Program in News Innovation and Leadership.
From 2016 – 2017, she was a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a Center affiliate from 2017 – 2019. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from Harvard Business School.
If you like this episode and what we're doing more generally, never miss an episode by signing up for our newsletter at lnmpod.com.
And now I bring you Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro.
Well, welcome, Elizabeth. Great to have you.
Hansen Shapiro [00:02:29]:
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
The National Trust’s mission and why legacy news might be worth preserving
Alright. Well, let's just jump right into what is the National Trust For Local News. What's its mission and why did you found it?
Hansen Shapiro [00:02:39]:
The National Trust For Local News, we are national nonprofit organization working to conserve and transform and sustain community news organizations. So our kind of ultimate mission is to build stronger communities by keeping small traditional sources of local news in local hands. And we do that by really a kind of nature dormancy model of national expertise and, national knowledge combining with local knowledge and local commitment, so that we can ensure long term and sustainable community news.
Let me ask you the question I know you've received, and I've even gotten it, from a national funder who was, you know, poking around and knowing my background in entrepreneurship, but also working for one of the chains and now working with newsrooms across Colorado. And that question is simply, why is legacy news worth preserving?
Hansen Shapiro [00:03:29]:
Yeah. It's also a question that we get all the time. And, you know, I think, in some ways, it's a hard question to answer in the abstract because what we find in our work in so many places is that what legacy media means and to whom is very much a, like, question of where you live. So, you know, if you live in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, you could say, well, our local paper has been on the decline for the last 20 years. But if you live in, you know, Peach County, Georgia, your local paper has been a long-standing institution. It's probably something that you buy every week, and you can't imagine life without it. So I think this kind of, like, you know, it's almost like, it's a straw man question of why is legacy media worth preserving. You really have to ask where and, and for whom.
Absolutely. And, you know, so let's dig into that a little bit. So, you know, the—sometimes the people that are asking that question seriously, are coming from a couple different places. One is from sort of an ethical and editorial standpoint of there are a lot of failures that legacy media has, you know, perpetrated over the years. We've neglected certain communities. We've sensationalized. We've clickbaited. We've, you know, neglected lots of lots of pieces. And then on the other side are people who are more of a libertarian or free market streak who just say, look. We don't say, we didn't save buggy whip manufacturers. So why should we save a failing business model? And I have responses to both of those, but I'm curious as to how you’ve responded to each of those angles of attack.
Hansen Shapiro [00:05:05]:
Yeah. I would say on the kind of practice of journalism front, it's absolutely true that the traditional professionalized, journalism class mostly represented by newspapers has not done right by all parts of their community. And it's been an incredibly editorially driven enterprise as opposed to a community-driven enterprise. But I think that kinda risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater because I think you and I, Tim, have also seen that when those journalists get fired from their newspapers or leave their newspapers and go start their startups, lo and behold, they replicate those exact same practices because it's really about a way of thinking and a way of understanding what journalism is and who journalism serves. That was made worse, I think, in some some aspects of the newspaper model, in part because it was so successful for so long. But just because you're transplanting it into a business model doesn't mean that you've eradicated the harm. So I think it's a widespread problem that all of us, in all kinds of different business models and all kinds of different media have to be addressed. And, you know, and there's been incredible, I think, growth and innovation in folks in the field learning how to be more in connection and in responsive to communities and how to do journalism from that space. You know, part of what I get really excited about at the National Trust is being able to bring those practices into places that have never been never been in conversation with those communities. So that's a really exciting innovation that I think we get to do with the trust that has nothing to do with, you know, the business model or the format per se. And then, you know, and then on the business model side, I would say, like, it sort of drives me a little bit crazy that the particular kinda high profile failings of metro newspapers on the business side, then just get that brush gets used to, like, paint the entire rest of the industry. And, you know, we have profitable papers in our portfolio and we come across profitable papers every day. Also unprofitable papers. So, you know, this idea that the business model is forever and always broken, I think is, just reflects a real lack of curiosity and, I would say, empirics on the part of its, you know, its adherents.
The importance of community weeklies
Absolutely. And, you know, and the thing that started breaking the business model anyway was Craigslist and then Google and Facebook, and it's all revenue side. It's not a reflection of the demand or the readership. That in many ways, that's higher than it's ever been. So I think that's one important point that those critics need to consider. The other thing that you alluded to there is just the diversity of what these newspapers and other news organizations do, and their health. Yeah. I was actually talking with Linda Schapley, who's publisher of Colorado Community Media, which was your first investment. And she and I both were sort of sharing the—what's the right word for it? Just sort of the growing respect we have for what community newspapers do. And that when we were both, you know, living in large cities—of course, we're still in large cities—but, working for metro dailies or, you know, even as a consumer, there was sort of this dismissive attitude towards weeklies and community newspapers that the real news was in those, you know, big papers. And, you know, there used to be sort of this ladder that a reporter would climb from one market to another. And what surprised me as I've come to Colorado and began working with all of these different newsrooms is how strong some of these community newspapers are. They are still financially supported by their community, and I think even their print product has, you know, a lifeline still, you know, much longer than some of the metro dailies, probably, on the print side, and they are beloved by their communities. And they do important work that we sometimes just dismiss. And I'm wondering if you see that and if you've gone on a similar journey in terms of your understanding of their role in the ecosystem.
