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Five things to know about the Catalyst

Joe Hamilton



Image: City of St. Petersburg

On March 20, 2018 the first Catalyst daily edition email was sent into the ether. Just a couple dozen curious St. Pete residents had signed up to receive our experiment in local news. Since then we’ve done pretty well. We’re close to 12,000 subscribers and that’s only about one-third of our readership – with the other two-thirds split between direct site visitors and social media readers. 

That being said, there are still many St. Pete residents who’ve never heard of the Catalyst, and we’d appreciate it if you would check in with any of your friends who might enjoy the news and content we publish, just to make sure they know we’re here. (There is no corresponding print edition.)

On our 5-year anniversary, I thought it would be a good time to share five interesting aspects of your St. Pete Catalyst

1: The Catalyst is a platform for aspiration and collaboration. That means we keep things positive and focused on working together to make our city better. 

We’re all aware there are problems, injustice and conflict in our community. Those problems play out on existing platforms repeatedly in ways that don’t usually lead to useful outcomes. In fact, those conversations have been so consistently toxic that many of our best minds have stopped participating. 

We don’t shy away from tough topics, but the Catalyst exists for our community thought leaders (that’s you). Leaders don’t have the luxury of just complaining or shaming. They must take the best action they can with the information they have. We will always present our news from that pragmatic perspective instead of the “gotcha” perspective.  

2: Another way we work to be the best tool for the people that shape our city (you again!) is by moderating all of our comments. We’ve been moderating since the beginning. I originally thought that might be a big fight. It has been the opposite. 

You have repeatedly told us that you are grateful for a platform that doesn’t get hijacked by trolls. You’ve shared that you feel more comfortable bringing your ideas to the Catalyst than anywhere else because you know we’re objective, want the best for St. Pete and will keep you from being assaulted just for presenting a thought that someone disagrees with. This is a real win and one of the elements of the Catalyst I’m most proud of. 

Here’s why it works:  

A: We moderate for civility, not ideas. We welcome contrarian and creative ideas – we insist you’re civil in presenting them. You can read our posting guidelines here

B: We’re local and non-anonymous. This means no outside, automated national or international propagandists. It’s just us St. Pete folks talking with each other. We’ll get even more local with Cityverse – more on that later. 

C: We’ve established a civil culture. So many social conversations start off OK, but one insult inspires rebuttal and the war begins. As those insults have never made it into our comments, the ideas have flowed more freely creating a positive feedback loop. While it’s still easier and more common for comments to restate the problem (complain) than to bring a solution, I’m satisfied that with Catalyst we’re having better conversations that lead to more good ideas than anywhere else.  

3: We’re trying to find a sustainable business model for local news. The old model is three revenue streams – ads, subscriptions and awards – and those just aren’t enough.

The decline of local news businesses has been well documented. Our own Pulitzer Prize factory Tampa Bay Times has suffered massive cuts, proving that even the best reporting can’t overcome the shift in consumer sentiment caused by social media. Attention is too scattered, and advertising competitors like Facebook are too precise and cheap for the local paper to compete. Why pay to reach thousands of random, probably-not-interested people reading the paper when you can pay next to nothing and reach the 74 exact customers you want on Facebook? Businesses are understandably opting for the latter. 

Subscriptions bring in some revenue, but “paywall papers” are competing against free sources of news. That means just reporting isn’t enough to earn a subscription. The content has to be compelling, unique, high quality or something that’s better than the free stuff. Local papers just haven’t provided that at scale. In the research we’ve done, most subscribers say they pay for the local paper to support its existence. It’s a charity mindset versus a “news product” decision. For what it’s worth, we do offer voluntary subscriptions, and greatly appreciate the support we receive. But there has to be a better way. 

