Unlike other forms of digital transformation, increased demand for local news and services is in stark opposition to where we were heading four months ago. Companies who are quickest to pivot are more likely to survive.
This post is in addition to a virtual event on digital transformation—the panel includes Monty Mullig, president of IfThen, Abe Brewster, CTO of Patch.com, and Josh Koenig, Co-Founder and Head of Product at Pantheon.
Of all the social adaptations that have occurred during quarantine, one of the most acutely challenging from the perspective of the Open Web is our renewed interest in what's happening locally—on our local news networks and government websites.
As we’ve previously published, our own data shows increased traffic across Pantheon since the onset of COVID-19. Within that broad trend, different sites are up or down. We’ve seen outsized increases on local government sites like sf.gov in our own backyard, and a huge increase on the local news website network Patch.com, which encourages members of the community to contribute to hyper-local stories. Patch has been on a continuous upward trend in traffic since March, and recently passed the Washington Post in overall Alexa rankings.
"What we have done at Patch is create a sustainable model for local news. Even in places where we have strong competition, we're seeing our numbers skyrocket," says Abe Brewster, CTO of Patch.
Many of the more general technology changes we’ve seen are an acceleration of a transformation already underway. Remote collaboration was always possible; now it's the norm. Virtual graduation ceremonies were likely to happen one day; COVID-19 brought that day closer. The same cannot be said for the surge in demand for local news and state and municipality government services.
We were living in an increasingly globalized world. Now, our everyday lives are reduced to our immediate neighborhoods, and the social distancing or stay in place restrictions keeping us indoors. Unfortunately these entities were already laggards when it came to utilization of the web, in some cases have been hollowed-out by the past two decades of technology. While there are some notable exceptions, in many cases they are struggling to meet the moment.
Traditional Models Not Up To the Task
In April this year, traditional news outlets were battling two disparate realities: an unprecedented demand for traffic at the local level, and a rapidly declining advertising budget.
About a quarter of US adults were paying closer attention to state and local news, compared to 15% of adults relying on federal news sources. And local publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, and the Akron Beacon Journal were seeing site traffic increases of up to 150%, compared to less than 100% for larger names like CNBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News.
Yet prior to this, there was a collective disquiet at the state of local news, and its chance of success in 2020 and beyond. One in five local newspapers have shuttered in the last 15 years—and this trend was accelerated by reduced advertising spend and changing user behavior at the beginning of the pandemic. By the middle of April, global brands were stopping online advertising spending for at least six months, and businesses across all industries were cutting advertising spend indefinitely. Local newspapers across the country are collapsing.
In a similar vein, government websites—which have traditionally attracted minimal traffic and nonexistent competition—struggled against a barrage of new visitors in March, April, and May. People were turning to their local .gov site to find information on business and school closures, how to stay safe, and how to stock up during a rapidly evolving pandemic.
"When it comes to social systems, catastrophic failure is not only that people aren’t able to apply for or receive benefits because the systems to receive and process their applications are overloaded, but also that they lose trust in society and government entirely," says Ben Sheldon, Engineering Manager at Code for America, who's been working on the Nutrition Assistance Program, CalFresh, and other projects run out of the California Department of Social Services.
Yet these same government bodies saw people waiting in hours-long lines, 6 feet apart, to file for unemployment benefits, due to poor digital agility and websites that were unable to support traffic spikes or application submissions.
Those Who Adapt Are More Likely to Succeed
Where people are looking for information is changing, what people are expecting from the internet is changing, but—in every field—those organizations who are quickest to adapt will be the ones most likely to succeed.
"People are desperate for reliable, down-the-center information that is locally relevant," says Abe. "Patch's digital-only model is easier to alter than heavier news organizations which may also be burdened by printing and delivery services.”
At Pantheon, we've helped several local government websites in the US stay performant and secure during extended periods of heavy traffic, and we've helped web teams update their functionality in response to changing and desperate user demands. In both cases, local news and local government, things will not return to what they were previously.
"We have seen in stark relief over the last three months—and, frankly, over the last five years—the need for the precious resource of hyper-local news, especially in times of crisis," says Abe. "Without this resource, people make uninformed and often bad decisions. Things are far more nuanced at a local level than can be conveyed by national news outlets—which are increasingly the only source of information for some."
Abe and his team are expanding their editorial reach into areas that need it most. While this increased traffic will not sustain indefinitely, we've seen the model of local news reporting effectively turned on its head—and that will lead to new opportunities and new user behaviors.
The same is true for local government websites. The public will not return to waiting in lines to receive benefits when it's now established that this can happen digitally. Those government departments who have not yet updated their websites to sustain traffic spikes and provide online services will be pulled faster than before into a digital model, forced by increased competition and heightened public demand.
Join Monty Mullig, President at digital agency IfThen, Abe Brewster, CTO at local news network Patch.com, and Josh Koenig, Co-Founder and Head of Product at Pantheon, as they reimagine what's possible during this period of digital transformation. Watch the recording today.
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