Hansen Shapiro [00:09:00]:
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, because I was not trained as a journalist and didn't come through that system, I didn't come to this work with, you know, sort of hierarchy in my mind of metro news above all. But it's definitely been something that I've learned about and experienced firsthand, both from, you know, kind of journalists and colleagues in the industry, but also from funders. I think there's been in the journalism industry funderland. And I think we're starting to see a shift in this, but I would say plenty of funders also share that orientation of, like, the metro news is the sort of highest level of news and everything else is, you know, like service journalism or amateur hour, basically. And, you know, in fact, I think our experience is exactly what you have said, and I think Linda and her journalists are a great example of this. There is an incredible amount of audience loyalty to community news, and I think there's a real, there's a real art and a real critical importance for all of those reporters who, you know, are literally are, like, driving around every today in order to collect the news in their communities. So, I see it as actually the sort of, like, highest form of local news because I think it actually reflects what truly local means in the way that I think everyday people experience what local means, which is not local as in like, oh, I, you know, live in a big metro, but local well as in, like, I live in this neighborhood or I live in this town. And so I think that there's a much better reflection in community journalism of how people experience local in their daily lives as opposed to the kind of metro, much more distant sets of issues and stories.
Absolutely. And, you know, and it's the full spectrum. So I think they do a better job of capturing that spectrum. But even on the investigative side, I mean, the reporting Colorado Community Media has done around housing has been phenomenal. The editorial the Golden Transcript did looking back at its treatment of minorities in the paper over the years was something you don't expect out of a community newspaper if you come to it with that sort of prejudice.
Hansen Shapiro [00:11:05]:
Yes. Absolutely. And, yeah, that's why it's been so fun to, you know, work with Linda and just see all of the ways in which she's been able to, you know, really up the game of the storytelling and the reporting, the community reporting for all of those papers. And the potential exists there across the country in other parts of our portfolio. Like, you know, there are community newsrooms who wanna be doing that kind of work, and they need the leadership, and they need the resources, and they need the encouragement. But those stories are absolutely there to be told, and there are people who wanna tell it. And that's you know, I think that's the beauty of working in community news.
Evaluating titles for investment
So let's dig into a little bit about, sort of following on that conversation, what do you look for as you're evaluating properties and deciding whether the National Trust can invest in or bring other funders, maybe, to the table when you know—what are the positive signs, but also what are the negatives, when maybe this is not a legacy outlet that is worth saving or that maybe is able— you know, you're not gonna get the return that you would need to see.
Hansen Shapiro [00:12:09]:
So, you know, we spent the first two years of our existence talking to a lot of publishers across the country and have seen sort of the good, the bad, and the ugly. And where we have landed on that question, is really to create a strategy that's about a state-based approach first. Because every state inevitably has stronger titles and weaker titles. And so our goal is to create sustainability across a network so that we can serve larger communities and smaller communities. So the, you know, the challenge of saying, like, is this particular title a good investment? Is that—on the face of it, it absolutely may not be. And that could be because its community is shrinking. You know, there's been, like, a base closure or there's been some you know, it's hard hit by COVID, and it's losing population. So we don't wanna make determinations solely on the basis of, like, do your financials look okay right now? We wanna have a kind of state-based strategy where the ingredients for success at the state level are there so that we can say, is this title serving this community truly an important public and civic service that wouldn't be replaceable by something else. And if that is the case, and then we can have a kind of sustainable network to attach it onto, then that kinda calculation is much different than, okay, you've been losing $100,000 a year for the last 3 years. Do we really wanna buy you? Yes or no?
And so when you go in, you've got a metric, a rubric, basically, that you're you're coming in and you're looking at the community, the paper, all of its financials. Right? You're doing a really deep dive to to examine where it's at and where it could go.
Hansen Shapiro [00:13:49]:
Yeah. That's right. And we're doing that in the context of a state-based analysis of what's the landscape of papers in this state. Are where, where are there strong papers that are up for sale or could be up for sale? Where are there weaker papers that are at risk of leaving news deserts behind? And then there's a whole other set of calculations for us, which is what's the kind of partnership and funder network? So some states, you know, like North Carolina, for example, which the Democracy Fund has invested in its ecosystem strategy quite heavily. And, like, those folks have amazing ecosystem fundamentals. Colorado has amazing ecosystem fundamentals. So, you know, on the other side of the ledger, we also wanna be sure that there's local partners and local funders in a conversation about the importance of local journalism that we can plug into because that's really the other side of, kinda long term success.
How current projects are doing
So let's talk a little bit about what you've done so far. So Colorado as your first investment, but you've been looking nationally, and you've made a couple others. So can you talk a little about those projects and how they're going?
Hansen Shapiro [00:14:48]:
So the biggest one for us this summer, as you know, is that, on August 1st, we closed on our biggest ever transaction of 22 newspapers,17 weeklies and five dailies across the state of Maine. So this is definitely our biggest geographic and revenue footprint. And, you know, this is the sort of joy and excitement of startups. We've had a very disciplined and focused strategic plan guiding our work for the last nine months, and then all of a sudden there's an opportunity that drops into your lap that you kinda can't say no to. So that's, you know, we've grown significantly, opportunistically. But then on the kind of strategic long range part of our growth plan, at the end of last year, we helped KERA, diligence and set them up to acquire the Denton Record-Chronicle in Dallas. And, actually, they just closed on that acquisition, also at the beginning of August. And the interesting thing about that project just from, like, a startup organizational perspective, you know, we really saw and still do see a lot of potential in public media in the community news space. And that was a project that we learned a lot about the kind of microeconomics of transformation of community papers, and also kind of the dynamics of helping public stations understand the value of community news. But coming out the other side of that, we said, you know what? This is, this is an incredible model that others should take forward, but it's not a scalable model for us. And so that was a really important strategic evolution in my thinking to go from, okay, we're gonna just figured out as many different models as we can to say, actually, where we have the most value to provide is in, not just the conservation work that we do, let in the actual running of the papers that we can do. So we wanna look not just like the Nature Conservancy, but also like Gannett. And so that, you know, that strategic pivot then coming into this year is what allowed us to take a look at the Maine acquisition and go, oh, yeah. This is actually a really important accelerant to what we think our value in theory of change is. And, no, it's not on the it's not on the strategic plan, but it is, you know, it's on the path to scale. So those have been two really exciting projects to work on.
