Introducing Project Oasis: New research and strategies for digital news startups

In partnership with the Google News Initiative, LION Publishers and Douglas K. Smith, the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) has released the results of the most extensive look in a decade at the emerging digital news business and how digital startups succeed.

Project Oasis compiled and analyzed data about locally focused digital news publications throughout the U.S. and Canada and now shares the research report and a playbook for aspiring local news entrepreneurs.

A Project Oasis interactive database catalogues information on digital startups that offers drill-down views on topics like tax status, revenue streams, news products, news focus and more.

Project Oasis builds on the work of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, CISLM and the Table Stakes newsroom initiative program to help media organizations adopt sustainable business models for the digital age.

In spring 2020, Project Oasis identified and reached out to 704 locally focused digital news publications in the U.S. and Canada. More than 250 responded with data about their operations and finances. Fifty provided in-depth financial data.

The research reveals the challenges and opportunities digital news publications face as they proliferate rapidly.

Project Oasis map

Key insights from the Project Oasis research:

  • There are more than 700 locally focused digital news publications in the U.S. and Canada. A third of them launched in the last five years, an increase of nearly 50%, representing an average of more than 50 launches per year.
  • Coverage of local news dominates these digital news publications. Two-thirds said hyperlocal reporting is central to their editorial strategy.
  • One in seven of the digital news publications operate in a news desert, an area where a newspaper has closed or that has traditionally been overlooked.
  • One in five publishers believe their digital news publication has reached sustainability and another two in five say they are heading in that direction.
  • Two-thirds of the digital news publications have emerged from the challenging startup phase of their first few years.
  • Many digital news publications rely heavily on a single source of significant revenue, most often local advertising.
  • The digital news publications’ founders tend to be journalists who lack business and sales expertise, and publishers frequently do not have resources to hire staff dedicated to generating revenue.

 Project Oasis research identified revenue growth as a key challenge for locally focused digital news publications and suggested that publishers can improve financial health and growth by:

  • Working aggressively to build and engage a direct audience, ideally with a staff person dedicated to audience growth.
  • Focusing from the outset on building a stable paid workforce, starting with a budget and a timeline for paying salaries as revenue grows.
  • Developing multiple revenue streams and building staff accordingly.
  • Adopting practices to build a diverse and inclusive newsroom.

Project Oasis produced a playbook of best practices for digital news startups. The Google News Initiative’s Startups Playbook examines:

  • Identifying and reaching a target audience.
  • Building and testing a minimum viable product.
  • Aligning the business plan with the company’s values.
  • Developing a diverse set of revenue streams.
  • Creating a budget and setting business goals.

News entrepreneurs who would like to be included in the Project Oasis database should submit information here.