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April 18, 2018, 11:55 a.m.
Business Models

Bring out the safety goggles: More experimentation in local news is on the way, soon to take place in the “Learning Labs” of the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Indianapolis Star as part of Northwestern University’s new initiative for local news.

There’s not really such a thing as too much money in local news, an area experiencing whiplash in the journalism industry as advertising dollars continue to drain from news organizations’ wallets and national news groups puff up from Trump bumps and subscription support. Various groups from the Knight Foundation (which, disclosure, also supports Nieman Lab) to the Lenfest Institute to Facebook (though some might say it’s pennies for them) have been pushing more money and attention to local news in recent years. Fingers crossed that more money means more ideas means more success?

Anyhoo, Northwestern’s Local News Initiative will provide the foundation and support for those three newsrooms to study and experiment with reader engagement and business models. Over the course of two years, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications (no “and”) will help the news organizations — owned by the post-Michael Ferro Tronc, Hearst, and Gannett respectively — dig into reader behavior across devices and platforms and news needs and expectations in each market before launching a product development and experimentation phase next year.

Funding comes from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment ($300,000, the largest single contribution to the project), Medill alumnus John Mutz who is also a former lieutenant governor of Indiana, and Myrta Pulliam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who hails from the Pulliam family of former Indianapolis Star and Arizona Republic ownership fame. Medill’s full announcement is here.

This initiative supports newspaper-based news organizations, though local TV news has also seen a resurgence of funding for innovative approaches with $2.6 million from the Knight Foundation and general attention with Deadspin’s Sinclair video and the responding media uproar. A report from the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University earlier this week also pointed out that for the first time in two decades of research, total local TV news employment is greater than total newspaper employment. (Remember, local TV news is still a sizable chunk of news consumption for Americans.) Other highlights from the RTDNA/Hofstra study include:

  • 2017 saw a slight decrease in the number of TV news jobs, with 2 fewer newsrooms and a decrease in the median newsroom size, but the average local TV newsroom employment remains just below its all-time high.
  • Nearly 90% of news directors expect their staffing to increase or remain the same in the coming year.
  • The number of multimedia journalists (MMJs) or backpack journalists has been steadily increasing for several years, but this year growth slowed for the first time. In the average newsroom, MMJ jobs still increased while reporter jobs fell.
  • Website responsibilities are increasingly integrated into job descriptions across newsrooms and, among newsrooms that hired in 2017, the largest proportion — nearly 20% — of newly created positions were digital-focused: web, social media, or other digital media positions.

Here’s the study in full. (Not to mention my colleague Laura’s recent writeup of a separate study with the headline “Thank God you’re not in newspapers”.)

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