Local involvement/ownership and benefiting from chain-like scale
Talk just for a minute about that evolution. You know, I think when we first started talking about Colorado, your original thought was that you would acquire papers and then turn them back over to the community. What's your thinking? And is that still part of the mix?
Hansen Shapiro [00:17:17]:
Yeah. That's such that's such an astute and important question. And, you know, to be honest, like, our Maine acquisition really put that to question even more front and center for us. And it's something that we had been already thinking about in Colorado. And, you know, I think what we—our experience in Colorado, and you've had a front seat to this, is that, not surprisingly, like, these are difficult businesses to run, and they really do require like a very hands-on approach. Not necessarily in the day-to-day running, but there's just a whole host of important, higher level strategic and fundraising considerations that are difficult to do at an arm's length. Like, they really need to have a much more close-in operational context. So that experience in Colorado, and then, you know, taking a look at the Maine acquisition and realizing that there's so much important transformation work that had to be done that really needs to be led and managed and resourced. It was sort of a, it was a reaffirmation for me that this Gannett model is really important for long-term sustainability. Now the other important ingredient. And this is of course, all missions have parts of their mission that are in tension, right? So for us, it's local ownership and sustainability. You know, local ownership apart from any national entity that has access to national resources and national scale and national expertise would really struggle. And in fact, you know, lots of metro papers that are kinda on their own are experiencing this. So so for me, this summer, like, Maine was a really important learning experience where me and my team in conversation with our local funders were able to say, you know what? Local ownership shouldn't be an input to our model. It should be a success outcome because we want all of these papers to get to a place—and it could be in five years or 10 years or 20 years—we want them to get to a place where that local ownership, is much, is much closer-in. And so, in Maine, the evolution of our thinking is around robust local control as an outcome of a successful transformation and board-building process as opposed to, like, an input starting line. And so what that allows us to do is sort of invite in all of the folks that really want to be engaged and that we want to be engaged in the transformation and kind of institution-building process. But not sort of, handing over local control and then saying, “Bye. See you later. Like, good luck with your papers.” And so that's a really important evolution for us, in our model because it's, you know, as as I said, they kind of threading the needle between or a national organization that can bring national expertise and national resources, and understanding that these are deeply local institutions and that their value and and their long term success depends on that, the quality of local participation and local engagement. So, you know, I think we're like, we are, you know, we are—in addition to being a startup, we are like an innovation in the field. So, you know, I tell my team all the time, like, we don't, it's not like we have this figured out. We are, like, learning and making better and better and better decisions all along the way. And I think this will be something that we continue to learn about and continue to figure out how to do better and better.
Yeah. There seems to be some, maybe, convergence of thinking along those lines. I mean, when I—my first presentation to my board, when I got here talking about our evolution was that I thought we needed to act and think more like a white-hat chain, that you absolutely need local reporters, local editors, local publishers, local salespeople. But is there really a reason for some of these small papers to have, you know, a full time accountant or struggle to find a good part-time accountant and do all the chasing of bills or even having, you know, maybe a reader revenue expert setting up all of your automations and things like that. That there are services that makes sense at scale. And we could bring in expertise that small publications can't. And I know I understand from, you know, one of the national funders so as they're thinking about this Press Forward initiative, that's been part of the conversation, that shared services is really something that the industry needs.
Hansen Shapiro [00:21:31]:
Yeah. Absolutely. And we have, both the advantage and the challenge of rolling up operations that each have their own baseline conditions on accounting teams and tech stacks and, you know, media kits and workflows. And so, unlike our friends over in the digital startup department. Like, we are also, figuring out how to kind of retrofit, but also deconstruct and reconstruct so that all of those costs can be shared at the right level.
Other lessons learned
So you've Talked a lot about sort of your evolution of thinking. Have there been any other things that you would highlight as lessons learned or maybe major surprises?
Hansen Shapiro [00:22:18]:
You know, I'd say on the fundraising side, we're continuing to learn about the dynamics of national versus local fundraising. And, you know, I think a lot of productive work has been done to kind of seed the field in so many places on the importance of local journalism. And so, we hear that reflected back to us in a lot of our local conversations, which is wonderful. Of course, the challenge always is that sometimes, you know, on the fundraising side, folks, like, care about what's in their backyard, but they don't necessarily care about what's beyond that. And so figuring out how to assemble the right coalition of partners and parties so that you can really cover a state or a geography. Like, that can be a little bit of a little bit of a challenge and definitely, you know, in the coalition-building category. And one of the things I'm really excited about, for Press Forward is for an advancement of that conversation, because I think, you know, local funders also wanna know that they're part of something bigger and that there are others who are kind of taking the leap with them. And I think that's gonna be a really positive step forward for the philanthropic field in that way.
