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Sept. 9, 2019, 11:45 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The market failure of the local news industry — advertising that has escaped to the digital platforms — is now a national issue. The Associated Press and New York Times have been reporting on the loss of their lesser-financed local counterparts and grants after grants have been deployed to support new and refreshed local journalism outlets. But what are the people making up the local news industry thinking?

The Medill News Leaders Project, part of Northwestern’s Local News Initiative and supported by the McCormick Foundation, surveyed 54 people working alongside the trenches of local news “with the goal that all will better understand the challenges we face by listening to these expert voices.” (Disclosure: Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski and Nieman Lab contributor Ken Doctor were two of the 54.) Medill faculty and staff conducted the interviews from fall 2018 through this summer on topics from the state of local TV news to the rise of the nonprofit model. Here’s some of the project’s oral history on the future of local news:

What does it mean to be local nowadays?

“To me, local means you’re serving a community. A community of people with a shared identity. And in that regard, the Texas Tribune absolutely qualifies. I mean, maybe we’re more like a regional news organization than we are a hyperlocal news organization, but it works in Texas because Texans have really this sort of shared, deep identity. They have an obsession with Texas. And that’s not something that every state has, obviously. So, to me, it’s about a shared community.” — Emily Ramshaw, Texas Tribune editor

“To me, local has always been the people who know what it’s like to live in my community. There’s a connection to the person on screen to the type of reporting that’s happening. Like I’m not tuning in to find out what’s happening around the world; I’m tuning in to find out what’s happening down the street from me.” — Christine Portela, Univision’s local media director of news operations

“I think there’s something about localization that changes the dynamic around what local news is. We used to throw a newspaper on the front doorstep and it covered the whole area. Now, you may actually be much more interested in the things that are happening more local than that, and we have to figure out what are the right ways to deliver that.” — Andrew Pergam, Facebook’s director of global affairs and former vice president at McClatchy

“I think about really what brings a community together. It doesn’t have to be where you live. I guess it’s kind of like where your heart is, to some extent.” — Mandy Jenkins, general manager of McClatchy/Google’s local news Compass Experiment

What will local news look like?

“Being all things to all people is not really possible right now, if it ever was.” — Ann Marie Lipinski, Nieman Foundation curator and previous Chicago Tribune executive editor

“We’re approaching what I would probably characterize as the death of the 15-inch story. Because if it can’t prove itself to be really worth the investment of time and then you create a really great, rich narrative experience with the interactive graphics and the videos as well as the narrative writing, if the story doesn’t merit that, it really then needs to be in that bucket of being much more utilitarian and much more scannable.” — Randy Lovely, former VP of community news at Gannett

“What I think you’re starting to see is the profound tension between having to produce a printed newspaper, which was designed around advertising, was meant to be relatively shallow, very broad, encompassing lots of different topics, and be of general interest to a community, versus an emerging business model that is geared to developing strong lasting relationships with members and subscribers.” — Kinsey Wilson, president

“If you are not making, especially on a local level, the important news interesting, like if you say the city council is important coverage to have but you can’t find a way to make that coverage interesting, that’s a failure on the news staff. It’s not a failure of the audience.” — Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Washington Post

Regionalization cometh — but what’s the model?

“We actually encourage the differentiation in a market-by-market level, because that’s the sweet spot. But what’s happened over the past few years as GateHouse has grown, we have come across areas of common interests. For instance, we were pleasantly surprised when we did a recent audience engagement survey that moved 57,000 responses, and the No. 1 interest among those email subscribers was regional and state news, even above local news.” — Bill Church, senior vice president of news at Gatehouse

“If you look at small dailies and large weeklies, they have done better than metros for the last 15 years. They have more sense of community connection. It’s less about digital. It’s about simply having the kind of content that people want and can’t get any other place.” — Ken Doctor

“Everybody has made digital subscriptions their top priority. And we say the jury is out on whether that’s a sustainable business model for small-size newspapers. We don’t have a model to point to yet that says it is. We think it’s a no-brainer for the national players like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. We think the large regionals, as we call them, the Boston Globe, Seattle Times, no-brainer. Beyond the top 10, we don’t know….If you run the numbers, and the price of the subscription, and how many they would need to get, and how much work it is to get those, it’s really hard.” — Nancy Lane, president of the Local Media Association

The full report is available here.

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