This week, two local newspapers in southern California were sold to the second-highest bidder after the US Department of Justice blocked the highest bidder, who they claimed would form a regional media monopoly. It sounds juicy even without all of the legal details, but this isn't the most buzzworthy media news. It does, however, relay the state of local media in the context of 2016's great media consolidation.
Don't think about this news as a revelatory statement that "newspapers are dying." Newspapers, mainly their brands, have cross-platform value even in the evolved media landscape. If it hasn't already, your local media outlets have been forced to farm content from the same heap of viral nonsense that we see filling our newsfeeds every day. They can't get away with publishing a copy of printed content to their desktop-only website and failing to capture the value of their brand's reach.
This week, a federal bankruptcy court judge approved the $52.3 million bid for Digital First Media to acquire the Orange County Register and the Press-Enterprise, based in Riverside, California. This comes after Tribune Publishing Co. had attempted to buy Freedom Communications Inc., the parent company of the two newspapers, for $56 million, and been blocked by a temporary restraining order in an antitrust lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice.
Basically, one out-of-town media conglomerate was blocked from purchasing a paper because Tribune Publishing Co., based in Chicago, would have created a regional media monopoly, since it also owns the Los Angeles Times. Tribune would have 98 percent of newspaper sales in Orange County and 81 percent of English-speaking sales in Riverside county. Instead, Denver-based Digital First Media was able to buy Freedom Communications Inc., the parent company of the two acquired newspapers. By the way, Digital First Media already owns nine newspapers in Southern California.
What exactly is happening to our local and regional papers and alternative zines? They are part of the media consolidation that has been widely referenced in 2016. Legacy networks are teaming up with big box content farms to prepare for the next phase of monetization. Big box content farms are spreading their content across platforms, placing their influence anywhere that the future of clicks, taps, and other engagement metrics will move towards,. Local newspapers, even ones that don't make money, still have value, as evidenced by the bidding war for Freedom Communications.
The Department of Justice blocked the sale coming from a perspective of creating competition, preventing Tribune Publishing from the effects of media monopolies. There would be editorial consequences for the community, and local advertisers would be trapped in a monopoly. In reality, the future digital frontier of these publishers has them competing against every content farm--building an app, diversifying their traffic, moving towards video, and publishing across platform. The monopoly blockade was rooted in the old idea that the price of local news should not increase for the common man. Perhaps the conclusion that can be reached is that local news isn't profitable. Instead, companies like Digital First Media rise to turn these legacy newspaper brands into profitable companies by pumping a mix of local news, internet fodder, and international coverage, backed by cutting edge digital strategy.
In today's media landscape, local news is becoming obsolete. The Facebook pages of your childhood television station or newspaper might look more like the generic internet that bombards you every day, aggregating traffic by piggybacking trends. For example, the OC Register website currently has a "Strange News" section which hosts oddly enough content from the Associated Press feed. Headlines such as "Alabama city cracking down on diaperless horses" and "Cops: burglary suspect made himself at home" are there to summon the interest of readers searching for a minimal dose of funny. This is their untapped foundation of viral-reaching content. Soon, they will have to cover #DamnDaniel, post every John Oliver video upload, and rapidly publish stories on Facebook trending content to fully capitalize on their digital reach.
While conglomerates that provide efficiencies to smaller regional media brands are nothing new, the way in which they aggressively try to expand their reach is something that is new
The romanticized idea of a local paper having the resources to give in-depth coverage and reporting resources to important local event could be fading. The scalability of local news is limited, constrained by the medium of print, and the audience that is only as large as your local county. Unless you are pumping more 'oddly enough' clickable fodder to your audience, you might not be maximizing your opportunity and brand value.
Local papers aren't going anywhere. Neither are their digital presences.
These are legacy brands that may mean more to a community of readers, eyeballs, and clicks than a unicorn content farm with presences on multiple continents. When local papers are networked together, they provide a powerful reach, if given the platform, the advertising technology, and the editorial leadership to evolve as quickly. So maybe the newspaper will no longer be the most popular medium of news consumption, but if the content is siphoned into the right mediums to reach the right audiences, it can still be a very lucrative business.
That's how new media conglomerates like Digital First Media were able to rise. Browsing Digital Like many media companies, First Media's website explains its business in a clear and cloudy way: "Digital First Media reaches more than 67 million Americans each month through more than 800 multi-platform products across 18 states." The conglomerate represents local newspapers in states across the country. It isn't interested in making the news, or controlling it. Instead, it is a content company that can make lots of content profitable.
Digital First Media creates the efficient mobile websites, iPhone and Android apps, and facilitate the optimal ad serving technology. The content can still be generated on the ground, close to the community, but the paper no longer has to think about what's next after print. It can ensure articles are sent to the presses, but more importantly, deliver value on well-monetized apps and mobile sites. The stories will be fed to social media editors who curate engagement on the hot social media platform of the year. Eventually, these editors will find that the content that performs the best is usually the non-newsworthy content that we are ashamed to admit reflects something about contemporary society.
Local and regional media outlets can still pump out the same stories that your favorite big box content farms churn out. They can justify the ad rates that turn a profit, and inspire large ad buys, if a conglomerate's sites are properly networked.
If you've noticed your local news television station, newspaper, or alternative weekly blasting out low-end content, promoting apps with news notifications, encouraging website visits, or changing their web brand to cover internationally trending fodder, do some Googling and get to know the large conglomerate behind your local media. While conglomerates that provide efficiencies to smaller regional media brands are nothing new, the way in which they aggressively try to expand their reach is something that is new to the local laggards who are comfortably watching local news and reading the paper. Their eyes are being monetized. It's really their news that is disappearing, being obscured by the volume of content churned out by today's content machine.
After the rise of independent publishers at the advent of the internet, only a small handful have scaled to the point of ensuring survival. Some will outlive the consolidation independently, sprinkling their content on Facebook, Google AMP, and Snapchat. Others will join up with cable networks or pivot into more video to ensure they are reaching the buzzworthy Millennial audience that keeps their property hot. But in the land of local news, we are likely to see more Digital First's impact communities with their blatant digital-first values. So much for local news—your local news provider is just trying to be one income stream of a profitable company.
Life on the Content Farm is a weekly column about internet media written by the last relevant blogger.