A recession, then a collapse

“The last recession was brutal for newspapers and local news. The next one could be an extinction-level event, especially for small dailies owned by big corporate chains that have pillaged local newsrooms and local leadership.”

The last recession was brutal for newspapers and local news. The next one could be an extinction-level event, especially for small dailies owned by big corporate chains that have pillaged local newsrooms and local leadership.

It will rapidly accelerate a transition that’s well underway. Local newspapers that used to “do it all” will be replaced by a diverse ecosystem of independent and authentically local grassroots news and information sources.

It will be painful, and messy — for some communities more than others — and difficult to measure.

With only one exception in its history, the country has never gone more than eight years without experiencing a recession. It’s been eight and a half since we emerged from the last one.

The last recession was especially tough on newspapers because disruptive technologies emerged at the same time. Help wanted and other classified advertising dried up because no one was hiring. And when it came back, it was on Craigslist, not in newspapers.

The next recession could wipe out some of the remaining revenue categories that are keeping small daily newspapers afloat — preprints, for example. And it’s a pretty safe bet that a technological shift will emerge to make sure they never come back.

Since 2009, ownership of local newspapers has consolidated rapidly to a handful of big companies, and several of the biggest — including GateHouse and Digital First Media — are owned by hedge funds with no background or commitment to the journalism business, and likely no long-term future, either. Hundreds of small local dailies are in the hands of owners who are using newsroom cuts to milk profits for the short-term.

They aren’t making any investment in the future of these newspapers, because their future existence isn’t even in the business plan. They’ll run them with as little staff as possible, as long as there is profit to take, and then they’ll shut them down. Some might as well be shut down now, as they’re operating without news staffs that make an appreciable contribution to local journalism.

The recession will be blamed when these chains start closing dozens of small local dailies, but the prescription has already been written.

It will be left to individual communities to take responsibility for their own local news and information needs, and support grassroots replacements of what is lost. In almost every case, that will take a patchwork quilt of solutions — a general-interest local online news site, a niche nonprofit going in-depth on one particular topic, public radio, a local access cable television station, the library, activists, Facebook groups, and the closest surviving metro, all playing off each other, and maybe even collaborating.

It might take 5,000 local independent online news efforts to replace what would be lost by the demise of 1,300 daily newspapers. But from Berkeley, California, to Luther, Oklahoma, Great Falls, Montana, to Burlington, Vermont, there are at least 600-plus nonprofit and for-profit local online news sites, possibly hundreds more, already operating in the U.S. The solution that’s emerging is so grassroots that it’s difficult to even know what already exists. Sites are being launched in tiny Midwestern towns and in big city neighborhoods by instant local news entrepreneurs who’ve never even heard of Nieman Lab or the Knight Foundation.

In some ways, it’s a great equalizer. You don’t have to own a printing press or a radio tower to play a crucial role in local journalism. And you don’t have to return a 25 percent profit margin to some out-of-town investor. This new crop of local independent online news publishers usually just want to make an adequate living doing journalism in their communities.

In some cases, that’s giving voice to people and communities who were never well-served by newspapers and producing journalism on niche topics that was never pursued adequately under the legacy structure, even in the glory days.

But it’s far from an easy business, and displaced journalists who go into it without a serious commitment to revenue, not just newsgathering, won’t make it. Even those who do could face difficult circumstances in some communities, where a nonprofit model and outside support might be required. The next recession will likely wipe out some existing online local news efforts before it creates the need and opportunity for a lot more of them.

The challenge for funders, academics, vendors and others who are invested in the future of news is how to create an environment where these enterprises are more likely to be successful and sustainable.

Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news sites.

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Paul Ford   Go global

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Burt Herman   Things get real

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Jake Levine   The return to now

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap