Building a Trustworthy News Business

Published August 12, 2020

The McKinley Park News wants your trust and works hard to earn it. As a startup local news enterprise in an era of cheaply manufactured narrative and opinion posing as fact, our foundational focus on trust distinguishes our publication and business, making the McKinley Park News a source you can turn to for reliable, factual and in-context information about our wonderful neighborhood.

How do we earn your trust? We both look to journalism’s traditional standards and seek better ways to operate in an era of new media. Our overarching requirement is a chain of trust that runs through all editorial and business operations, and that respects every individual who interacts with our website and publication.

The News Business

Any news outlet that gets revenue through commercial relationships, including advertising, risks eroding trust by a perception of bias. Traditionally, news publications addressed this through both product design and operations: Advertising is distinct and clearly labeled alongside news, and procedures and policies create a “wall” between the influence of advertisers and decisions about editorial content.

In the new media era, these standards have become mutable or even entirely abandoned, as many media outlets choose to integrate content and messaging included for commercial benefit or targeted advocacy, but not so disclosed. Pay-for-play and “donated” editorial articles, paid-for embedded links, and click-bait headlines leading to commercial landing pages have become all-too-common sources of support for upstart online news outlets.

Even traditional media wallow in the practice of “advertorial” content: in print, in broadcast and online. While big players may slap a mealymouthed notice atop advertising designed to mimic their own news coverage, some longtime neighborhood publications drop all pretense of editorial independence and publish softball reporting favorable to a specific advertiser in tandem with their ad campaign. No matter the flavor, the intent is the same: to deceive the reader through a dark design pattern, imbuing paid-for messages with false legitimacy through a masquerade as news.

Policies Toward Trust

As stated in our Editorial Standards and Policies, the McKinley Park News has always eschewed any type of paid-for content or messaging integrated into reporting, or designed to appear as such. All of our news content is written and edited entirely in-house; our Opinion/Editorial section contains all of our published advocacy and opinion content, labeled with the bylines and backgrounds of its local authors.

Every revenue-generating relationship between the McKinley Park News and third-party enterprises occurs through our Sponsor program, which offers presence, promotion and business tools via an affordable annual subscription. Sponsors present their profile pages on the website and have the opportunity to engage in display advertising, all of which is prominently labeled. Our Sponsors Showcase discloses all of the many and varied entities that support the McKinley Park News through the Sponsor program. In addition, our Sponsor Agreement requires all Sponsors to neither seek nor expect any type of extra consideration regarding news coverage.

A Trust-Based Business Plan

Our editorial product emphasizes hard news: an offering that requires the established best practices and high ethical standards of quality journalism. From integrating a wide span of viewpoints to publishing factually correct, verified information from disclosed sources, the McKinley Park News has based the fundamental premise of our product on the trust we earn from you.

Both our editorial independence and our business resiliency benefit from a wide base of revenue sources, which we’re continuing to expand by adding to our growing base of Sponsors. In addition, the McKinley Park News is launching a paid subscription service for our members who wish to take advantage of community classified ads and enjoy new premium content like neighborhood crime reports, building permits and notable arrests.

The McKinley Park News distinguishes itself most significantly by extending the primacy of earned trust through all operations, platform decisions and product offerings. Too many news outlets and social media services base their businesses on commercial exploitation of their own constituencies, chasing revenue by integrating the easy-to-use, ready-to-go tools of surveillance capitalism.

Although profit may flow from this, and users are technically informed of their status as digital chattel, treating media consumers as products instead of customers is an ultimate violation of trust when asking them to give credence to your own news content. Especially at our neighborhood level, there is plenty of room for a news business to succeed as a legitimate and valued channel appropriately connecting buyers with sellers of relevant goods and services: one of the traditional roles of journalism businesses.

Respect for Users and Their Data

As ensconced in our Terms of Service, the McKinley Park News will never sell, share, rent or disclose user or member information to third parties, including Sponsors, for commercial purpose or any type of remuneration. In addition, we operate with user- and member-friendly policies and tools, from allowing pseudonyms in our member community to comprehensive privacy controls integrated throughout member accounts and profiles.

Often unremarked are the implications of a publication’s choices in technologies, service providers and partners, and specifically how this impacts readers, users and members. For our publishing platform, the McKinley Park News employs best-in-class content management technology built on validated open source tools implemented with best practices and protected by processes and systems to ensure security and reliability.

