Scaling down the hype in local news

“What we need is not more reporters and editors working for lumbering chain media, but instead more local news entrepreneurs who can bring together teams with business smarts, reporting chops, and deep community knowledge to kick ass, take names, and cash checks.”

Truth be told, prognostication is as much about setting out a wish list as it is about grounded predictions. But if you’re reading this, you’re media-savvy enough to know that, so I’ll approach things in that spirit.

dylan-smithIf you’re reading this, you’re also in the know about the hole that the business of the press is in. In 2016, as far as the local news industry goes, we’ll see more of the same. And that’s not a bad thing. There won’t be any screaming headlines — we’ll see newspapers and radio stations alike attempt to cut and consolidate their way out of a cavern of their own digging, we’ll see even fewer reporters working in old-school newsrooms, and some tech fad will momentarily distract many from the long, hard slog of gathering the news and trying to pay reporters.

But here’s one consolation: We’ll finally see an end to the outmoded conceit of “scale” in local news.

And the related good news: There’ll be a decline of hype in hyperlocal, and the continued rise of truly local news.

“Hyperlocal” was a term coined to differentiate locally focused operations from the purportedly “local” news outlets run by legacy media chains. But it was more than a bit co-opted by templated national plays that ran out of steam almost as fast as they used up the oxygen in the wider media conversation.

More and more, we’re seeing local news publishers putting the local back into news operations. Whether they’re members of Local Independent Online News Publishers or running other sorts of outlets, publishers who actually live in the communities their news organizations cover are showing the road to healthy, sustainable, and effective local news.

That’s not a new idea, and it doesn’t need a new term.

Back when local news was a healthy business proposition, newspapers and radio outlets were locally owned — usually by a family or small ownership group. Their publishers were invested in their communities, not just seeking to profit from them and ship pallets of money of out town.

It’s not just a slogan that “local doesn’t scale.” We’ve seen the top-down model fall flat time and again.

But there’s a silver lining in that failed playbook. Not only can a news outlet be more nimble when it’s not run by a conglomerate, it can produce top-notch reporting on issues that really matter to local readers.

Yes, it’s hard work. Running any small local business is, whether it’s an online news site or a plumbing supply house. But somebody’s got to unclog drains, and somebody’s got to know when it’s necessary to sit through a turgid 11-hour city council meeting.

What we need is not more reporters and editors working for lumbering chain media, but instead more local news entrepreneurs who can bring together teams with business smarts, reporting chops, and deep community knowledge to kick ass, take names, and cash checks.

To support that, we need more and better sharing of best practices about what works in different sorts of communities around the country. We need more nonprofit outlets learning from for-profit business folks, and more for-profits building stronger community connections. We need a special focus on fostering independent news startups in communities of opportunity that have been not just abandoned, but actively ignored, by old-school media.

We’ll see that happen, and we’ll see even more journalism pros with the experience, energy, and slightly zany level of commitment who are ready to say, “I can do that — and I can do it better.”

Dylan Smith is publisher of TucsonSentinel.com and chairman of LION Publishers.

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