The mission/profit relationship
Yeah. A lot of the newsrooms you are working with now are for-profit newsrooms or were formerly for-profit newsrooms. Some of them probably will look at a nonprofit conversion. I think in Colorado, it's a B-Corp that is the owner of Colorado Community Media. Right? So as you think about all of these different newsrooms and how you'll make decisions maybe differently than others, how does your mission focus lead you to maybe make different decisions than a pure profit maximizer?
Hansen Shapiro [00:24:00]:
Yeah. That's a great question. And interestingly, I think we actually have to answer the question from the opposite direction when we make these acquisitions because we are coming in as the nonprofit owner. And we have to be careful that we're not setting expectations that now that you are owned by a nonprofit, it means that you don't have to run revenues over costs anymore. And so, we've we've done a lot of work, frankly, well, in Colorado, but also in Maine and coming in to really communicate that we are, we are mission-driven nonprofit owners, but our standards for sustainability are really high and that we are actually, we expect of ourselves and our news organizations a level of discipline around the business management that feeds the commitment to the mission. So, yes, we have longer time horizons. Yes, our—you know, what's at the top of our hierarchy is impact, not profit. But I deeply believe and we deeply believe that the path to impact has to be through a disciplined management of the business. Because otherwise, you know, without money, you have no mission. And that's, you know, that's a new, that's a new twist on, quote, unquote, nonprofit news, and it's different than what a lot of the papers that we acquire have been hearing about nonprofit news. So that's really the way that we tell the story. It's less about, no, we're not about profit, we're about mission, and more about here's how these two things go hand in hand.
I was just talking with Sarahbeth Berman at AJP this week and said something that I—I'm not the first to say it, I think I've heard you say it; I've heard Sue Cross say it, and we probably got it from some other places—but nonprofit is not a business model. It's a tax status. And so you still, regardless of your tax status, you need all of, you need business discipline. You need revenue to exceed your expenses. You have to invest in the future. All of that is important and sometimes overlooked. But on the flip side, you know, there are decisions that you will make that maybe you wouldn't make if you were running Gannett. I don't wanna throw Gannett under the bus, but there are probably you know, in terms of how you approach audience, how you approach reporting, how you approach staffing. And so if you were speaking to a skeptic who's like, go, “we've seen what happens when chains come into our state and start buying up newspapers.” What would you say to that? Hey, we're not, we're not that?
Hansen Shapiro [00:26:32]:
Yeah. I mean, I think what I would say is we are long-term investors in the quality of the product. And we believe that a quality product and an engaged audience are the drivers of long-term success, both from an impact perspective and from a business perspective. So when it comes to staffing or infrastructure or audience engagement or audience growth, like, a quality product and a quality experience is what matters overall. And I think, you know, some of the chains could say that they believe in a quality product. But I think, unfortunately, they make all kinds of short-term driven decisions that undermine the long-term quality of the product and the business.
Yeah. Mission and bottomline aren't in opposition. For all of the flaws that people might point to with Amazon, particularly with how it treats its workers, when I read through Jeff Bezos' letters, I'm struck by the extent of his focus on customer experience and on the long term. And I just find it amazing that newsrooms who purport to serve the community, we'll go quickly to Taboola ads and things that just degrade the customer experience and chase short term profits.
Hansen Shapiro [00:27:44]:
Yeah. The short-termism is a real problem. And it's a problem I mean, that also is not a business model problem. It can be exacerbated by your business model, but, you know, you can get short termism in nonprofit news organizations too, just like kind of chasing the next grant, and not necessarily keeping an eye on overall quality and reader experience and service.
What does wild success look like in five years?
So your approach is evolving as you have some of these opportunistic things come up like Maine. But what is your current thinking about, you know, what does wild success look like in give years?
Hansen Shapiro [00:28:21]:
Yeah. So wild success, which we are planning for, of course, is—for us, it's 15 states in five years. So, you know, we have sort of two online now. We'll have one more hopefully, two more, by early next year. And then, you know, and then I think we can just sort of replicate, and continue going. In my mind, the most important piece of what we can do right now is continue to identify partners and publishers who will make strong anchors for us in a scaling up strategy. And, you know, the good news is that we hear from those kind of folks everyday. So, you know, so my hope is that, as we're all kind of riding this wave of growing interest and investment in local news that we can harness that to really, kind of beat the clock on a lot of papers that are also really struggling. Because my other concern is that rural news publishers, in particular, independent rural news publishers are at risk of extinction, either getting bought by political forces or just closing due to the really difficult economics of small places. And so I think we are really in a race against time. So, you know, the 15 states in five years isn't just like, oh, I would really love to grow really fast. It's like, I think it's gonna take that speed and scale in order to actually solve the problem of local news in small places that I just don't see anybody else tackling.
Business theory applied to local news: business models
So now I wanna transition into some big picture questions and business theory. One of the things I really looked forward to talking with you about Is business theory as an academic, and me as a sort of a frustrated academic who, you know, MBA and economics major. And If they had had this as a category in my college, most likely to be a professor wearing a, you know, tweed jacket and with elbow patches, that probably would have been me. I downloaded your dissertation. Didn't get a chance to read all 450-something pages. But I've asked ChatGPT to summarize it, and it's still churning.
Hansen Shapiro [00:30:26]:
Oh, Tim, I'll give you a prize if you get to the end. Slightly horrified, but that's wonderful.