We host and control our own website software, content and data using the hosting services of a highly regarded commodity provider with a long track record in the industry and with our publication. Their standards for operations, privacy and security meet or exceed our own.

Platform, Privacy and Security

When developing the technology that powers the McKinley Park News, we made decisions about how to host and serve the computer code that generates our website. The common practice of integrating “libraries” of code can be accomplished by dynamically pulling in these resources from external sources managed by third parties. However, for reasons tied to security, privacy, reliability and operational independence, the McKinley Park News hosts and serves our code from our own content system and hosting environment.

Another common website practice is integrating third-party services to power all kinds of things, from embedded videos to web traffic analysis. On the McKinley Park News, you can see this through our use of embedded Google Maps and other features. However, this third-party integration comes at a cost: Every access to such content, tool or script also feeds data back to the outside provider, who may have a business model unaligned with the best interests of our users.

At every opportunity and as a matter of policy, the McKinley Park News integrates third-party tools and content only when required to support a capacity we cannot deliver ourselves, and considering users’ privacy and security to the fullest extent possible. This will include integration of new capabilities moving forward, and replacement of existing third party-powered features with better options as they become available.

Turn On Your Ad Blockers

Among the worst abuse of integrated third-party scripts occurs through advertising networks and advertising technology (or “adtech”) designed as much to profit from exploitation of user data as enabling relationships between buyers and sellers. Too many news publications have swallowed the poison pill of easy-to-implement, revenue-generating third-party ad systems, failing to consider how this can harm users, denude business prospects and destroy trust.

The McKinley Park News does not use third-party ad systems for a host of reasons:

  • It’s bad for business. By serving another company’s ads, news outlets give up critical sales relationships between advertisers and publishers. The advertisers are no longer customers of the news outlet: The news outlet is a customer of the adtech company.
    In addition to the expense of a middleman taking a cut of revenue, ad networks impose their own limits and scope, both manipulating the market and controlling the resulting opportunities presented to advertisers and publications.
  • It cedes control over content and message. Although they purport to require standards, what gets served up as advertising is ultimately up to the ad network, not the publication. This leads to misinformation published alongside news and things like ads for politicians who endorse violence against journalists appearing above the bylines of those journalists who would be so targeted.
  • It puts users at risk. Aside from the exploitative nature of across-the-web user tracking built into many ad networks, they are notorious as a vector for malware, even though adtech process, security and review purport to mitigate this. They certainly are a gigantic target for hackers, who, when successful, gain the prize of not only breaching the ad network company, but an inroad to attack every website visitor for every publication using that ad network.
  • Its flawed technology comes at a big cost. The circle-jerk arms race between ad networks, ad blockers, ad blocker blockers and so on will see no end. It certainly cannot be a significant focus of a publication with limited resources and better things to do than subverting users who have taken perfectly reasonable steps to protect themselves and their privacy.
  • It violates our Terms of Service. As stated earlier, the McKinley Park News does not sell, share, rent or disclose user information for commercial purpose or remuneration with any outside party. By definition, engaging with an outside adtech company would break this promise, especially given their common practice of integrating consumer surveillance for profit.

Instead of relying on an outside source for display advertising, the McKinley Park News has developed and implemented our own advertising system, one that gives our Sponsors the option to engage in cost-per-lead, cost-per-click and coupon-based advertising campaigns.

Both because this is our own system — served from the same base of information and code as the rest of our website — and because our ads are non-invasive and not connected to exploitative third-party ad networks, they perform very well against ad blocking technology. Why aren’t we worried about ad blockers? Because they don’t apply to our ads.

Indeed, this gets to the fundamental philosophy of what type of relationships a publication should seek to engender between itself, its readers and its advertisers. We want you to want to see our advertising and learn about our Sponsors’ high-quality products and services that are relevant to local readers like you. Profiting from semi-secret sale of user data violates the traditional, unstated contract between a news publication and its readers. Instead, the focus of our advertising is to make sales happen.

The Challenges (and Benefits) of Micro-Local News

The McKinley Park News is unique in that it covers a single Southwest Side neighborhood. This both enables our unprecedented depth of coverage and creates an approachable opportunity for a bootstrapped small news business with no outside investment and a startup budget of a couple thousand dollars.

The single personnel resource involved in this effort (me) has received no payment or salary, although of course, developing enough revenue to pay for labor is one of the big business goals we’re working toward. We’re fortunate that circumstances have allowed for an extended development process: This website has existed in one form or another since 2012. Our recent herky-jerky publishing schedule comes from splitting attention between editorial and development, a process now functionally complete, which will allow us to more consistently report the news for you.

