Journalism, we’ve got a problem. We have a huge blind spot in coverage of much of the United States, something that became glaringly obvious with the surprise many felt in Donald Trump’s presidential election win. There are millions of people who are profoundly shaken by our increasingly globalized world. They aren’t seeing the benefits of urbanization and automation, but instead feel slapped in the face by what coastal elites hail as an inevitable march of progress.
Local journalism has been decimated by the decline of newspapers and industry consolidation. We need to do better, and parachute journalism by large media outlets won’t give local communities the journalism they need. It will take a serious commitment to coverage that shines an unflinching light on their stories, and holds local and national governments and businesses accountable for the impact of their actions at the county, city and town level.
Local news is finally getting more attention, and this will accelerate in 2017. New players are figuring out how to build native digital local properties. Spirited Media launched in Philadelphia and last year in Pittsburgh, and Whereby.us started in Miami and has now spread to Seattle. They are building new technology infrastructure and business models for local news that can scale, hiring savvy local journalists who are starting small and operate free of legacy burdens. Local sites are getting smarter on strategy and collaborating on lessons learned. For example, Voice of San Diego recently launched an initiative to share how they use Salesforce to grow and retain membership.
There are also new nonprofit initiatives (like the Institute for Journalism in New Media that I recently joined as director of innovation projects) which aim to apply startup thinking and a focus on business sustainability to the issue. ProPublica has announced they are launching in Illinois in 2017 and plan to expand their investigative reporting to more states.
Going deep with local news means creating uniquely valuable journalism, rather than fighting the traffic battle against dozens of hot takes on Washington’s latest twists and turns. As engagement increasingly becomes the media metric of choice, local is ideal for building deep connections between journalists and the communities they serve. There is much more experimentation to be done in collaborating creatively with the public, using technologies like Hearken, GroundSource, and Nextdoor — and more that haven’t yet been created.
Building unique products is also critical as the media business model shifts to subscriber and member revenue, with less reliance on advertising. People are willing to pay for something they can’t get anywhere else, and local also opens up new ways to make money through events and services.
We’ve learned from past failures on local. The coming year will see many new experiments to create a sustainable model that won’t just benefit the communities being covered — but also lift our democracy and make all society better for it.
Burt Herman is director of innovation projects at the Institute for Journalism in New Media in Philadelphia.