Awards are more fun than ads and subscriptions, but still bad for real news. Inventing endless awards and charging $100 for a rubber chicken lunch to see if you won harkens back to the Who’s Who scams of previous decades. Here the “news” exists to give legitimacy to the awards, but that means the profitability of the awards comes before the completeness of the news. You may notice you rarely see awards-factory publications reporting on other organizations that also give awards, even if they have news worth knowing. In fact, you’ll rarely see them reporting on any of their competitors in order to maximize their brand instead of maximizing your awareness of what’s happening in your community. It’s a trophy business masquerading as a news business. 

Thus the next phase of our experiment is to figure out a better business model. I see it as a local news-centered platform that leverages attention to earn revenue in new, innovative ways. More on that in #5. 

4: Catalyst is hell bent on keeping art, and our artists, thriving. It’s easy to forget in our fast paced world of endless distractions that the arts, creativity and deep expression are the reward for the work of life. Opportunity to make a living is the essential foundation of any city, but it’s the quality of our free time that defines the quality of our lives. Certainly St. Pete’s natural setting makes for good living. Our Arts elevate us beyond just a beach town to a truly rarified place where every citizen has access to creations that move, inspire and challenge them. How deeply our creatives define the narrative of our city and our daily existence is under-appreciated. That’s why we’ve committed to publishing arts content every day – to celebrate the work and to remind each of us that at any moment we can hop inside the spaceship of local arts to explore the universe within.     

5: Catalyst is the acorn. Cityverse is the mighty oak. Or whatever the Florida native equivalent is. 

In growing Catalyst in St Pete, the prevailing sentiment I receive from readers is a renewed feeling of connectedness to the city, and each other. We are a community, we should be connected and we used to be connected around our local paper. So what happened to make us lose that? Social media happened. 

Social media changed our expectations for content in new and wonderful ways. It gave us a next level interaction with each other. Instead of passively receiving news and information, we could now participate in it together. It became about us, and offered the potential for new “us” content every second of the day. In fact one essential, but often overlooked, utility of social platforms is asynchronous communication through post comments. That means conversations can roll out over minutes, hours or even days. All of this was enough to earn our attention. But as we’ve experienced, there were some pretty significant downsides. 

The most successful platform, Facebook, is for our peer groups. Because our peer groups are often local in large part, Facebook felt like our local platform. It has never been that. 

This is an important perspective to understand. When I first mentioned the downsides of social media, you probably thought about the nastiness – but why did it get so bad? Here’s the path to nasty: 

  1. The dominant platform, Facebook, hyper-charges our connections to our friends and family. 
  2. The majority of our friends and family believe mostly what we believe. 
  3. The algorithms, which were built to maximize our time on the platform, feed us content that reinforces what we believe, or content that causes outrage, both of which keep us reading and commenting.
  4. Content from a reputable news source, an expert, crazy uncle Larry or a fake account all look the same on the platform. The information blends together and it gets harder to discern its source or quality. 
  5. The sheer volume of information and issues on national platforms is impossible to process, so we look to others we can trust to distill the content for us. See #4. 
  6. Because we are now discussing things we have very little immediate ability to change, the quickest feeling of accomplishment we can derive is verbally defeating those who disagree. 

As you read down that list, much of it probably resonated. It’s still the “how we gather” part that has to be addressed before we can work on improving the rest of the list. As it stands now, we have a platform for family and friends, one for our professional selves, one for our neighborhood, one for national news and celebrities – what we don’t have is a platform for our city. 

As the next phase of our experiment in local news, we’re building the platform for cities. Cityverse will bring the best of the digital world, while cutting out the worst of it. It will be local, non-anonymous and civil. It will provide tools and incentives to inspire the best content, and the distribution to spread ideas to every corner of our city. It will earn revenue by providing tools and services that serve our “Cityzens,” and  support local news so that we have a sustainable source of essential information that catalyzes the conversations that shape our lives.  Cityverse will launch this year. You can learn more and join the waitlist here.

Thank you for an incredible five years, so far. I believe Catalyst could only thrive like it has in St Petersburg. We live in a special place that inspires the old wish “If only you could bottle it.” With Cityverse, we may find a way.




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1 Comment

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    Kevin J Hohl

    March 21, 2023at2:25 pm

    Bravo, my friend.

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