How can local news organizations thrive in a digital age?

Local news is the glue that holds communities together. They’re the mouthpieces for our local communities. They’re where we find out about the things that affect our immediate lives: information about schools and housing and healthcare and crime. So, although the same could be said of national titles, they are very much the conduit between the issues and the public: a means to elevate our voices, our stories and our agency. Local news can also be seen as a mirror that reflects the community back to itself and measures its civic engagement. Most importantly, they serve a vital function – one which keeps people in the loop with the world they live in.

Despite all this, the first two decades of the 21st century became synonymous with immense disruption and financial distress that reversed the good fortunes of many newsrooms. A Poynter article on the current state of local news coverage highlights that about 20% of all metro and community newspapers in the United States (about 1,800) have gone out of business or merged since 2004, when about 9,000 were being published. What’s more, due to the difficulties of keeping local reporting alive, hundreds more have scaled back coverage so much that they’ve become what researchers call ‘ghost newspapers’. 

So the question that hangs in the air is this: can local newsrooms remain economically viable in the 21st century? Is it possible to overcome the secular shift to digital by both readers and advertisers and to assuage the resulting damage to the business models that have previously sustained them for ages?

The loss of local newspapers and readers

The decline of local papers is literally starving communities of news. About 1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost news coverage as more than one in five newspapers have closed over the past 15 years, according to University of North Carolina professor Penelope Abernathy’s study on the ‘news desert’ phenomenon. In fact, almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all, and those with the least access to any form of local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated – and, of course, that’s just in the USA.

The lack of meaningful local news can lead to fracturing trust in communities, trickle-down polarization from national news, and general chaos for democracy. The reason behind the rise of news deserts is simple: the revenue streams that these publications have long relied on have become strained or broken, and with no money to pay for public service journalism that local newspapers have typically provided throughout most of the industry’s existence, the landscape is looking decidedly less fertile. 

So what should modern-day newsrooms focus on when changing their monetization strategy and expanding their audience? 

According to a recent article on Nieman Lab, the solution to this issue can be found by hitting the three following milestones which are critical for the transformation of newspapers (and which will hopefully, finally start bringing home the bacon):

  1. Making more revenue from digital sources than from print
  2. Making more revenue from readers than from advertising
  3. Achieving net revenue growth, with digital dollars rising more quickly than print dollars are falling

It comes as no surprise that the largest national and international news giants like The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Times of London, or The Wall Street Journal have (or are just about to) hit all these milestones, but there is a fourth milestone, which may be the key to solving the financial problems of local newsrooms, too. And that is:

Having more digital subscribers than print subscribers.

Although it can be argued that this last milestone is not as important as the first three, it is still a vital strategic point-of-view because our default audience is now armed with mobile phones and internet access.

A great example is The Texas Tribune, a non-profit media organization that has doubled the audience by aiming for younger, more ethnically diverse readers. Their website now has 1.9 million visitors per month – nearly eight times as many as it had in 2010 – with 4,399 subscribers and growing. Membership growth may have not kept pace with their overall audience growth, but The Tribune’s plan is to double down on it by offering members more opportunities to engage and get involved across the newsroom, as well as boosting newsletter readership – the direct pipeline to engagement and member conversion. The key to their success? A solutions-focused approach to reporting, a clearly defined niche, and a business approach that embraces syndication and cooperation. 

The rise of the ghost newspaper

Apart from the loss of revenues, the era of fake news, filter bubbles, and yellow journalism partly contributed to the diminishment of local newspapers. The pursuit of traffic via likes and clicks led most of the surviving newspapers to become mere ghosts of their former selves, usually merging with larger dailies in hopes of remaining present on the scene. But at what cost? 

Metro, regional and state papers have dramatically scaled back their coverage of city neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural areas, dealing a double blow to communities that have already lost their local weekly. Data produced by Duke University determined that less than half of the news provided by local media outlets is original. Only 17% is ‘truly local’ in the sense that it actually covers events that have taken place within the city or town.

Monmouth University released a poll data report in 2018, revealing that “more than 3 in 4 Americans believe that traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report fake news.” With these drastic numbers in mind, it is becoming more and more evident that the industry is in dire need of rehabilitation. 

