DAN at one: The state of the unique local news experiment you read every day

The model is not yet proven, but still shows great promise

To many happy returns
The local news business has a long and proud history. We aim to ensure its future. (Photo by the Library of Congress)
One year ago today, the very first issue of Downtown Albuquerque News rolled off our digital presses, inaugurating a vast experiment in local news production. The question under examination was a fairly simple one: Would a critical mass of people fork over actual American currency for local news delivered by email? But the answer to that seemingly innocuous query has far-reaching implications - for greater Downtown, for New Mexico, and indeed for the entire country.

You, Alert Reader, likely subscribed to this fledgling publication for fairly routine reasons. Perhaps you need to know what's going on as part of your job. Maybe you're just curious about your surroundings. Maybe you're involved in some civic group and swim in the typical DAN subject matter anyway. Good reasons, all, and there are many more.

But apart from your personal motivation and interest, you too are part of this larger experiment - whether you know it or not - and we thought our first birthday would be the perfect time to reveal a little bit about what we're actually up to here. We didn't quit a lucrative public relations job just because we love greater Downtown and thought it deserved a good paper - though we do and it does. This modest editorial effort you read every day is in fact a demonstration project that seeks to jumpstart the entire national journalism business. Our goal is nothing less than for Downtown Albuquerque to show America the way.

For many decades, local news thrived by riding piggyback on a massive advertising business that typically took up most of the column inches on any given day. It was perhaps an odd combination, but it worked: A large percentage of households in any given city consented to take regular delivery of a hefty packet of advertisements, knowing that it came with a sweetener in the form of news, sports, weather, gossip, and the comics.

Indeed, the ads were sometimes that very sweetener that attracted people to newspapers in the first place. Clipping coupons could save real money in an era before discount codes, and browsing the want ads was the most efficient way to look for jobs. Want to buy a used lawnmower? That involved a particularly profitable newspaper advertisement - the classified. Legal advertising from governments also alerted people to bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other niche information that is key to many businesses.

The larger society benefited as well. People trying to sell homes and cars inadvertently funded the salaries and benefits packages of reporters who effectively taught daily popular civics classes, often posing uncomfortable questions to elected leaders, sometimes exposing outright corruption, and generally making it known to the powerful that someone was watching. Those politicians, in turn, did not always behave like angels, but it's a safe bet that they did a better job than they would have if nobody had been paying attention.

Beyond that, the old-style newspaper business also created a critical sense of community for the cities it covered. The first step to caring about a place, after all, is to know something about it, and newspapers provided the cheapest, most accessible
entrée on offer.

This era of the vigorous local press funded by advertisements peaked in the early 2000s, a few years after the internet had begun its grim work of grinding the business model to bits. The short version goes something like this: Before, a few prominent actors controlled a finite amount of ad space and charged accordingly. With the rise of Google, Facebook, and the most underrated newspaper slayer of all, Craigslist, advertising became a highly targeted and much cheaper proposition.

In an internet age, there was no need to spend a fortune advertising, say, women's athletic shoes to an entire city. You could instead spend a trifling sum targeting only those in specific zip codes who typed "women's athletic shoes" into a search bar, or women who had expressed an interest in running marathons on their social media accounts. The overall supply of ad space, meanwhile, went from somewhat limited to practically infinite, further depressing prices. In short, the bottom fell out of the advertising market, leaving newspapers on increasingly shaky ground.

The industry responded with - and we believe this is the technical term for it - a lot of flailing around. Some tried gimmicks, as though more articles about millennial concerns, a thinner width of news page, or stylistic redesign might somehow reverse the attraction and efficiency of the newly tech-savvy ad business. Others tried embracing the online world wholeheartedly, chasing clicks and selling digital ads for pennies against articles put out on the web for free, apparently on the theory that losing money every day could somehow be made up on volume over time. 

A few papers were bought out by rich benefactors well insulated from bottom-line concerns. And a few others experimented with non-profit models, borrowing a bit of inspiration from public radio and television, media that are popular yet highly constrained by the amount of grants and donations they can scrounge up.

