Does Local Journalism Need to Be Locally Sustainable?

The last couple of weeks have seen the rallying cries of journalists echo online as they call for support of the Homicide Watch Kickstarter campaign. The tweets “hit the fan” so to speak, Clay Shirky implored us to not let the project die, and David Carr may have finally tipped the campaign with his editorial questioning foundations’ support for Big News at the expense of funding more nimble start-ups like Homicide Watch.

It seems like a good idea too – providing more coverage of a civically important issue – and one that’s underserved to boot. But is it sustainable? As Jeff Sonderman at Poynter wrote about the successful Kickstarter campaign, “The $40,000 is not a sustainable endowment, just a stopgap to fund intern staffing for one year.”

For Homicide Watch to be successful at franchising to other cities (i.e. by selling a platform) each of those franchises itself needs to be sustained. This implies that, on a local level, either enough advertising buy-in, local media support, or crowdfunding (a la Kickstarter) would need to be generated to pay those pesky labor costs, the most expensive cost in most content businesses.

Here’s the thing. Even though Homicide Watch was funded, it struggled to get there, mostly surviving on the good-natured altruism of the media elite. I doubt that local franchises will be able to repeat that trick. Here’s why: most of the donors who gave to Homicide Watch were from elsewhere in the U.S. (68%) or from other countries (10%). Only  22% of donors where from DC, Virginia, or Maryland (see below for details on where the numbers come from). But this means that people local to Washington, DC, those who ostensibly would have the most to gain from a project like this, barely made up more than a fifth of the donors. Other local franchises probably couldn’t count on the kind of national attention that the media elite brought to the Homicide Watch funding campaign, nor could they count on the national interest afforded to the nation’s capital.

You might argue that for something like this to flourish it needs local support, from the people who would get the real utility of the innovation. At least Homicide Watch got a chance to prove itself out, but we’ll have to wait to see if it can make a sustainable business and provide real information utility at a local level. The numbers at this stage would seem to suggest it’s got an uphill battle ahead of it.

Here’s how I got the stats I quoted above. I made a Scraper wiki script to collect all of the donors on the Homicide Watch Kickstarter page (there were 1,102 as of about noon on 9/12). Of those 1102, 270 donors had geographic information (city, state, country). The stats quoted above are based on those 270 geotagged donors. Of course, that’s only about 25% of the total donors, so an assumption that I make above is that the 75%, the non-geotagged donors, follow a similar geographic distribution (and donation magnitude distribution) as the geotagged ones. I can’t think of a reason that assumption might not be true. For kicks I put the data up on Google Fusion Tables (it’s so awful, please, someone fix that!) so here’s a map of what states donors come from.

  • Homicide Watch doesn’t need to be a stand-alone sustainable model. It is a model to demonstrate to the next generation of media companies that smart ways can be found to do meaningful local coverage that attract readers. If you bring a Homicide-Watch sensibility to a significant range of local issues, you have a marketable product.