Photo by Mike Peters/Montclair State University

By DEBBIE GALANT

Local news startups need to understand their communities with greater precision if they are to survive today’s difficult journalism economics, Eric Newton said last night in the kick-off of Montclair State University’s national conference on the future of local news.

“Do you know as much about your communities as the commercial data miners or political data miners know?” he asked. “We don’t know the topic love of all of our people.” Newton, senior advisor to the president of the Knight Foundation, is a nationally known writer and scholar of news trends, who has been at Knight since 2001 and was the founding managing editor of the Newseum. Topic love,  a term he attributes to Michael Maness of Knight, refers to readers’ topical news obsessions.

Newton gave the keynote speech at the opening reception for Innovating the Local News Ecosystem, a national conference sponsored by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. The conference continues today, bringing together upwards of 250 news leaders from around the country to speak about the business of local news. The main sessions of the conference will be livestreamed here starting at 9 a.m. Conversation will be organized around the hashtag #innovatelocal.

Photo by Mike Peters/Montclair State University

Photo by Mike Peters/Montclair State University

Newton identified four principles local news organizations need to embrace to survive: customizing their content to their specific audiences, embracing technology, engaging their communities and standardizing business practices.

“Technology moves like lightening and strikes its own children,” Newton said, positing that the pace of technological change is so fast that a period of 10 years now encompasses five digital lifetimes. Speaking to an audience that included numerous local news entrepreneurs, many of them pioneers in online-only news, “If you don’t change, you’ll die. You’re actually legacy media.” Among his sternest warnings was the need for news organizations to understand and embrace mobile readers.

“Technology is like the air in our ecosystems and the danger is in it getting stale,” he said.

Newton praised PolicyMic, a publication by and for millennials, for employing a “behavioral analytics expert” to understand the conversations millennials are having — their topic loves — and writing about those, rather than trying to dictate content based on hunches. More news organizations need to understand “people’s unexpressed needs,” he said.

Newton told the audience of news thinkers, entrepreneurs, scholars and tinkerers not to try to nail down a single model for success.

“The very idea of a static model feels like a 20th century ideal,” he said.

 

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