But the more typical response was to cut. And cut. And cut some more. The ranks of reporters shrank, which did no favors for circulation, which in turn pushed toward more layoffs. The result is an industry eaten away to the core. Circulation is lower today than it was in 1940, when the United States had 200 million fewer people. About 71,000 reporters worked in the business in 2004, a figure that has since plummeted to under 40,000. By all accounts, the pandemic is making things worse. We need not dwell on the small catastrophes that this state of affairs is likely to create in the form of casual corruption in the political class, but you can read more about it here if you're curious.

Turning a corner
Downtown Albuquerque News was founded on the idea that perhaps local news was not as hard as newspapers were making it look. Fundamentally, there was still demand out there for local news coverage, we reasoned. At the same time, the tech revolution that killed the newspaper business as we knew it had also reduced the required overhead to practically nothing. Where before the production of a newspaper had required teams of designers, truckers, loggers, press operators, photographers, and artists, today a respectable newspaper can be published without much more than a laptop, a phone, and persistence.

What if, we wondered, we could leave the advertisers and the overhead behind and instead satisfy the demand for local news by (hang on to your hats) charging people money for exclusive access to really interesting information they couldn't find elsewhere. It sounded like a dead-simple and blindingly obvious business model to us - one that seems to work for Netflix and the New York Times just fine. But so far as we could tell, nobody had actually tried it with local news.

That was one year ago. Today, we're pleased to report that DAN now counts 160 subscribers, a number that has continued to grow during the pandemic. Alert Readers who do the math will notice that this is hardly a princely income, but the trendline is going in the right direction. If this pace keeps up, and we are able to prove out the model as a decent way for journalists to assemble a somewhat-middle-class income, then the real fun will begin.

Ten years ago, the Albuquerque Journal circulated just under 100,000 copies. While the subscription revenue from that many people is not trivial, thrown against the immense overhead of a giant printing and delivery operation it wouldn't go very far. But if those same 100,000 people were game to pay for a digital-only, ad-free publication that left the heavy industry in the past, it's conceivable that such an organization could hire north of 100 journalists and actually sustain itself. That would be a dramatic improvement for a paper that last Wednesday published just 13 local bylines.

That is the potential of the DAN model: If it catches on, it can grow far faster than both legacy newspapers and non-profit outlets, and perhaps even exceed reporter employment figures from the glory days. 

The actual product, moreover, is superior. We came up in the ad-supported newspaper business, and there were conflicts of interest aplenty - a situation that has likely gotten worse as advertisers flee and those that remain exert more influence. But the larger day-to-day problem the business model caused was more practical. The amount of news in a paper was always dictated by the number of ads the reps had sold, thus creating a "news hole" that needed to be filled come hell or high water. From a strictly economic perspective, newspapers were all about filling space on the back of advertisements, a reality that all-too-often discouraged brevity and quality.

So while the newspapers of yore provided an important public service, they did so while taking good care of their customers. That was not you, the reader. You were the product they sold. Besides acting as a more efficient vehicle for hiring journalists, we hope that subscription-based local news can also work to put the reader first. 

The road ahead
As we blow out a single candle on the DAN birthday cake this week, we conclude that while there is much work to be done, we're off to a good start. By our reckoning, only .004 percent of our two target zip codes of 87102 and 87104 subscribe, so there ought to be significant room for growth. We've also lately become aware that there are a few others out there using the subscription-digital model, including publications in Charlotte and Memphis, and it's good to know that we're not quite alone in this wilderness.

So happy birthday to Downtown Albuquerque News, and here's to another year of quality local journalism. Thanks ever so much for reading, and especially for telling your friends about us. If our publication should be so lucky as to contribute to a brighter future for America's beleaguered-yet-still-free press, you can rightly and proudly say that you were in on the ground floor.
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
Copyright © 2020 Downtown Albuquerque News, All rights reserved.

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