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Local news needs local conversation to survive

“Most people don’t consume news because they want to be more informed about the news; they want to be informed about the news that they’re likely to talk about.”

As 2019 approaches, anxiety about the future of the local press continues unabated. In most conversations about the fate of metro and local news media, the platforms’ near-total takeover of digital advertising comes in for the largest share of the blame. The recent push towards subscription and donation revenues at news organizations has given new hope to many local and niche news producers.

But will subscriptions alone be enough to save local news? I suspect they won’t.

One of the big reasons people subscribe to media is to participate in the conversation that others are having. Newspapers of yore tapped into FOMO well before we had such a handy name for it. Most people don’t consume news because they want to be more informed about the news; they want to be informed about the news that they’re likely to talk about.

Back in 1945, New York City’s newspaper delivery men went on strike, leaving most of the city’s residents without their most regular source of news. Radio broadcasts and newsstand copies were still available, but researchers seized the opportunity to ask people what they missed about their newspaper. And mostly what they missed wasn’t the news — even in the midst of a war.

Much of what they missed was information as a way to maintain their social relationships. “You have to read in order to keep up a conversation with other people,” one person told the researchers.

Social media has changed where we discuss and debate the issues of the day, and the platforms’ push for “scale” has grown both the number of users and the number of connections in our networks. Online, we’re as likely to be talking with strangers or people further at the edges of our “IRL” social network as we are a close friend or neighbor. Offline, it’s uncommon to bump into your geographically distant friends and relatives. Online, it’s almost a certainty (even if they make up a relatively small share of your Facebook network).

It makes sense, then, that we’re likely to see and share more content about national politics, celebrity news, or ideas and issues that don’t depend on geography. Researchers have found that media consumption is increasingly focused on national outlets and subjects. The question is whether it’s the availability of that information or a lack of interest driving the trend. Most of our industry today is convinced that if there were more local news, more people would read it. I’m not convinced. (I’m not alone.)

There’s fairly limited research available today on how local news is shared online; one group of Canadian researchers found that on Twitter, local news wasn’t widely shared. The news that was shared in local networks tended to be highly partisan, focused on opinion, or intended to promote a particular point of view.

Online, the conversation about news has become a national one. Finding ways to rebuild local conversation — not just news consumption — is the challenge for local news organizations striving for sustainability.

Facebook says it’s pushing local news harder in its algorithm, and the growth of more conversation-scale social media — private groups, chat apps — might shift the balance back toward more localized digital conversations. But the biggest opportunities might be offline. Those Canadian researchers? They found that local news that was shared tended to be about in-person events.

Events aren’t new — but the way that local news can (and should) think about them is. The Texas Tribune’s long-running event series on state policy and government has helped build a revenue-generating business that supports its coverage of those topics. Major national publishers host mainstage conferences that generate important cash flow for their newsrooms. But revenue isn’t the only reason local news publishers should think about events; audience development and retention are important, too.

Many of the bright spots in local media today use in-person events to create must-attend experiences that facilitate the sort of social contact or social prestige opportunities that those old-time newspaper readers craved. The newly hatched Block Club Chicago, risen from the ashes of DNAinfo, has 6,000 paid subscribers; they hold public office hours and neighborhood events, aimed at developing their connection to the communities they cover. The Globe and Mail hosts events for its subscribers — some social, some informative, and all of which help reduce subscriber churn; as Kelly Burnett noted at an ONA panel this year, it costs the paper $10 to acquire a new user and just $1 to retain them. Events could be a key component of an organization’s long-term sustainability — even if they’re not revenue generators on their own.

Why do they work? I think it’s possible that events are a chance to create the same opportunities for social contact that people crave in our online world — and local news organizations can play an important role in facilitating those conversations, providing opportunities to meet face-to-face — and, just maybe, we will turn to them for the news and information we need to know to impress our friends in 2019.

Celeste LeCompte is the vice president of business development at ProPublica.

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