So sort of not quite hardcore theory, but as you look at the industry, there's a lot of conversations about how do the business models need to evolve, what are our revenue sources gonna be. How do you see that evolving writ large?
Hansen Shapiro [00:30:48]:
I think we're going through, like, a sort of fracturing and diversification of business models that are based on place. And, you know, and based on frankly, like, the economic inequalities between geographies in this country. So I think the dynamics of what a successful local news business model looks like in, you know, the Los Angeles or New York metro area are just gonna be much different than, you know, in places that have populations of much smaller size and scale. And so, you know, in my mind, it's like, you know, a political economy problem, really, because we have something like 3,000 counties in the US. And there is such incredible inequalities between those counties in population, in economic size, you know, in demographics. And so there, it's like a truism, but, like, there really is no one-size-fits-all. So where I see business models going is that there's gonna have to be different solution sets for different scales. You know, what we are trying to do is sort of match a particular scaled, federated business model so that it's a solution for smaller places that won't be able to attach themselves to bigger kind of like geographic metro-based models.
And, you know, and then I think the other truism for the business models is that it's a sort of all of the above moment. So it's subscriptions, and it's advertising, and it's events, and it's, you know, sponsored content. It's like as many of the things as you can possibly get. And, again, I think the success factor for all of those also depends on where you're trying to build that business model. In my mind, one of the super interesting kind of, like, untold, stories slash drivers of business model success and local news is that there are just widely different retail concentrations across the US. There are still some communities where, you know, there are still a lot of independent, independently owned, kind of mom-and-pop retail shops that still do a lot of direct advertising. And there are communities and we look you know, we found this in Denton, where all of those independently owned retail chains have been replaced by big box stores. So, you know, if you're like a local sales force, like, there really is no door to knock on. And so, you know, because of that difference in the retail base, then I think you also get differences in the potential in an advertising revenue stream for local news.
Business theory applied to local news: jobs to be done and localism
I mean, it’s complicated, and it's very intertwined with all sorts of other issues like equity and access. And even at, you know, even outside of news, I was just listening to Ben Thompson, his Stratechery podcast. He was analyzing what Disney is going through, and they are, it looks like, shifting to more of an advertising model. And, you know, that's in competition, which is the route they were heading down, with a subscription model. And, you know, so they've got the balancing of scale and, you know, trying to understand where their revenue is really gonna come from. And newsrooms are kind of a microcosm of that, and they've gotta think through all of those issues. What do you see as the fundamental value that local news provides? You know, in Clayton Christensen's jobs-to-be-done framework, you know, he encourages companies to not think about the product they're producing, but what are they solving. Ben Thompson's also had some good writings on this, about the, you know, what is local news? Are you paying for the article? Are you paying for sort of this general sense of “I know what's going on in my community that I need to know about”? And maybe the best thing is for you to tell me nothing you need to worry about today. But what is the value of, the fundamental value that we offer?
Hansen Shapiro [00:34:35]:
Yeah. I'll just go back to sort of, like, what I was talking about before, which is it's really important to understand when you ask that question, what local means and what local means and to who. Because if the local that you're talking about—like, for me, for example, if the local that you're talking about is, like, Boston, you know, I care about what's happening in Boston, but I don't care as much as I care about what's happening in my town. And so, you know, and what's happening in my town is, like, yes, what's happening at the school board, or in the town council and around development. But it's also about, like, you know, why are their shops closing downtown? What is it with this, like, crazy development that's happening just down the street? Like, why are there all these traffic signs? Like, when is there the next parade in town? And I think that, you know, that the value of localism, and the value of local, like, hyper-local to people, I think has been totally missed in a lot of these conversations. And so when you say, what is the value of local news, I think that value looks and feels much different back to our community news discussion when you're talking about what's happening in my community. Like, what is this community and what's happening and how who am I in relationship to this community as opposed to, like, much bigger, more kind of more abstract ideas about, like, I live in this city or I live in this state.
Right. And, you know, we were at a meeting with the Colorado ecosystem that both of us were attending, and someone brought up, you know, sort the fluffy local stuff is dessert and the hard news is broccoli. And I think you interrupted and said, wait a minute, that's part of the entree. Like, people wanna know the restaurants that are opening and closing, the events that are happening, what's going on with the local high school sports team. Like, that is the entree for people. You know? And if I lived in a community that was all hard news, if my government's that corrupt that every day you're supplying me with information about the latest scandal, yeah, maybe that's not a community for me.
Hansen Shapiro [00:36:35]:
Yeah. Absolutely. And I think there's, I think a lot of these local news conversations that sort of rabbit hole on accountability journalism. And I agree, accountability journalism is really important and it's a cornerstone, but I think it really fundamentally misses why people loved their local paper and why many people still love their local paper because it's really about the place that they live. It's a portal to the place that they live in all of its various aspects. It's really, it's not just about the, like, oh, let me make sure that, you know, my taxpayer money is not being misspent, but it's about so much more than that. And so, you know, an hour impact framework. We tie all of this to an idea of stronger local communities and social cohesion and strong local news as driving stronger communities. Because of the breadth of coverage and because of the breadth of experiences that folks can access about where they live, you know, through the medium, not just of information, but of, you know, events and conversations. And so that's, that I think is the real that's the real value. But it, you know, the challenge, of course, from a business model perspective is that all of that activity has to happen in a much smaller scale than we're used to thinking about and working at.
