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March 22, 2021, 9:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Build for a crisis: Ideas for the future of local news

“We believe for local news to have a future, it has to be built for people when they truly need information before it is built for people when they are just curious.”

When a terrible winter storm and widespread utility failures hit Texas last month, we were happy to see local newsrooms in the state work to get people the information they needed to survive during the outages. Local news can be an essential service in this way every day, providing information that helps people meet their challenges and achieve their goals. Unfortunately for many local communities, this orientation in local news is the exception, not the rule.

At Outlier, we are and always have been built to provide essential information as local news. We believe for local news to have a future, it has to be built for people when they truly need information before it is built for people when they are just curious. We offer here our first report on how local news can be an essential service by working first to meet local information needs.

We offer the experiences we have gathered over almost five years not to be prescriptive of limitations for what local news can be. Instead, we offer the lessons we have learned and the projects we learn from only as a place to build from when trying to create more value with local news and information services.

Evidence of a crisis in local news is everywhere in this country, mostly in the negative space left by shrinking and closing local outlets. One in five local papers has closed down over the past 15 years. As alarming as those numbers are, at Outlier, we believe this crisis is both deeper and broader than the industry recognizes.

Local communities deserve a different model of local news. Those of us working in this ecosystem need to decide whether we want to serve the curiosity of elite audiences or the general public’s information needs. We have built Outlier Media in Detroit to do the latter, but in doing so, we have learned lessons we think can be used throughout local information ecosystems.

Legacy local media, along with many newer news organizations, have not sufficiently questioned whether people need their journalism more than they need information essential to their everyday lives. Income inequality tracks neatly onto information consumption patterns. People with less money have less time to navigate more challenges with higher stakes. Access to information doesn’t disrupt this pattern as much as it follows it, a so-called “third-level digital divide.”

The group of people for whom journalism is more important than information is relatively small. As income inequality grows, that group will shrink. The group of people who need better information to meet their challenges and achieve their goals is relatively large and will continue to grow in lockstep with worsening inequality. Still, efforts to shore up or rebuild local news often continue to ignore or marginalize people and communities who were also never truly contemplated by the institutions we are now losing.

Healthy civic life depends on journalism adapting to serve information needs first. That has been our focus since our inception. The events of the last few months, our collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the 2020 presidential election have further illuminated that large and pervasive information gaps are dangerous to individuals and communities.

The stakes

When a rare and punishing winter storm hit Texas last month and the state’s power grid buckled, gas and electric outages set off a crisis. Millions of people, many of whom were not used to doing so, suddenly had to navigate meeting their most basic needs; warm shelter, clean water, and food.

The emergency was one of sudden scarcity made worse by a lack of information. Without electricity, people couldn’t easily turn on their televisions or radios. Internet outages were widespread. Without a reliable way to get information, people couldn’t locate resources like a warming center or a mutual aid group with extra blankets. People couldn’t get answers about how long the power outages might last. Much like the power grid, local media was not built to meet so many needs at the same time.

The Texas Tribune is often held up as a best-in-class example of state and local news. Its online format meant that a significant number of its audience couldn’t access their reporting during the outages. Within 24 hours, the Tribune, along with the Austin American Statesman, launched a text message–based news product to better reach people with the information they needed. Some general resources were delivered automatically with the messages. Other questions were queued so reporters could get back to people with the specific information they needed. Texans were grateful and applauded the newsroom’s quick thinking.

The innovation in this response was not the use of different technology. There is almost nothing less of-the-moment than SMS technology, which has been almost the same since it first showed up in the early 1990s. What is notable about a newsroom using SMS is how almost universally accessible the technology is and how service-oriented it can be.

The move goes against a trend in local news, particularly digital-first outlets, which have become less focused on truly serving a wide swath of the general public. People who might rely on or prefer a technology like SMS are particularly undervalued as a news audience because that preference can be an indication that resources like time and money are often scarce, not only in a freak weather event.

The drive for sustainability in local news provides cover for the move away from providing value to a general audience. It has pushed many local news organizations to fixate on building a loyal band of reliable subscribers or members rather than broad-based support. It is a repeating of the mistakes of the advertising era without the advertising dollars to justify the error. The strategy isn’t working. News deserts are everywhere, and the pandemic pushed another almost 40,000 in media out of their jobs or to a furlough or pay cut.

