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August 27, 2014

NYT Local Experiments Grow with FWIX

Breakfast cereal with fruit? Ammunition for the argument that all the good urls are gone? FWIX is partnering with the New York Times, a statement that would have seemed like a punchline a decade ago. Now the FWIX partnership is part of the expanding local experimentation of the Times and tells us lots about the Times’ strategic direction, its multi-front competition with Dow Jones and a more nuanced recognition of what putting content under your brand means these digital days.

Further, it tells us that national papers increasingly are becoming more competitive with local ones.

FWIX is run by Darian Shirazi, a 23-year-old former software engineer, already experienced at Facebook and Ebay. Its main funder, BlueRun Ventures, has put $2.5 million into the company. The goal: tapping into the bonanza of local ad dollars to come, and doing it on the sweat of smarter and smarter filtering technology. That market: $15 billion in local online ad dollars in 2010, as forecast by Borrell Associates; $36.7 billion by 2014 according to Kelsey.

FWIX sounds a lot like Outside.in, which incidentally signed up Dow Jones’ local newspaper group last fall,  as the two national giants, the Times and the Journal/Dow Jones seem to be butting heads in every conceivable way and location, from Midtown to Middle America.

The idea of the FWIX’s and Outside.ins: provide a round-up of the best local news, by aggregating local news sources, big-time and small, blog, story and broadcast, professional and user-gen, applying some hierarchy of quality to it. Both efforts race for the same audiences and related advertising as the original content-creators, AOL’s newly expanding Patch and Examiner.com. In addition to those of course, the number of hyperlocal efforts increases by the day (and some of them are being rounded up by local dailies, witness the Seattle Times aggregation, for instance).

For newspaper companies, it’s a smart move. It’s the end of an era, and the Times is clearly moving on a new philosophy: gather as much higher-quality content under its brands, national and regional, on as low a cost basis as possible. In fact, that’s become a driving principle NYT Editor Bill Keller’s been talking up. So we see the new partnerships in the Bay Area and Chicago with professionally run non-profits, and we see the hyperlocal experimentation with The Locals, in New Jersey, Brooklyn and soon, with Jay Rosen, in the East Village (for the substance and spirit behind the push, read Jay’s post enthusiastic post). With FWIX, the Times will experiment at its regional newspaper properties first, rather than NYTimes.com, with Santa Rosa apparently up first.

The new-fangled word for it is curation, rounding up lots of content, providing some hierarchy of value. Of course, it’s just good editing, bolstered by intelligent technology, and a growing flexibility to accept and work with a wider world of voices, styles and views.

Importantly, it also asserts that readers are smart: they can tell the difference between a New York Times (or Sarasota Herald) byline and that of a community contributor. That assertion is a Pro-Am gamble for the Times and all proud brands, but it’s one that should be made — and backed up with clear, prominent and never-ending disclosure. Grab the future, but keep explaining it to readers whose understanding of the changes will always be uneven. (Last fall, Times Digital Initiative Editor Jim Schachter, who is behind many of the local forays, did a Q and A on the Times site, which tells you a lot about the company’s evolving philosophy.)

Put the Locals, the FWIX experimentation and the Chicago/Bay Area partnerships (though the latter is most intended to retain/increase print circulation), and you have the makings of the remaking of the U.S. news landscape.

It used to be that 1500 daily local papers brought their readers the whole world — from  city to state to nation to globe, with business, sports, lifestyle and entertainment tossed in. The Times, the Journal and USA Today were the three national reads, supplements to the local dailies, with local single-digit penetration in any metro market.

Now those roles are getting reversed. The local dailies are increasingly becoming purely local, and the national papers are getting local, adding local print editions, getting hyperlocal, finding ways to serve their readers’ (and advertisers’) needs beyond national/global. It’s mainly a Times/Journal fight, but just this week, USA Today set up a big new local distribution play, joining the Times at Starbucks stores across the country.

It’s a confusing landscape. What’s local? What’s national? What’s digital? What’s print?  It’s a patchwork age, and nobody’s got the answers, but as home turfs have shrunken everywhere, everyone’s looking for new lands to conquer.

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