Business theory applied to local news: Clayton Chrstensen’s disruptive innovation theory
Yeah. So I mentioned Clayton Christensen earlier, and, of course, he's most known for his theory of disruptive innovation, and he's pretty pessimistic on the ability of incumbents to innovate. And one of his prescriptions is that incumbents should isolate the innovations in separate parts of the organization, which can be really challenging when you're a small news organization or even a national news organization. And I think to some extent, maybe that happened in the early days of the Internet. You know, Knight Ritter had their digital people sort of sequestered. Washington Post had a completely separate digital team. And I don't think that worked out too well. And I think you addressed some of some of the differences maybe with Clayton Christensen's innovation theories in your dissertation. So what does he miss in local news, or how does it apply?
Hansen Shapiro [00:38:46]:
Yeah. That's such a great question. And, actually, you know, I wrote my dissertation, And a big part of that was me sort of wrestling with Christiansen innovation theory. And then I've had the real privilege over the last thre years of teaching in the CUNY J-School Executive Education Program. And they asked me to teach on strategy and innovation and managing change. And so this will be my fourth cohort. And it's been so much fun because my dissertation was a sort of way for me to work out how I think about it. But now I've gotten to teach it and actually talk with students and now run my own organization and think about like, well, how and where does this work and where does it not work? And I think an intuition, which I think was half developed into an insight in my dissertation about sort of where the Christiansen approach to innovation falls down in a news and mission-driven context is that the quality of local service and the mission of local news really does have to be the throughline for all of the innovation, right? The core product and the innovation. And what I've heard from my students and witnessed in my dissertation is that those things can get really disconnected when you have like a quote unquote innovation team. And that there's really no way either from a mission perspective or from a strategy perspective to sort of get the innovations back into the core of the organization or to get the mission and purpose and values from the core organization out into the in you know, the innovative unit. And so that in a bigger organization, that's really the challenge is that you have this, like, not just strategically disconnected, but really mission disconnected, satellite. So, you know, I think some of the ways that my students and I talk about solving for that is, first of all, like really clear leadership within innovation projects and teams really being able to understand when they're innovate in an innovation freedom and when they're not, and having clear kind of like KPIs for all of those experiments so that there can be a way of talking about success and failure, and also not kind of like over investing in something it isn't working. And some of that is just kind of like baseline, good management and innovation practice. But in a news context, I think it's especially important because the industry changes fairly quickly and tends to be very fad driven. And so there has to be some way of not getting stuck in the endless, you know, shiny object-chasing hamster wheel, but really making sure that there's progress being made on mission and impact and strategy.
And, you know, I think I think his innovation work is worth reading for leaders, I think, just with with sort of a little bit of skepticism and some caveats. Because, you know, I’ve—you've probably seen this as well, but I've certainly seen firsthand corporate newsrooms kill innovation for some of the exact same reasons that he cites for other industries in that they don't recognize small things that are growing potentially exponentially, but they're still so tiny compared to the reach of a metro daily. And they just don't want to spend resources. Or they're afraid of any sort of disruption to how they do business, and so they squash it. And just sort of the inertia of that core business, you know, print being a prime example, can pull you away from all of that. So I think that's all very relevant.
Hansen Shapiro [00:42:14]:
I think that's totally, I think that's totally right. And I think the antidote against that—and this is where I think sort of corporate innovation is at a disadvantage in some ways because, yes, you can have the resources to invest but there is, there can be such short termism that you can sort of miss the forest for the trees. I think in a more mission-driven context of local news—and that can be nonprofit or just, you know, just a sort of general understanding of mission in local news— I think the antidote to that short-termism is to try to understand, well, what's the what's the early evidence of impact here? And is it actually meeting needs that haven't met, been met before? And do we see the potential of a path for there to be even more needs meets met by this type of innovation. And so, you know, that's where I think the question of KPIs and not just kind of like raw audience or growth metrics, but really thinking more about impact can help navigate some of those, you know, early innovation dilemmas where you can end up overlooking something that is actually quite important and critical to long-term success.
And, you know, I think, also, it depends on the type of innovation. Like, what are, who's your audience and what are you trying to experiment with or spin up? I think Advance has actually done some interesting things. You know, the Subtext product was something that came out of, you know, basically, like a Skunkworks org that was sequestered, and I think that's doing pretty well. And then on the flip side is Alabama Media Group, which I think is one of the more fascinating evolutions. And they did a little bit of both. I mean, it was all led by the team there, but they spun up different brands. But they completely, they completely sort of shook up the organization to get, you know, sort of this new focus. But, anyway, so that's a deep dive I wanna do soon. But, you know, I I think you see some good examples of how you can integrate innovation into an existing audience and organizational structure.
Business theory applied to local news: false rigor
The last thing I'll kind of leave with on sort of this vein of thinking—it's one of my pet peeves, and I'm wondering if it's something you relate to and have seen. And that is, I'm not seeing this term, but my term for it is “false rigor.” And that is where you get maybe some poor McKinsey or BCG consultants to come in, or you get a journalist leading some things that maybe doesn't, they don't quite understand the full picture of the brand and the audience and the second- and third-order ramifications. So I think that's where we get, you know, real time journalists who are trying to cover Florida Man stories. And the justification is, “Look, our average CPM is X, and they're generating, you know, Y page views. Therefore, they're paying for themselves” when that ignores so many things. One, it ignores the difference between average and marginal revenue, and are you actually monetizing those additional page views? Two, It ignores all those other, you know, second- and third-order ramifications of where you're actually getting your advertising from. Do they care about these out-of-market viewers that are looking at the Florida Man stories. Are they turned off by them? Do you have subscribers that are turned off? And then all of the people that we've lost over the years that aren't measured in the stats that we do have, like the, you know, the dog that didn't bark, are we looking at that? And that sort of rigorous, that intellectual sheen that we put over what I think are poor business decisions because we don't understand that sort of full picture. So that, that's one of my pet peeves about this industry. And I don't know if you've seen that or can relate.
