Lessons from our first Community News Summit

“It’s hard being tiny on the internet,” S. Mitra Kalita,URL Media founder and former CNN Digital vice president, said during the inaugural Google News Initiative Community News Summit. “What it takes for me to get a dollar on local news versus a dollar in national news [is] so different.” 

Google was thrilled to bring together such a diverse and insightful group of community news leaders from the U.S. and Canada many of whom echoed this sentiment from Mitra during the two-day event (Aug. 17 - 18), which focused on the challenges and opportunities local publishers face when growing and monetizing their audiences. 

“Local news is where the rubber meets the road,” said summit host and GNI director Olivia Ma, in her opening remarks to a virtual audience of 495 publishers. “Those of us working on news here at Google take our responsibility to help people find trusted, authoritative local journalism very seriously.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for community news outlets to diversify revenue streams and innovate to find sustainable business models. “The reality was, I needed to get on the digital game plan or die,” Sonny Giles, CEO of the Houston Defender Network, said during a session on mythbusting digital advertising. 

Rebekah Monson, the co-founder of Letterhead and Where.by.us, built on that thought in a conversation about entrepreneurial strategies for maximizing audiences. She noted that local news entrepreneurs have to rally limited resources to succeed. “I don’t know any news orgs that hustle and embrace innovation change and interaction faster or more totally than local news outlets,” Monson said. 

Over the two days, publishers also talked about the wins and lessons learned from connecting with their audiences. While figuring out pricing structures for The Juggernaut, founder Snigda Sur said she was so afraid to charge a subscription fee at first and when she did, priced it too low. “What I wish I had known is (to) ask and ask for more,” Sur said. “Some of your earliest users are your biggest champions and your biggest ambassadors.”

Danny Sullivan, Google’s search liaison and one of the first people to work in search engine optimization before joining Google, answered questions about how search and rankings work. While local news outlets may publish a mix of stories, he noted that showcasing original local content is important. “We try to have our systems mirror what readers tend to do so we expect to see local stories,” Sullivan said. Watch the full Q&A on YouTube.

An illustration of the GNI Community News Summit created by artist Drew Merit He drew fun cartoon-like images that captured two days of discussion on everything from Google Search and ranking to entrepreneurial strategies and from reader revenue insights to making the shift from being a journalist to a business leader.  The illustration also includes key quotes like “engagement is not optional”, “tell people about the great work that you do”, “It’s about trust”, “utility is the play”, “Test: Learn: Fail Fast”, “everybody needs to be bought into the why”, and “users are your champions.” The illustration also shows images of people who took part over the two days: eg; Olivia Ma, Summit Host and GNI Director; Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison; Megan Chan who helped organize the event and authored this blog post, Lance Knobel co-founder of Cityside; Mitra Kalita founder of URL Media; Sonny Giles, CEO of the Houston Defender Network; Liz Alarcon, founder of Pulso and more.

An illustration highlighting key points, discussions and people throughout the two day virtual event.

In a conversation about balancing editorial and business missions, Pulso founder Liz Alarcón focused on the heart of our shared goals, “At the end of the day, people just want stories that will move them.” That sentiment made sense to Cityside founder Lance Knobel who also co-founded The Oaklandside which launched in June 2020 as part of GNI’s Local News Experiments Project. “The journalism is everything and that’s why we exist. That’s unquestionably why people become members and why they give us money.”

If you were unable to join us, you can watch the recording of our main-stage sessions on YouTube and get more information about Google resources and programs by visiting ourGoogle News Initiative website.