Local journalism — like the wider news media — has been massively disrupted by the advent of new digital technologies and behaviors. This has unlocked a wider range of information and entertainment sources for audiences, created new spaces and opportunities for advertisers, and resulted in layoffs and the shuttering of titles in many communities.
However, this upheaval has also produced new possibilities for journalists and storytellers. Digital platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for speedy distribution of content, as well as a means to enjoy genuine two-way interaction with audiences, while also enabling new ways to tell stories.
To help tell this story, I recently explored how 10 local news outlets in the Pacific Northwest were responding to this challenge. Their experience serves as a microcosm for local newsrooms across the United States and elsewhere.
Here are eight key ideas to emerge from this research:
1. Doubling Down On Unique Local Content May Be Essential For Survival
Local media produces a range of content — from watchdog reporting to coverage of local sports, arts, human interest stories and listings — which support different information needs.
Much of that content cannot be found elsewhere, a principle which may essential for creating a viable product and business model for local journalism. That’s because scarcity matters. Audiences have access to more information than ever, so local outlets need to offer something different in terms of content, perspective and journalistic values.
As John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) observed:
“If you can go beyond the obvious in those areas that are the most important to your reader, I think you’re going to have a sustainable business. If you don’t, you’ve got a big problem. Because it doesn’t make any difference how you distribute it, if you’re not telling people something that they either need to know and can’t get somewhere else.”
2. The Practice Of Local Journalism Is Evolving
This evolution includes elements of engaged journalism, with a particular focus on listening to communities, as well as harnessing digital platforms to tell stories. Usage of video and social media are already well-established means to engage audiences and share “the news.”
Local journalists are also increasingly keen to explore different approaches to their craft. This includes Solutions Journalism and a recognition that you can maintain your journalistic independence and integrity while still being active — and visible — in the community.
“The answer is not to isolate yourself in the community,” says Lou Brancaccio, the Emeritus Editor of the Vancouver Columbian (Washington). “The answer is to put yourself into the community but let people understand, and know, that if things go south for them you’re gonna write about it.”
3. Local News Providers Will Not Look Like They Did In The Past
Despite their best efforts, much of the income — and many of the jobs — that have disappeared from local journalism will not return. It’s impossible to turn back the clock to an age of information and advertising scarcity, which meant that audiences and businesses had to come to you.
“Whatever local journalism is in the future, it won’t be what it was,” Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has said. “It’s going to be something different.”
4. Newsrooms Will Be Smaller And Increasingly Visually Oriented
The local newsrooms of the future, much like the newsrooms of today, will need to do more with less. Smaller staffing levels may require fresh approaches to aggregation and greater use of wire services, as well as dropping certain beats or doing them differently.
We can expect to see a greater emphasis on the role of analytics in shaping content and informing the beats newsrooms focus on, as well as an increased importance attached to journalists with data and visual — in particular video — skills.
As Logan Molen, publisher/CEO of RG Media Company and and the Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon) suggests: “Video’s an opportunity for newspapers to come back and tackle, in a lo-fi way, the content that it’s too expensive for the TV stations to go after.”
5. Outlets Are Experimenting With Multiple Ways To Increase Revenue
Given the continued challenge of securing sufficient revenues to sustain (and ideally grow) their business, local media providers are exploring a number of ways to expand their revenue base.
These include paywalls, subscriptions (including special offers and sales through third parties, such as Groupon), events, income from foundations, sponsorship, and membership models.
Typically, a combination of these methods is required for success.
6. Engagement, Both Online — And In Real Life — Is An Emerging Priority
Definitions of engagement vary, but are applicable to both digital and offline relationships with audiences.
Local news outlets are increasingly placing an emphasis on “engagement,” recognizing this can both impact their bottom line and improve their storytelling/reporting. As Jake Batsell, associate professor at Southern Methodist University wrote in 2015: “An engaged journalist’s role in the 21st century is not only to inform but to bring readers directly into the conversation.”
Outlets measure engagement with their content — which in turn can help shape digital advertising rates — based on pageviews, unique visitors, time on site and other metrics. Offline engagement may include events, opening up editorial meetings and other opportunities for direct dialogue, as well as the emergence of “engaged journalism.”
As many newsrooms are already recognizing, the skills and make-up of their teams will also need to change. Cities in the Pacific Northwest like Seattle, Portland and Bend are growing fast. In some cases, their demographic make-up is shifting, and newsrooms will have to reflect this.
Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in Portland, acknowledged this when he observed that changing demographics in his city. “A lot of the hiring here took place fifteen, twenty years ago,” he says, “when this was a fairly white — it still is a pretty white — community. Pretty middle class.”
“There’s a lot of homogeneity in the staff here,” he admitted, “and that takes nothing away from their skill set — they are very good at what they do — but to reach a broader audience in the future, we’re gonna have to hire some people who look more like that audience.”
8. Local Journalism Is The Vanguard For The Wider Profession
At a time when trust in the media is at a low ebb, local news providers can play a vital role ensuring that grassroots concerns are escalated to elected officials and the mainstream media.
Local journalists, often the only journalists that most people will ever meet, also have an ambassadorial role for the wider profession. One that they should not take lightly.
“I think local media has an important role to play in building the overall reputation of, and belief in, journalism,” explains Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon). “Engagement plays a part in this, in that it gives people a one-on-one relationship with journalism…To do this, it’s essential that journalists leave the office and go out into the community,” she adds.
This sentiment, echoed repeatedly by interviewees for this study, is essential for establishing the ongoing relevance and vibrancy of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. That it’s already happening may give us some cause for optimism, as local journalism continues to evolve and redefine itself for the digital age.