Hansen Shapiro [00:46:03]:
Yeah. I mean, I'm—this conversation is making me grateful that a lot of the community news organizations we work with don't really have any digital, sophisticated digital presence to speak up. So in my day to day work, I'm happy to say I don't run into those problems. I understand that they are rife and rampant, in other parts of the, you know, of the news media industry and the media industry in general. And, you know, I think that's, it's another argument for why, you know, in the news and information business, like smaller scale on that level makes a lot of sense because you're working in an environment where there's just a much higher trust ratio. And so, you know, it wouldn't make any sense for, you know, the Golden Transcript to run a Florida Man story. Like, that's not their audience. That's not what they do. But, you know, you can see as you kind of climb up the media scale that those things start to look on the surface, as you said, very compelling when they're actually, like, deep, logical and business sinkholes.
And I'll just leave this piece before we go into rapid fire with noting that almost all of these metro dailies, all of these chains, are doing great work. They have some great journalists. They deserve to be supported. And there are metro dailies that are also very healthy. I mean, Salt Lake Tribune, I think, is doing such great work. Seattle Times. I mean, we could name a number of them. So we painted with some broad brushes, but just wanna acknowledge that.
Hansen Shapiro [00:47:36]:
So rapid fire questions. So my questions will be short. Your answers don't have to be. And this first one in particular, I would like you to, you know, say more than yes or no. But compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news?
Hansen Shapiro [00:47:52]:
Okay. I would say both, if I can, both more and less optimistic. I would say I'm more optimistic because I think there are other sources of philanthropic and capital support who are taking an interest in news and the sort of like the importance of local news at all scales and the need to get this right from a democracy perspective. I think the issues are clearer than they've ever been. I'm less optimistic though, because I just don't think we're any of us are moving fast enough to really make a big difference. And I think there are some really, intense headwinds, you know, sort of macroeconomic headwinds, but also kind of cultural and social headwinds that are gonna make this problem of providing quality local news everywhere, like, more and more difficult in the years ahead.
Messy desk or clean desk?
Hansen Shapiro [00:48:49]:
Both. So my desk gets very messy, and then I deal with it by, like, somehow finding boxes around my house that then I dump things into in the hopes that someday I will clean them out. So I have a clean messy desk.
I can relate to that. Best single piece of advice you've been given? Personal, career, life.
Hansen Shapiro [00:49:11]:
Okay. Best single piece of advice I've been given. So I'm not sure that this rises to the level of like best advice ever, but one really important piece of advice that I've gotten about, scaling a social enterprise like I am doing is that everything scales except the social entrepreneur. And that's been sort of ringing in my head over the summer as we've scaled up and I've bumped up against my needs for, like, sleep and spending time with my family. So I am, like, definitely deep in the throes of trying to figure out how do I scale this thing when I don't scale. And that's a hard problem.
Is there a piece of common advice or conventional wisdom that drives you crazy in its wrongness or oversimplification?
Hansen Shapiro [00:49:55]:
So, so many. So many, Tim. Okay. But I'll pick on one, slightly controversial. But this is something that's been bothering me that I, you're giving me the opportunity to mouth off about. So this idea. And I've heard it in Press Forward and elsewhere that local news will be like the ballet, and it will be supported by philanthropy forever. Drives me completely bananas. In part, because, like, I think of ballet as, like, an elite urban institution. And as I'm, like, going around the country to very small places, I just cannot think of any analogy that is, like, further from community news than than the ballet. And then second of all, I think it just totally overestimates the capacity and interest of philanthropy to actually solve, quote, unquote, solve the local news problem, because, you know, philanthropy is just, like, incredibly slow and fickle. It's not particularly accountable. There's not particularly enough of it. So I like to, I totally agree that we are in a moment where philanthropy can be catalytic, but I really think it's not the solution. And if we think success is kind of remaking local news and philanthropy’s, like, image, I think we're gonna be, really find ourselves in a dark place. So that piece of conventional wisdom drives me pretty bananas.
Well, we know failure is an important part of the learning process. And despite Silicon Valley's valorization of failure, we still don't like to talk about it. But is there a favorite failure of yours that, you know, helped you learn something really valuable or propelled you to a new place?
Hansen Shapiro [00:51:27]:
So, Tim, I am a failed academic, and that failure will be with me, probably for my entire life. I tell the story of starting the Trust that like the day that I talked with our board chair, Mark Hand, where he was like, you should go run the Trust. And I was like, who me? And I finally said yes. And I was like, I had to like sob afterwards because it meant letting go of something that I had spent ten years of my life aiming for and letting go of an identity that was deeply, deeply part of me. So, you know, I will always and forever be both the cofounder of the National Trust and a failed academic that is, like, part and parcel of my psychology.
Well, I'm glad you're bringing some of that academic thinking to the field. What is your favorite place to think big?
