Patrick Kitano is the CEO of BNN Networks, a San Francisco-based digital media company developing local news networks covering niche news topics of social and cultural impact underserved by traditional news media—topic areas like social impact, ethnic news, and civic sustainability. Naturally, I was intrigued. I talked to Patrick recently about his plans.
AC: What made you decide to start a local news network? What problem are you solving and what’s the long term vision?
Patrick Kitano: In 2009, I launched The Breaking News Network (BNN) based on the concept that local news should be a non-commercial community service giving voice to both the traditional news media and community social media. The mission was to sustain local news during the Great Recession, and to support local and independent news publishers by directing them traffic through syndication.
The long term vision is to create a local news network that provides community good will with no advertising.
AC: Local news has been a hard nut to crack – witness AOL’s Patch, an expensive venture which it eventually spun off. How are you different? Is this user-generated content?
PK: Patch proved it’s almost impossible to support the writing of local content with local advertising dollars at the network level. We syndicate content by curating and aggregating the most interesting local media and blog feeds in each city (avoiding crime logs and car crashes), and in hindsight, created 400 engaging, comprehensive local news resources. Finally, we added over 8,000 community “newsmakers” – the local politicians, civic groups, performing arts organizations and good causes – who aren’t part of the traditional news ecosystem, and gave them a voice across our 400 cities. Over six years, we’re curating and syndicating over 10,000 newsmakers through our feeds.
Community inclusion is what makes the BNN unique. Any newsmaker can get their message out instantly without sending a press release or contacting local news organs to publish their story. We’re like a combination local wire service, community bulletin board and Huffington Post-style aggregator surfacing compelling local content.
AC: What are your first networks and why did you choose those topics?
PK: BNN Networks was formed to leverage the same curation and syndication methodologies of the BNN and apply them to the building of new local news network for topics underserved by traditional local media. The firmly entrenched local news business model requires reaching the largest possible audience for advertising exposure – most local news content is sports, weather, crime, car crashes and paradoxically, national news. There’s an ever-dwindling budget for reporting on niche topics with small reader bases – ethnic news, news with social impact, local arts, even local politics.
So who’s covering news from, say, the black perspective? Niche publishers for black issues can’t report solely at the local level because there’s no sustainable business model for this small niche audience. Many stories related to the black experience in cities like Tulsa or Charleston SC where there have been police shootings, are published by news media based outside the city. They may be published by indie news like Colorlines or The Root, but most Tulsa residents don’t know these publications exist.
The only way to sustain a 100-city news network for any niche topic is to curate and syndicate its experts, not only journalists and publishers, but community leaders, civic groups and other local voices to create a comprehensive local media resource. Here’s a primer I wrote on topical news curation methodology. We’ve identified 14 underserved topics. and four have been launched: CHNGNews.com for social impact news, BLCKNews.com to cover African American issues, POLSNews.com for local politics and STRTNews.com for startup and economic development news.
AC: What’s been the response so far?
PK: We always receive gratitude from the journalists, publishers and community newsmakers we amplify. One of the beneficiaries of our local syndication are the 300+ independent news organizations who need to publish nationally for reach, but struggle to get their stories read locally.
News consumers always appreciate that our networks carry no spam or advertising. Our community newsmakers know our guidelines against self promotion, and we want them to get used to the new reality that any overt pitching is often met with consumer resistance. We’re planning to leverage our no spam policy to create new community engagement models that connect local businesses and nonprofits directly with their constituents sans advertising pitch.
AC: As a longtime journalist, I would very much like to see the enterprise of journalism succeed. But we’re casting about for models in the digital age – tell us more about your model (and how you make money).
The local advertising model is broken. Nobody wants to see ads. Period. What local businesses prize are customers who offer testimonials via social media. One of the goals of BNN Networks is to replace the ad model with a local crowdsourced affinity-based business model.
I’m developing a project that incorporates microfunding with local media access. Using BNN Networks 400 city footprint, we’ll provide local businesses, performing arts organizations and nonprofits who do community good a local media voice (no spamming!) and a microfunding platform that allows their customers and patrons to give as little as $1 per week to provide a testimonial and support their business. For their $1 weekly contribution, these patrons become “premium” customers. We’re calling the program #SustainOurCities.
Our second business model is to leverage BNN Networks’ media for campaigns of social impact. After six years of maturation, The Breaking News Network can now effectively expose campaigns to local levels across 400 cities, even getting them trending on Twitter. More important, we give media voice to local advocates in each city so campaigns are spread at the local word of mouth level. We work with agencies and foundations like Pvblic Foundation to develop campaigns.