What’s more, the trust factor has been compromised as a direct consequence of fake, partisan or inadequate reporting. “For the first time, the media is the least trusted institution globally,” according to the global PR and marketing company Edelman’s annual worldwide study on trust in institutions like the media, business and government.

So how can local newsrooms tackle the widespread issues of inadequate or fake reporting and regain the trust of their readership?

Columbia Journalism Review offered useful ideas about regaining trust from readers and involving them in the process of reporting. To recap (with our own commentary): 

  1. Hiring more public editors. Pointing the finger at the culprits behind the crisis of faith in journalism won’t necessarily fix the problem. What needs to be acknowledged instead is that the lack of public trust does exist and common-sense solutions to address the issue are paramount, such as hiring as many devoted people as possible with the mission of representing their communities and preserving their trust. 
  2. Making public editing more of a team effort. Media-embittered non-journalists that get angry or upset with the local news need to be reminded that there are built-in mechanisms for accountability and fixing errors. Pointing out inaccuracies via emails, social media, or letters is an effective start. 
  3. Not everyone knows what journalism is. Maybe local news organizations are afraid of insulting their readers’ intelligence, maybe they think it’s repetitive, or maybe they just think that task should be left solely to educators. Whatever the reason, there is no longer any excuse for avoiding to educate readers about what journalism is and why it matters, especially on a local level. 
  4. Not everyone understands the process of journalism, either. Every anonymously sourced article should include a link to a page that explains policies on anonymous sourcing. Any piece marked “Opinion” should link to a page explaining the exact difference between opinion pieces and news. Again, this stuff may be obvious to active journalists, but it is very easy for non-journalist to misinterpret the content they’ve read and draw false conclusions from it.
  5. Embracing the idea that we’re all teachers and ambassadors—and get aggressive with it. Teaching people about journalism should become as vital a part of our process as fact-checking. Never assume the problems of misunderstanding and distrust of journalism will fix themselves. It is our duty to engage and involve people with the world we all live in by teaching them how to consume news – and not just why

There’s an upside to all this though. While trust in media is generally down, a 2018 report by Poynter revealed that when it comes to local reporting (again in the US), the figures were much, much better. In fact, 73% of respondents reported that they had trust in local newspapers. For an industry in peril, that’s an advantage worth playing to.

The bigger and bigger they get

Ownership plays a huge role in local news since it can sway not just the editorial vision and mission of a newspaper, but also the way future business models will evolve. More than half of all newspapers have changed ownership in the past decade, some even multiple times, which certainly contributed to the readership’s disenchantment and distrust.

In the US alone, the largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies. It comes as no surprise that the number of independent owners has declined significantly in recent years. In fact, not only did the US lost almost 1,800 local newspapers since 2004, but a Pew Research reveals that newsroom employment fell by a quarter from 2008 to 2018, and layoffs have continued this year.

To make matters even worse, another insightful Nieman Lab article showed that a remarkable 71% of 35,000 surveyed adults believe that “their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially. Only 14 % have paid for or given money to local news of any kind — print, digital, public radio pledge drive, anything — in the past year.”

But little do they know that without proper local support, newsrooms are usually left with two options: one is to throw in the towel and sell to the big guys while the other is to, figuratively speaking, hold a sign that says ‘the struggle is real’.

However, having a Big Brother is not necessarily a defeat for local newsrooms. Remember, the goal is to tackle the complex and expensive process of building digital businesses to replace declines in print ads and circulation – and sometimes a little outside help can aid local papers in finding success in adding or reanimating digital subscribers.

Even Facebook is investing $300 million into news partnerships over the next three years in a bid to boost local newsrooms – but to what end? According to an ambivalent CJR article, Facebook is both killing and funding local journalism. On the flip side, the program will have it working with journalists on new business models, offering journo-friendly tools and encouraging everyone to both read critically and fight fake news. It’s all part of the ongoing efforts to mend ties with the press while cleaning up misinformation on its site. 

However, digital advertising gatekeepers such as Facebook and Google are also partly to blame for this local news downfall. Even though Facebook began bumping up local news providers in its News Feed last year, a lot of people who attended their workshops said they felt they were mostly pawns in a giant public-relations exercise that makes Facebook look good at a time when it is under fire from Congress for its market dominance, personal data harvest scandal and its role in spreading disinformation.