For local news to have a future, it has to be built for people when they truly need information before it is built for people when they are just curious. Local news needs to be built for the present crisis in almost every local community: that so few have the information they need or feel they can trust.

An opportunity to create value along the way

Local news is marginalized by other players in the information ecosystem, especially national media and social media. Social media and national media are better businesses, but this is in part because they are not built to be essential services. How else could information be so abundant while such significant numbers of Americans say they don’t have the information or resources they need?

Local news can be an essential service even if it might not be as profitable a business. If it is built to provide valuable, verified, and accessible information people need to meet their challenges and achieve their goals, local news can find its way in a much tougher landscape.

Throughout the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and particularly at the outset, even the best-educated and connected understood how debilitating and dangerous it is to be inside an information gap. Without verified and valuable information, it became hard to make good decisions. Misinformation spread and took hold. Accountability gaps followed and are reliably fed by information gaps.

Yet today, most local news is providing updates, analysis, opinion, and context to a shrinking group of people, an elite audience that has disposable income and is already close to sources of power.

That audience already has almost all the information they need. And, as trust increases with news consumption among liberal-leaning news consumers, this audience already trusts the news.

The Texas Tribune and Austin American-Statesman were able to reach beyond this elite audience and provide a service to anyone who needed it during the winter storms. Will they and others now work to build news offerings valuable to this larger group of people? Will they build more widespread trust and gain support that is more sustainable?

There is no longer a local news organization around to change course in so many communities across the country.

In places where local news has disappeared, new outlets will eventually set up shop and grow. To keep from being marginalized, they have to be built to be essential. It is impossible to be essential to a broad notion of democracy unless you can first be directly essential to individuals and then to communities working toward self-determination.

In Detroit, we have built this way for close to five years. Outlier was designed to identify and fill information gaps. It was always built to meet the information needs of low-income news consumers first. We focus only on filling information gaps and on accountability reporting. This focus and our collaborations allow us to make an impact as a small team.

We maintain an easy-to-use text-message-based system in the three most prevalent languages in the city. Detroiters can access information about their most pressing concerns, including eviction, unemployment, Covid vaccinations, and where mobile food pantry distributions are happening. A reporter is always monitoring this feed and getting in touch with people who need reporter follow-up. We use our SMS system as an engine for our accountability reporting. When we see widespread accountability questions that cause serious harm or are specifically due to local inaction or conditions, we report and publish with a long list of local collaborators.

We also run a Detroit version of City Bureau’s Documenters program. Residents are trained and paid to take notes at city meetings that otherwise would not be monitored or entered into the public record. We edit the notes and, along with our local publishing partners, use them to feed public affairs reporting. The Documenters are an active community of civically engaged residents we seek to serve with our reporting.

Several other local news organizations across the country and globe listen to local needs and then work to plug the holes in their local information ecosystems. There is Flint Beat working to create an accurate local record in Flint, Mich. City Bureau is training future reporters in Chicago, and offers its Documenters program as a strong foundation for local journalists in Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron, Ohio, to build upon.

In New York City, Documented is built to meet immigrants’ information needs — a market of around three million people. Sahan Journal does the same in Minnesota.

The Oaklandside is working to be an essential and reflective news source in Oakland, Calif., and working with El Timpano to reach people who speak Spanish and Mam. In New Jersey, the Civic Information Consortium is rebuilding local media from the group up. There are more news organizations working in this way, along with reporters and collaborators looking to be part of this kind of news production.

What is in an essential information ecosystem?

Record creation includes broad-based fact-gathering and verification of breaking news that communities used to rely almost exclusively on local news for. Social media has distributed much of this work, but it is still necessary for there to be a verified, accurate, and accessible record of what is taking place in a local community. Some newer organizations are big enough to truly serve as local anchors, like Flint Beat in Michigan. Projects like The City’s Covid-19 obituary and remembrance project in New York seek to create a more complete record. City Bureau’s Documenters program makes this record creation work a collaborative effort between newsroom and community.

