Save the Business section! (Or not)

By Steve Outing

There’s no shortage of bad news coming out of the newspaper industry these days. The latest disturbing headline is from Ad Age: “Biz Sections Dying Off for Lack of Ad Revenue.” Summary: As newspapers continue to make cuts due to declining circulation and ad revenue, some of them are finding their print-edition stand-alone business sections to be expendable. Ad Age cites 8 US newspapers that have stopped publishing business sections.

While that trend is unlikely to reverse, publishers can nevertheless look to business news as a growth opportunity — online, of course. As the Ad Age article points out, consumers interested in business news are more and more getting it from other sources online, of which there are plenty. Local and regional newspapers should refocus efforts on providing more and better business news online, because they can compete — not so much on the national level, but definitely with local news.

How to do that when staff is being cut? I’d recommend having remaining staff start to serve as editors and managers for grassroots or citizen contributors, and for filtering external online content. By that I mean assign a business editor to head up a program where you recruit business and industry experts within your community to become guest bloggers, and build up a business social network of experts willing to join in with your business coverage. (Check out Beatblogging.org to get an idea of what I’m talking about.) And have the editor monitor the best local business news from local blogs and even corporate websites, and filter that as a service to local business readers.

I’ve long thought newspaper business sections were weak because they are so general. Local business news could be so much more useful if a newspaper had the resources for reporters to have beats like major local employers or dominant local industries. With bloggers, that’s possible — often because the bloggers cover it more out of passion than for money.

With a professional business editor working with community experts and contributors, you can get some deep coverage. I think that a key component to success is the professional oversight and management. I don’t believe that opening the doors to any “citizen business journalist” to contribute is a viable solution; you’ll get little more than press releases.

Now, I am not saying that you should go out and exploit local business experts — getting them to write for you for free. Do figure out how to compensate them for their efforts. For some, the exposure equals marketing, and that may be enough to win their commitment. For others, money is more appropriate. It’s akin to building a network of modestly paid business stringers who are supervised by your business editor.

Does this equal having enough reporters to adequately cover local business news? No. But I think it’s better than giving up on newspaper business news.

And while this isn’t a widely deployed model yet, some publishers are thinking along these lines. Here are two opinion-based websites that bring in a group of outside commentators, vetted by news organization editors:

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!