Look to ‘local online’ for the business model of local journalism

Yes, Virgina, there is a business model for journalism. For now, however, it’s called “local online.”

Last week’s Interactive Local Media conference in Los Angeles featured two-and-a-half days of presentations and hallway conversations focused on connecting local businesses with local audiences while making money. “Monetizing the local opportunity” was the title of the conference, which is exactly the problem that so many “future of journalism” pessimists and pundits have suggested can’t be solved, leading to another tired discussion of pay walls and non-profit fundraising.

The overall takeaway from last week’s conference, since it was echoed by so many speakers and attendees, was best summed up by Brian Buchwald, Executive VP, Local Integrated Media and NBC Everywhere:

“Local online is a highly immature space.”

In going back through my notes from last week’s conference, I found several nuggets of interest. Taken together, they paint a fairly decent – and optimistic – picture of the state of local online. For more, see Lost Remote, Local Onliner and, for the most comprehensive roundup, the Kelsey blog.

Highlights from the 2009 Interactive Local Media conference (after the jump):

  • Google’s Chris LaSala says the rule for local is 80/50: consumers spend 80% of their $$ w/in 50-mile radius of home and 96% of spending done offline. People research local products, services and businesses online, then physically visit brick-and-mortar stores to spend their money.
  • Kelsey’s ad projections are down in 2010 but expected to bounce back to $144.4 billion in 2014 (compared to $155.3 billion in 2008).
  • Newspaper companies, again, were conspicuous by their absence at this conference. They need to get out of their echo chamber. Why go to a newspaper conference to learn about digital when you could go to a digital conference focused on local media?
  • ESPN, NPR and MSNBC.com pushing harder into local, mostly because of the opportunity created by newspapers’ retrenchment. Will ESPN become the new sports page? Will NPR become the new local news and public affairs page? Will MSNBC.com (and MSN) fill the need for everything else local?
  • ESPN’s Jim Pastor said this opportunity probably doesn’t scale down to smaller markets. Costs to deploy will be similar, but revenue potential is not. (Side note: Pastor says ESPN is seeing podcasting really taking off.)
  • Buchwald says NBC Local’s audience is exploding: 29 million pageviews per month in 2008 vs. 179 million in 2009. (Smart: They took down the call letters and smiling anchor faces that are such a staple on most local TV news sites.)
  • Village Voice Media is doing some interesting things. Its structure has 3 primary segments: print, digital and “street” which does events and social media. President Scott Tobias said: “print is not dead for us. Village Voice wasn’t bloated like the daily newspapers. The web is an extension for what we’ve done for 25-plus years.”
  • Even though the prevailing wisdom is that SMBs (small- and medium-sized businesses) won’t create or update their own listings (aka self-service advertising), Google still sees opportunity if the products can be improved. Just 14% of local businesses have claimed their profile page on Google, yet some 5,000 businesses create a business page on Facebook every day.
  • Reputation management is a growing segment of this market. SMBLive and Marchex both demo’d a web radar/dashboard for review streams so local businesses can keep track of what consumers are saying about them on a vast array of sites.
  • Patience is a virtue when building a local audience. Yelp COO Geoff Donaker said it takes 18-36 months for a new Yelp site to reach critical mass with reviews, even with staff “on the street” in every Yelp market. Yelp has nearly doubled its audience in the past year to about 11 million uniques per month.
  • The display ad opportunity (think banner ads) has yet to take off for local. Aaron Finn of AdReady noted that there are roughly 1.4 million businesses participating in search whereas there are only 44,000 businesses participating in display. “Display will be bigger than search in 5 years,” he predicted.
  • Mobile, of course, is still a hot topic. Google is moving fast, integrating its maps service with the local business center (having mailed out 100,000 window stickers the week before) and is moving integrate the entire experience on a mobile device.
  • Some interesting mobile companies that presented included GeoDelic, Aloqa, adaffix and Parking Data Ventures. (Snark: As I posted on Twitter, after seeing a dozen new companies with cool demos, I couldn’t escape feeling like I was watching Lycos, Excite and Geocities in 1997.)
  • Outside.In CEO Mark Josephson predicted that the “Ecosystem model” will win the future for local online. Facebook’s “director of monetization” Tim Kendall echoed that sentiment, saying he doesn’t think facebook.com will be the primary destination in 3-5 years for the Facebook audience. It will be part of the ecosystem.

While we’re just getting started here, some urgency is required. News enterprises, large and small, need to gear up their “local online” strategy, seizing the opportunity to cash in while connecting local businesses with local consumers. Before it’s too late.

BIA/Kelsey analysts believe the “massive shift from traditional media to digital media” will continue with some companies “falling off the cliff.” While the current winner in local online is search, “geotargeted display, video, mobile, e-mail and reputation management” will challenge in the near future.

How big the ledge on that cliff is – and how far the fall – will vary by company and website. But if you work for a local news organization that isn’t serving local businesses with innovative digital solutions, better buckle up.

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