Hansen Shapiro [00:52:11]:
So I really love to take long hikes. And so when things get, you know, really crazy, my husband and I will go on, like, three-hour hikes, and I usually find I can, like, work out my thinking through walking in the woods. So that's my favorite place.
So this may be a redundant question now, but we know how hard this industry is on people, and doing a startup in any industry is hard on people, and doing a social enterprise is hard on people. So what do you do to sort of maintain your sanity and restore yourself?
Hansen Shapiro [00:52:45]:
I am someone who has always and forever needed nine hours of sleep. And it's something I really don't particularly like about my biology, but it is what I have been given. So I find that, like, I have to have to have to go to bed at a decent hour. And, you know, now I have teenagers and the teenagers like stay up. And so basically everybody in my household now knows that, like, mom is gonna go to bed and you're welcome to go and say good night to her. She's just gonna be in bed, probably at 10. And, like, there's no use fighting it. So that's what I have to do to keep my sanity.
Do you have a favorite time saving hack?
Hansen Shapiro [00:53:23]:
Yes. I am a devoted user of Superhuman, which is a program that sits on top of Gmail and allows you to, like, partition your inbox and, like, boomerang emails and schedule send and have snippets. And I really, I really love it. It doesn't make me, I have to say it doesn't make me any better at email, but it makes me feel like I'm better at email.
I am also a devoted user of Superhuman, and I thought maybe it was just because I'm an old programmer who loved vi and keyboard shortcuts. But good to know it's not limited to us. If you had to leave this field, would you try to go back to academia? Or what would you do if you weren't in journalism?
Hansen Shapiro [00:54:00]:
Well. So I have kind of two answers to that question. So one is that I would definitely go back to academia, and I am grateful to CUNY that I get to keep teaching because I really do love that part of it. But I also, I had a hot second as a municipal investment banker. And I really loved the numbers and the, like, local officials and the dealmaking. And there's actually, like, a big part of my job now that is that kinda work. So I would also enjoy that.
Interesting. Do you have a creative measure of success you've set for yourself or your team?
Hansen Shapiro [00:54:34]:
Yeah. So, I am always concerned that we are having fun and keeping a sense of humor and particularly enjoying the people and the places that we work with. Like, I love to travel and I love to travel to random places and my team, I think, does too. And so we really try to, despite the work, that our work is very intense, we really try to, like, have fun and make sure that we're enjoying ourselves and the process. Because it's, as you said, long haul and exhausting work.
Alright. And final question. What media recommendations do you have for people? This could be for fun, for work, any, you know, any format: podcast, books, TV shows, etcetera.
Hansen Shapiro [00:55:18]:
So okay. So on the books front, I'm reading this summer, we took our family vacation—of course, during the time that we were closing the Maine deal—to Martha's Vineyard, which is one of my favorite places on the planet. And so while I was there, I started reading Caleb's Crossing, which is a book by Geraldine Brooks, set in the 1600. And the kind of interface between a Wampanoag tribe and an English settler tribe on Martha's Vineyard. And it's just this like really beautiful novel and it just renders the beauty, the natural beauty of Martha's Vineyard so well. So that I definitely recommend that book. And then on the TV front, so I'm a huge fan of musicals. And I just loved, loved Schmigadoon!. It was like, literally, I just could not stop smiling. I think I'm gonna have to rewatch it, because it was just like the best, the best of the best of all kinds of genres. And then on the music front, so we are in a Taylor Swift household. I have six daughters. I'm sorry, six kids, four daughters. And all my daughters are Taylor Swift fans. So we, I begrudgingly listened to a lot of Taylor Swift. And now I have to say, I've gone directly through the Taylor Swift rabbit hole, and I am a rabid fan. And so I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift.
Alright. Well, thank you so much for your time. This was great.
Hansen Shapiro [00:56:37]:
Thank you, Tim. This was really fun.
Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast, and thanks to Elizabeth for your thoughtfulness and the great work you and your team at the National Trust for Local News are doing for the industry and for local communities.
A final thanks to our production partners at Pirate Audio. Pirate Audio believes every community deserves great things to listen to, and they are on a mission to help local newsrooms reach their communities via audio. If you're interested in starting a podcast or need production support for an existing one, let me know and I'd be happy to connect you.
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Past guests on the Local News Matters podcast include: Mike Rispoli and Richard Young (via When the People Decide), Sarabeth Berman (American Journalism Project), Rabbi Hillel Goldberg and Shana Goldberg (Intermountain Jewish News), Lyndsay C. Green (via The Journalism Salute), Rashad Mahmood and Mark Glaser (New Mexico Local News Fund), Christian Vanek and Barbara Hardt (The Mountain-Ear), Dan Grech (BizHack), Zack Richner (Easy Tax Credits), Tracie Powell (Pivot Fund), Dan Oshinsky (Inbox Collective), Linda Shapley (via What Works), Yehong Zhu and Jake Seaton (Zette, Column), Charity Huff (January Spring), Joaquin Alvarado and Dave Perry (Aurora Sentinel), Steve Waldman (Rebuild Local News), Maritza Félix (Conecta Arizona), Michael Bolden (American Press Institute), Jeff Roberts and Corey Hutchins (CFOIC, Colorado College), Eve Pearlman and Erica Anderson (Spaceship Media), Jennifer Brandel (Hearken, Democracy SOS), Corey Hutchins with Bay Edwards, Todd Chamberlain and Raleigh Burleigh (Sopris Sun).