Record correction is not just rectifying mistakes or errors (essential but hopefully rare). Record correction also plays defense against misinformation and spin by understanding local news is just one player in an information ecosystem. A national example of both record creation and correction was The Covid Tracking Project, launched by The Atlantic but volunteer-led, which began when the last administration was pushing misinformation and downplaying the pandemic’s seriousness. The Markup’s Citizen Browser and Hearken’s Election SOS are both tools journalists can use with communities to combat misinformation and polarization.

Filling information gaps is what Outlier does in Detroit each day. Other examples we are aware of are Documented, News414 in Milwaukee, and inewsource in San Diego. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many more local news organizations have begun doing this kind of work, including Resolve Philly and several Gannett papers.

Accountability reporting is essential but expensive. MLK50 is a local investigative powerhouse, supported in part by ProPublica. There are also statewide collaborations like Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico or Searchlight New Mexico that are collaborations among several reporters and news organizations in one state.

Narrative shift involves record correction with a wider lens. It helps people contextualize new information and current conditions by understanding that the past’s dominant narratives are not always accurate. The gold standard of this work is Nikole Hannah-Jones1619 Project, which puts “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States.” Local versions of this work are happening everywhere, with examples including Scalawag in North Carolina, Press On, Indigenizing the News in Michigan, and many more.

Community connection is the remit of many types of community-based organizations that can create connections among residents. Still, media organizations can also fill this essential need by bringing otherwise polarized groups together. Public media can be particularly effective at creating these connections locally, as can smaller organizations like Spaceship Media.

The limitations of news judgment

Most of the organizations working to fill information needs understand that journalistic judgment alone is not enough to identify these needs in the first place. Organizations like The Listening Post Collective, Outlier, Free Press’ News Voices project, and local academic partners are willing to help news organizations find information and coverage gaps using public data, surveys, or structured listening sessions. The researchers at Impact Architects have even put together a toolkit to make this work easier.

Some detractors don’t believe news organizations focused narrowly and explicitly on community needs could ever be as valuable as the local news institutions we have lost or are losing. That view fundamentally misunderstands that these ideas are offered as a foundation on which to build. We suggest making sure the bottom of the pyramid is strong before continuing to fill those less foundational needs less tied to surviving and more to thriving.

[There is no “Wirecutter for the poor, but if there were, what would it look like?]

We have also encountered skepticism that a narrow focus on information and accountability gaps is not sufficiently journalistic.

Or, even if it journalistic, that our focus on creating value first rather than modeling financial sustainability belies a lack of sophistication.

In our experience, organizations built to meet community information needs understand that they must test their methods and assumptions and work to measure their impact. The idea is a simple one: Build to create value along the way and trust that serving information needs is a strong foundation for reaching a broad audience with other valuable news products.

You can’t be everything to everyone

Resources may always be scarce in local news. In our experience, deciding where to spend those resources should be a balance of contributing to a healthy information ecosystem and providing resources journalists are trained and inclined to provide: making a record, correcting that record, filling information gaps, creating accountability, shifting the narrative, and connecting the community.

These essentials of an information ecosystem, as we see them, are not suggested as limits on what local news can do. These fundamentals are instead only our suggestions for a foundation on which to build. Our communities deserve valuable, verified, and relevant information they can use to meet their challenges and achieve their goals. We also believe communities will value local journalism more if we demonstrate its value first. Demonstrating value is much easier to do when local news is built to create value along the way.

Our work is iterative and built on the ideas, models, and experiences we have access to. Almost all of our work is also collaborative, and we are fortunate to work and create with a long list of partners around Detroit and the nation, only some of whom we were able to name here. Outlier owes a particular debt of gratitude to the scholarship of James Hamilton. His book All the News That’s Fit to Sell and his study of information gaps are foundational to our work. We are inspired and motivated every day by the reporters and news organizations working creatively to be of service in challenging and changing times. We want to extend thanks to Dick Tofel, who encouraged us to finally put these thoughts down in one place. Thank you to Outlier’s current and past funders, The Democracy Fund, The Knight Foundation, The Facebook Journalism Project, The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Kellogg Foundation, and the individual supporters of Outlier Media.

Sarah Alvarez is the founder and editor of Outlier Media. This report originally ran on Outlier’s website.

Photo of empty shelves at Target in Harker Heights, Texas, on February 20, 2021, by Wil C. Fry used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 22, 2021, 9:50 a.m.
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