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Feb. 2, 2017, 12:10 p.m.
Business Models

If small newspapers are going to survive, they’ll have to be more than passive observers to the news

Adopting the role of a good neighbor does not mean abandoning critical perspective. It’s an opportunity to ensure that local newspapers are at the heart of the conversations taking place in their communities.

Editor’s note: Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali are in the process of completing a report about U.S. newspapers with a circulation under 50,000 for Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The full study, “Local News in a Digital World,” will be published later this spring. This post previews some of the study’s findings.

Within a few hours of Donald Trump being declared president-elect, the first wave of reflections about the future of news media began to emerge.

The existential crisis comes at a time when the economics for much of our industry — especially newspapers — remains as challenging as ever. John Oliver’s clarion call to support organizations like ProPublica and The New York Times’ post-election subscriber surge offer faint glimmers of financial hope, but we need to ensure that the conversations we are having about the role, objectives, and future of journalism do not dissipate.

We also need to ensure that this dialogue extends beyond pollsters, members of the establishment, and big newspapers. Small-market newspapers (those under 50,000 circulation), for instance, account for the majority of daily and weekly printed newspapers in the United States (6,851 out of 7,071). They’re a silent majority too often absent from discussions about the information needs of communities and the future of journalism. It’s time we include them in the conversation.

New research

It’s against this backdrop that we are finalizing our study into local news in a digital world. Supported by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Foundation, we hope it will rekindle discussion about the type of local media we want and need.

To support our efforts, we have spoken to 60 industry experts, ranging from editors to reporters, through to think tanks and academics. These findings are being built on by an online survey that 400 local journalists recently completed. The survey aims to capture the thoughts, experiences, and ambitions of local newspaper journalists, as we develop a more nuanced picture of this evolving landscape.

Some of our initial findings — which are explored below — took us by surprise, especially given the stark statistics of the past decade:

These figures paint a bleak picture, but their aggregated nature makes it difficult to discern exactly what’s happening at a local level.

That said, there’s no doubt that local newspapers have been affected by many of the same market forces that have reshaped the national terrain. Newsrooms are typically smaller, circulations are down, titles have shuttered, original reporting has been reduced, and the pivot to digital has been far from easy. Still, we need to delve deeper to fully understand this story.

A healthy dose of optimism

Across both large and independent publishers, we frequently encountered a surprising level of confidence about the future. Although not immune from the wider cyclical and structural challenges faced by the industry, there was a strong sense that smaller local newspapers are well placed to ride the rising digital tide, emerging successfully — albeit bruised and battered — on the other side.

Much of this guarded optimism stems from a recognition that competition dynamics at smaller papers are different from their metropolitan counterparts. This is especially true in areas of little, or weak, local TV news.

By focusing solely on their community, small newspapers can demonstrate a clear and distinctive niche. Andrew Johnson, publisher and owner of the Dodge County Pionier in Wisconsin, summed this up when he told us, “The community newspaper…has the best chance of surviving because it’s hyperlocal, and it’s only about this community.”

Within this, weekly and rural publications may be in the strongest position, given that in many cases, they’re the only source of substantive original reporting.

As Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, reminded us:

Rural newspapers generally have the local news franchise to themselves. And that means that they’re not under a competitive threat from broadcasters or online operators…So, comparatively speaking, rural newspapers are in good shape. But empirically speaking, they are undergoing a lot of the same stresses that major newspapers are because they are in competition for everyone’s time.

The battle for survival will not be easy. However, there is a sense that in terms of brand, reputation, and unique reporting, smaller-market newspapers are well placed to provide a valuable, distinctive service many communities will ultimately pay for through subscriptions, memberships, or events.

For Al Cross and many other interviewees, this optimism is rooted in reality. “If you put together the circulations of the weeklies and those community dailies, that really represents the largest single piece of journalism consumption in the United States,” he said. “People are actually paying for these products, and they are reading them.”

Stressing the value of local

To help them solidify their place in local communities, small-market newspapers are slowly beginning to commoditize one of their most unique selling points: the value of place. By bringing people together — both literally and figuratively — newspapers can help create and reflect a sense of community that larger publications may struggle to replicate.

Doubling-down on local might mean doing things differently, redesigning your newsroom, and exploring opportunities for engagement in “real spaces,” not just digital or printed ones.

