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Local reporters reflect on what’s not important

“I’ve written a lot of stories in my career that were probably of little value to the communities I cover. Most local journalists could say the same.”

I’ve written a lot of stories in my career that were probably of little value to the communities I cover. Most local journalists could say the same. In 2019, I predict we’ll reflect on this. Our conclusions will help us better define our values and lead to a shift in what local news looks like.

First, a few examples of what local reporters might discover as they take inventory of their bylines:

  • News stories 200 to 400 words long that probably could have been told in 2 to 4 sentences with additional links.
  • Writeups of local events, including local government meetings, that had already been fully documented 24 hours earlier on social media.
  • Stories that originated as pitches or press releases that we decided to pursue because (a) we needed to produce something in that moment or (b) we felt a need to maintain relationships with our sources and demonstrate we’re covering a beat.

We need to cut back on routine news, or at least find more efficient ways to produce it. Doing so is a requisite for sustaining local journalism.

Meanwhile, we must maximize time spent on work that really matters — journalism that moves us, connects us, and empowers us. Journalism that helps us discover “why” and “how” and can’t be replaced by the raw information flooding everyone’s inboxes and social media feeds. Journalism that builds communities’ capacity to collectively tackle problems.

Plenty of this work exists, and there’s a growing community of journalists, researchers, and others dedicated to exploring how journalism can better serve and engage the public.

I’m on a personal journey to figure out what it takes to do more meaningful local journalism, and I’m not alone. The work often involves interacting with more people, bringing people together across difference, and engaging them in ways beyond an interview for the next story.

In 2019, I predict those of us pursuing this work in traditional newsrooms will find our voice and start moving our colleagues toward better local news.

Elizabeth Dunbar is an environment reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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