Archant will receive millions of pounds in funding from Google to search for a way to make local news pay online.
The three-year partnership, called Project Neon, will see the launch of three news websites in communities which Archant has identified as being underserved by local news.
The project will try to “rethink local news from every perspective”, the publisher said, including its business models, website designs, layout and storytelling methods.
Announcing the project to staff in an email, seen by Press Gazette, Archant chief content officer Matt Kelly said: “There is no question that our business, and our industry generally, continues to face acute challenges, and that dealing with those challenges will sometimes be painful.
“But Project Neon is a huge vote of confidence in Archant’s ability to make a positive difference to the sustainability of something as vital to society as local news.”
Kelly told staff the hope is that the new websites will be profitable by the end of their third year, and that the first community to be targeted will be announced soon.
The successes and failures from the project will be shared with others in the industry to help find a “solution to making local news in a digital world profitable,” he added.
A number of new jobs will be created on the project team, which will work alongside a team of experts at Google.
The tech giant will provide technology, as well as funding, but Kelly stressed that it will have no say over editorial decisions and that the new websites will be wholly owned by Archant.
Archant is the second publisher to receive funding under Google’s Local Experiments Project which launched in March.
The first was a similar project from US publisher McClatchy, whose Compass Experiment launched in March to provide local news coverage to three underserved small to mid-sized US communities.
McClatchy is due to launch the first new website in the project later this month in Youngstown, Ohio, a town which lost its 150-year-old newspaper last month.
In a blog for Google, Kelly said: “With support and expertise from the Google News Initiative, I believe Archant has the potential to deliver exciting new solutions for local news brands, not only in the UK but also in other parts of the world where the local news business is in decline.”
He added: “Nobody can accurately predict how the future of local journalism will look.
“But with our shared vision for building strong communities, Archant and the Google News Initiative will break new ground towards the goal of a local news industry that not only survives, but thrives.”
In 2017 Archant received funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative innovation fund for Local Recall, a project to digitise 150 years of its newspaper archives to make them more accessible.
Answering the question “why Archant?” Kelly told staff the publisher has been “committed to trying new ways to engage with our communities” with projects like Local Recall and the 2016 launch of The New European newspaper, which he edits.
With projects like these Archant has “demonstrated agility, creativity and dogged determination in challenging the received wisdom that the future for local news is bleak,” Kelly said.
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