Lauren Gustus, executive editor of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colorado, told us: “Our paid circulation is up year over year…and we have more people paying for that news today than we did two years ago.”

Yet despite having “among the highest digital-only subscriber bases in our company [Gannett],” Gustus has also established a 10-person engagement team that communicates with audiences “across any of the platforms that we operate on and that our readers operate on.”

Through online and offline activity, the team is addressing a key question: “How can we demonstrate to them the value of a local news organization and that it goes beyond the printed product?”

Fostering and tapping into a “sense of place,” as The Coloradoan and others are doing, provides a means for newspapers to reaffirm their unique value and role in a community, potentially creating valuable monetization opportunities in the process.

Reinventing local journalism

Evolving newsroom structures and revenue models are only part of the story we discovered. This was accompanied by important questions at some local newspapers about the types of journalism that they are producing, too.

In our interviews, many local editors and reporters, unprompted, told us about the potential for solutions journalism, and the need for small-market newspapers to embrace — or at least be less reticent about — advocacy and a strict adherence to notions of objectivity.

One of the drivers for this conversation is clearly economic. If local newspapers are to arrest the declines in revenue and audience that many of them have seen over the past decade, then they will probably need to do things differently. That means reasserting their relevance and value, especially in an age of digital distraction.

This shift, as Laurenellen McCann, a former director and civic innovation fellow at New America DC, noted, will not necessarily be easy for many journalists. “In order to show up and enable community participation in a reporting process, you need to actually define your bias, and identify that you’re coming to the table as someone who wants to enable community voices,” she argued.

However, for others — like Joel Christopher, executive editor and vice president of news at Louisville’s Courier-Journal — to “pretend that you don’t live in the community that you cover and that you’re not affected by the events that you’re reporting on, and that you have a stake in them…it’s ludicrous.”

For Christopher, there’s no reason why you cannot blend established practice with impactful work. He highlighted the “Kids in Crisis” series at Wisconsin’s Post-Crescent (another Gannett paper) as an example of that:

Wisconsin has some of the worst commitment to resources for mental health for children and teenagers…we exposed that and talked about what caused it and [using] all of the traditional reporting that you would expect to see, but we also advocated clearly and explicitly for changes that we think that need to be enacted in the state.

And we did that in a front-page editorial across all 10 of the newspapers that make up our network. And we did it in forums that we held in each of our communities where we brought together mental health experts, kids, parents and said, you know, “Here’s what our reporting is showing us. Here’s what we think are some of the solutions and here’s how we’re urging you to act to make sure that change is affected.”

Moving forward

Past research from Poindexter et al. (2006) and Heider et al. (2005) has indicated readers want a “good neighbor” rather than a “watchdog” in local media, although both clearly have their place. And while we’re not advocating a relinquishing of traditional fourth-estate duties, this role may need to be blended with a shift in approach that sees local newspapers playing more active roles in their communities, and not just acting as passive, detached observers.

Adopting the role of a good neighbor does not mean abandoning critical perspective. It’s an opportunity to ensure that local newspapers are at the heart of the conversations taking place in their communities. Papers may start those conversations, or they may facilitate and reflect them. Either way, supporting an informed citizenry sits side by side with holding authority to account. They are not mutually exclusive.

In the process of redefining themselves, small-market newspapers may need to develop new approaches to storytelling, engagement, and revenue models. The risk of information deserts is very real in many communities. Preventing this requires a bold reimagining of local journalism.

It may take outlets to unexpected places, defining their mission in new ways, and these types of change — and the rationale behind them — need to be explained to the newsroom and the audience. Only through clear communication can you hope to bring both constituencies with you.

Robert York, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, summed up how many of our interviewees feel. “I’m very bullish on the future in terms of the energy coming back,” he said. “The optimism is — even though in newsrooms, optimism is very rare — maybe it’s better to say the pessimism is waning.”

This optimism, or waning pessimism, is a positive reflection of the value small-market newspapers can play in fulfilling the information needs of communities, ensuring our media ecosystem remains vibrant and relevant at all levels. If all news is local, then the success of the local newspaper industry is in everyone’s interest.

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). Christopher Ali is an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow of Columbia’s Tow Center.

Photo by Joanna Bourne used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2017, 12:10 p.m.
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