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On August 3, news broke that the Boston Globe had sold for $70 million — a mere sliver of the $1.1 billion the paper had been purchased for in 1993. Two days later, Amazon.com CEO and megabillionaire Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for what must have seemed to him like pocket change: $250 million. Four days after that, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced that nearly half of Patch.com’s 900 hyper-local journalism sites would be shut down or partnered with new ownership. During the meeting announcing these cuts, Patch’s creative director raised a camera to take a photograph. Armstrong fired him on the spot.
Welcome to the world of news in 2013, where iconic news institutions are purchased as casually as a pack of chewing gum, and the Internet startups keen on replacing those institutions snap in half on a moment’s notice, shedding hundreds of jobs in the process.
Amidst it all, at least one man on the local news media scene — Josh Fenton, who founded the online news organization GoLocalProv in 2010, then opened a sister site, GoLocalWorcester, two years later — doesn’t seem to be sweating. His two sites had 700,000 unique visitors between them last month, he reports. His company has been profitable for seven months in a row, he says, and they’re looking for new markets to plant another GoLocal seedling. (He won’t say exactly where, but he has a fondness for mid-sized cities.)
And while news purists may have quibbles with GoLocal’s product — they run the occasional sponsored article; they aggressively promote their team of marquee writers, while publishing plenty of articles under anonymous bylines like “GoLocalProv Business Team” or “GoLocalProv Health Team” — it’s tough not to marvel at Fenton’s swagger.
“We feel strongly that we’ve broken the code on some important elements of the business model,” he told us recently.
When we spoke, he was fresh off of writing an article for the news-biz analysis site streetfightmag.com called “7 Key Lessons from AOL’s Struggles With Patch,” in which he said, among other things, that “the [Patch] company culture oozes apathy,” and their “ ‘go where the rich people are’ strategy was flawed.’”
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
WHAT WAS YOUR TAKEAWAY FROM THE MEDIA NEWS OF THE LAST FEW WEEKS? The newspaper industry faces two very significant challenges. One is that it really can never get another advertiser or another subscriber, functionally. Secondly — and maybe more importantly, to adjust as a business model — it can’t reinvent itself from inside to be able to become aligned with what the consumer, what the reader, what the viewer, what the user really has an expectation [for] and be a good, viable business.
Can it be a nonprofit? Can it be the plaything of a billionaire? Sure. But it can’t, as a business structure, work efficiently. In most newsrooms at major dailies, there’s as many people doing other things than news gathering than [there] are doing news gathering. There’s copy editors and editors and headline writers, etcetera still today. There are, at the Boston Globe, photo editors. They don’t go out and shoot photographs. They select which photographs are going to run. I don’t believe that that is a sustainable business model.