Residing within our community offers an intimacy of local knowledge that no outside publication can match. Few pay attention to McKinley Park, anyway: Both mainstream media and Chicago’s “neighborhood” publications show up mostly for tragedies, if at all, and nearby print weeklies neither conduct reporting nor focus on the neighborhood. In terms of our content, the McKinley Park News stands alone.

Micro-local coverage also puts a twist on reporting and publishing, as the subjects of coverage can be neighbors, representatives, volunteer colleagues and others with whom outside and unrelated engagements can occur. It becomes even more critical for the McKinley Park News to, as our Editorial Policies and Standards puts it, “remain sensitive to context, presentation and the innate, intractable biases that every individual who reports the news must transcend.” Whenever is necessary, recusal of outside involvement mitigates any conflicts of interest with reporting and publishing.

Our intimate knowledge of McKinley Park also steers the credulity we afford to sources and the information they relate, even when this seemingly does not jibe with the stance and tone afforded to local issues by other media outlets and communities. In the course of local reporting, we must navigate through local agendas, from political operatives carpetbagging on environmental concerns to woker-than-thou Zoom warriors demanding their preferred narrative be marketed, facts be damned. At the end of the day, we base our reporting and publishing on what we understand to the be truth of things, supported by our knowledge of the community and the best practices and standards of journalism. We will never lie to you.

A New News Industry

The across-the-board abandonment of local news coverage throughout all media did not occur in a vacuum, but rather represents the fundamental failure of an entire industry led into ruin and bankruptcy by incompetence from the top down.

So many companies made fantastic profits on the Internet, and the newspaper industry was at the forefront in the mid-1990s when this was all getting started. But rather than seeking innovation, the wealthy, white, male, elderly C-suite dinosaurs at the top of the top of the publishing chain chose mediocre, bureaucratically safe initiatives informed neither by a deep understanding of technology nor a philosophy of the media. The current cadres of douche-bros injected into the top tiers of publishing offer no relief, instead they plan how their hedge fund bonuses can best benefit when they pull the final flush on once-storied daily newspapers now circling the toilet.

One common element is that although failed news businesses have left uncounted journalists unemployed, careers and livelihoods in ruins, and communities without news coverage, the creatures at the pinnacle of the news publishing business have had nowhere to fail but upward, as is the case of most at the top of our current business oligarchy. Another common element is the happy embrace of trust-destroying business practices at most publications that do remain.

The McKinley Park News seeks to be an answer to this, too, as we build a profitable local news business model that sustains working journalists while providing an important and valued service for a community. There are very good reasons why we choose to run lean and mean, and seek stability, longevity and independence throughout our operations and platforms. Ripe opportunity certainly exists in the market: In addition to no competition for the news product, local businesses lack channels to easily communicate with the neighborhood about their products and services.

If we can make this local news business model work for McKinley Park, it is our hope and intent to expand our reach to serve adjacent neighborhoods. Our publishing platform has been designed for this, as it is entirely modular in terms of design, structure and content; completely unencumbered by software or system licensing costs; and easily replicated, customized and redeployed.

Ultimately, if “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” the McKinley Park News and our operating company Local News LLC would like to be part of democratizing access to news publishing, enabling journalists to be their own publishers, and building successful businesses on the premise of high-quality local news. But first we look forward to success right here in McKinley Park!

Thank You, Dear Reader

We deeply appreciate your engagement with our publication and hope this Letter from the Editor shares some good and useful information about how we operate, what we hope to accomplish and why you should trust us. Your attention and patronage is a critical part of our early success, and we look forward to continuing to serve you with neighborhood news, events info and more.

If you’d like to show your support right now (and get access to some great premium features), our just-launched Subscriber and Gold Subscriber packages let you do so for a $29.95 or $99.95 annual subscription. Choose one of these options when signing up for a new account, or select an upgrade option from the Subscription tab within your member profile.

Get in touch about our Sponsor program if you’d like to create sales for your business; some spots are still left in our limited-availability Gold Sponsor program, too. And if you have feedback about developing successful local news business models, we’d love to know about ideas, examples and data to inform successful business development.

All the best to you and yours,

 Justin Kerr
Publisher, McKinley Park News

Audrey Teabow
This news is most admirable and appreciated. Thank you for your work.
Justin Kerr
You are most welcome, Audrey! We really appreciate your feedback and encouragement.

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