Filling the local news void

A range of entrepreneurs – from journalists at television stations to founders of digital sites – are experimenting with new business models and new ways of providing local news to hundreds of communities that have lost their local newspapers. Most ventures, however, are clustered around major metro areas. As a result between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all.

The best solution to filling this local news void might be found in technology. For example, by aggregating data-sets from many locations and then sharing that data, the Big Local News project sets out to address the phenomenon of ‘news deserts’ and help strengthen local newsrooms. The project aims to:

  • Collect, process and share governmental data that are hard to obtain and difficult to analyze
  • Partner with local and national newsrooms on investigative projects across a range of topics
  • Make it easy to teach best practices for finding stories within the data

“The focus is increasingly on collaboration, especially if it can expand reach or impact. That collaborative mindset will enable journalism work that otherwise could not be achieved,” said Cheryl Phillips, Professor in Professional Journalism at Stanford University, in charge of Big Local News, and also a speaker at the GEN Summit 2019.

For many publishers, the internet is like an ill-fitting suit: functional, but not made for them

Another example is new research from Calvin College professor Jesse Holcomb, published over at Columbia University’s Tow Center. Holcomb, who spent 10 years as a researcher at Pew before going to Calvin, examined 2,072 local news outlets, a sample drawn from Cision’s media database. Holcomb’s top findings are:

  • More than one in ten (12 %) local news outlets do not have their own website; when outlets are accounted for that only offer a PDF of their recent content, that figure rises to 17 %.
  • Most local media are on social media. Nearly eight in ten local news outlets have their own Facebook profile. Even outlets without their own website are on the social networking site—fully one in three (34 %).
  • When it comes to mobile, responsive design is more common (84 % of local news sites) than individual apps (27 % of local news outlets). Fully 74 % of local TV stations offer their own app.

In many ways, local news publishing is still adapting to the internet as a news medium. For many publishers, the internet is like an ill-fitting suit: functional, but not made for them.

Lenfest Local Lab explored this issue by testing an app that sends people local news stories about where they actually are. Unlike national or international newsrooms that are incentivized to send or organize stories by continent, country, state, or city — local newsrooms can organize stories about neighborhoods, wards, counties, and towns. They write about block-level issues, and if technology lets us deliver stories by block now, the chances that a nearby local story will be relevant to someone increases significantly. 

Location-aware story notifications about topics people are interested in may be up to 4 times more engaging than regular news alerts. New newsroom roles and tools would be needed to support these products at scale, including better location databases, editors for ‘places’ and a revamped CMS.

The challenges remain, but so do opportunities

Of course, there are no easy fixes. While the business model that sustained local journalism for two centuries has been completely bulldozed in less than two decades, many entrepreneurs have turned to experimenting with for-profit and nonprofit ventures in hopes of filling the void when a local newspaper shuts down or reviving the fortunes of a struggling organization.

For the most part, local news outlets that have pursued strategies based on the specific needs of their communities have begun to reap the fruits of their investments. The leaders of these news organizations possess both journalistic civic responsibility, as well as the business shrewdness to discard old business models, even as they are experimenting with and devising new ones.

It’s encouraging that despite the doom and gloom here, you don’t have to look far to find examples of local news doing remarkable things. No-one seemed more surprised than Art Cullen, the editor of a tiny Iowa newspaper, The Storm Lake Times, that he – the same Art Cullen – won a Pulitzer for editorial writing last year. Given that the paper – published only twice weekly in a town of a little over 10,000 people – was barely known outside of its locale before those announcements, this is a reassuring reminder that great practice doesn’t always go unnoticed. The Pulitzer committee does well to acknowledge excellent journalistic practice irrespective of reach or reputation. It’s just another reminder that inspiration comes from everywhere.

And this success story is literally the tip of the iceberg. 

We need to make sure that whatever replaces the 20th-century version of local newspapers serves the same community-building functions. If we can figure out how to craft and implement sustainable news business models even in our smallest, poorest markets, we can then empower journalistic entrepreneurs to revive and restore trust in media from the grassroots level up, in whatever form – print, broadcast or digital. 

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