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Local news goes minimalist

“The evidence that audiences are unwilling to pay for local news is actually clouded by the fact that most local news is not local at all.”

In a local newspaper, anything other than local affairs coverage is competing — without even being too dramatic about it — with the entire Internet. You can find national and international coverage on the websites of national and international news sources and wire services. You can find fashion and lifestyle coverage in any glossy magazine in this category, yes, but also for free on their websites or on sites such as WhoWhatWear and PopSugar. You can find general sports coverage from national broadcast players and the burgeoning field of digital sites like Deadspin and Bleacher Report. The comics page? Try a quick scroll through the memes on Twitter for a laugh. Business coverage? Economics blogs are better than ever, and on The Economist’s digital site, you may read three free articles a week. Book reviews? Just take a moment and search the web for “book reviews.” You do not need your local newspaper to provide this coverage.

In 2019, local news organizations will further pivot away from comprehensive coverage in order to continue to provide value in the marketplace. And the smart ones won’t contract their resources — they’ll redouble them for high-quality local coverage. This offers a few advantages:

  • By investing a newsroom’s remaining resources in high-quality coverage of local issues — and the localization of national and international ones — local news organizations will begin to offer a package that truly cannot be found elsewhere. For some communities, this may mean deep coverage of a local and/or college sports team. It certainly means thoughtful, accountability-focused reporting on government, schools, taxes, businesses, and infrastructure at the local level.
  • Depth of local reporting allows media organizations to expand the breadth of their community coverage to be more inclusive of a diversity of stories, voices, and sources. The better local news reflects its communities, the better the connections among producers and consumers of news will be. Those news–community relationships are central to the health and vibrancy of our democracy at the local level.
  • When the content is available elsewhere — and it’s usually better, free, and pretty easy to find — consumers will not pay for local news organizations’ version. So the evidence that audiences are unwilling to pay for local news is actually clouded by the fact that most local news is not local at all, as recent evidence from the News Measures Research Project at Duke University found. Audiences will not pay for content they access through other sources, but they will pay for content that is unique and valuable to their lives. If local news organizations start providing differentiated, high-quality content, they can start to build business models around it.

And, by the way, beyond all the audience benefits, this is exactly the local news organization where many outstanding journalism students — and long-standing professionals — yearn to work, covering stories that matter to the community.

Rachel Davis Mersey is an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

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