Is Your Local News a Supermarket or a Farmers Market?

In a recent post, John Robinson, the former editor of the News and Record in North Carolina, compared newspapers to grocery stores. He writes:

Newspapers once proudly said they were like a supermarket — they offered aisles upon aisles of choices. […] Rather than a grocery store, the paper should be more like one of those specialty shops with fewer choices but only the finest items that you’re not going to find elsewhere.

I’ve long been interested in the parallels between the rise of the local food movement and the debates about the future of local news. There are important lessons to be learned for how advocates for local food have built new infrastructure and economies around local products.

Robinson’s comparison got me thinking – what is the right analogy for news? If the metaphors we use help shape our understanding of what is possible, then how might models and metaphors from food production and distribution help us understand what’s working, or not working, in the news?

Below are some initial thoughts:

The Supermarket – As outlined above, this is the traditional model for the major daily paper. Many papers are still trying to embody this model. On the web, sites like the Huffington Post, with their many verticals and topic pages that offer something for everyone, are perhaps the online version of this model.

The Gourmet Food Boutique – Unlike Robinson, I’m not sure the “specialty shop” is the best model for general local news. I see this as more closely aligned with the rising class of niche news sites dedicated to extremely high quality news for a very specific population. Niche news sites, like boutiques, often charge top dollar because they provide very specific, in-depth info not found elsewhere. Think of health industry or financial news sites.

The Coffee Shop – News organizations that do one thing, but do it very well. The journalists, like a barista, are crafts people who love the trade and the product. Consider for example the Texas Tribune’s laser focus on state politics or the new iPad magazine, Symbolia, focused exclusively on graphic news.

The Farmers Market – Journalism collaborations, especially large-scale and longstanding partnerships, mimic the challenges and benefits of farmers markets bringing together diverse products under one roof. See for example the Climate Desk collaboration and

The Grocery Cooperative – The cooperative is perhaps the only model that has been ported in full from the marketplace to the newsroom. Tom Stites’ Banyan Project aims to build a community owned news cooperative in the model of grocery store co-ops and credit unions.

The Factory Farm – Like their agricultural cousins, content farms like Demand Media churn out low-grade blog posts and videos at break neck speed. These two models are informed by the same drive towards applying industrial mass production methods and achieving economies of scale.

The Community Supported Farm – Nonprofit and public media, which depend on their communities for yearly donations, are the closest we’ve seen to a Community Supported Agriculture model for the media. CSA’s depend on yearly donations from a committed community who become shareholders, and at time’s even volunteer on the farm (a kind of crowdsourcing). Similarly, new membership models at places like Talking Points Memo also draw on these ideas. See also how artists are adopting the CSA model.

I offer these models with the obvious caveat that few newsrooms will fit neatly in any one category, but will likely embody aspects of many. Take for example Andrew Sullivan’s new Dish Publishing effort. When Andrew Sullivan announced he was leaving the Daily Beast and launching his stand alone, ad-free site focused on deep service to a group of paying subscribers and pay-what-you-want donors, I thought of the CSA model. People pay upfront at the start of the year so the farmer/journalist has the capital in the bank and can plan the year ahead. It minimizes risk, and engages the community as stakeholders in the process. However, Sullivan is clearly also creating a boutique site, a place for high quality content designed and delivered for a specific target audience.

What have I missed? Is 24 hour cable news the fast food restaurant of journalism? Are paywalls akin to food clubs, like Sam’s Club? What is the vending machine of modern news? Who is the brew pub? Add your analogies to the comment’s section.


  1. Andria says:

    For some parts of the country, the antique mall, or flea market, or cluster of antique shops might be more concrete and visible than the food co-op. Market research has examined *why* antique shops cluster, to build audience even though they compete. And high-end antique malls provide a well-designed pleasant shopping experience as well as marketing, taking a percentage of sales from individual tenants. Flea markets just provide cheap space, but still aggregate the sellers and goods in one place.

    Related: a book on my reading list: “The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment,” by Christine Tracy, associate professor of English at Eastern Michigan University.

    Michelle Ferrier at Elon University is also studying how to map “news deserts,” like food deserts. Of course, we know how food desert mapping can be limited in accuracy when done on a national scale. The Charlotte-area grocery project that Kathleen Purvis did *before* “food desert” was invented as a term might provide some more guidance. She figured in transportation (distribution/circulation) in her stories. Doubt it’s still on the web, but you can Google around, and Purvis is awesome and approachable.

  2. I believe that things like Twitter have become like our vending machienes for news. People you follow pop out tidbits of info you lie, but they’re very time consuming and lack content…

  3. Argus says:

    You missed the ‘Church’ model—where a franchise pushes its own brand and denigrates outsiders, where Truth is what you see in your subscription whilst all others are misguided propaganda.

    1. NEEA says:

      You have explained to a tee the model which needs to be added for the Food and Ag Policy driven by the “Church” model in Edmonton. For North East Edmonton Alliance members and land owners, misguided propaganda is what we consistently heard (we live the facts) but it’s amazing how these people attempt to discredit our property ownership, property rights and say! THE “Factory Farm” as listed is alive and well in NE Edmonton.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s