Part of the explanation for the failure of local digital media is the same litany of woes faced by old media: a struggling display ad business; the complete dominance of Facebook and Google, which have absorbed most of the growth in digital ads; and the inherent difficulties in building the scale that powers many digital media businesses through deep coverage for a niche audience.I'm not sure that the the community print press necessarily qualifies as zombie--the Brooklyn Paper's livelier than the Brooklyn Eagle, which they criticize (though it does some useful work)--but Zagare and Smith make a solid point.
But we would suggest there’s another uncomfortable and underreported reason for the struggles of new community news startups, as well as the survival of a kind of zombie community print press that soldiers on increasingly without an audience: the major, quiet subsidy to print community papers, which comes in two basic forms — legislation requiring that legal notices be published in print, and advertising by government agencies.
Why not publish local notices in online publications or advertise in them? It may not guarantee local reporters at community board meetings, but it sure might help.
Note: given Zagare's current role, their argument is somewhat self-serving, but still legit. And no, I'm not changing my no-advertising policy.
Another idea: fund it like public service
In a 7/19/17 Columbia Journalism Review article headlined Journalism is a public service. Why don’t we fund it like one?, Simon Galperin suggests the model of the country's 30,000-plus "special service districts, which fund everything from local fire departments and water infrastructure projects to sanitation services and hospitals," all paid by taxes or fees.
He gives an example of his hometown, Fair Lawn, NJ, which has 32,000 people: "An annual $40 contribution per household could deliver a $500,000 operating budget to a newsroom devoted to understanding and serving the local news and information needs of its community." Or it could support other things like livestreaming or community forums.
Galperin recognizes that some communities might resist taxes or lack the tax base. But he suggests this could be "a financial engine for sustainable and radically local journalism, which supports the regional and national press in turn."
Well, maybe. It seems to me it would work best in communities with clear boundaries, not a city of neighborhoods like New York.