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.

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

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

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

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

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

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

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Burt Herman   Things get real

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

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

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

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

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

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

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

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

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

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

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Richard Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Juleyka Lantigua   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

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

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

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

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

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

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Paul Ford   Go global

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

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

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

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Jake Levine   The return to now

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

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

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

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

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global