The Local News Crisis Circles the Globe, Seminar Finds

Feeling Pressure from Tech Companies, Foreign Journalists Are Scrambling. One Outlet Is Even Buying a Tour Bus Company.

The financial pressures on local news are a worldwide problem, according to participants in the Global Seminar on Local News, co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative and Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung USA foundation.

At the Chicago seminar June 25, Dapo Olorunyomi, Publisher and CEO of Nigeria’s Premium Times, said his country’s media were dramatically squeezed by competition from tech companies.

“The true newsroom in Nigeria is Facebook,” with 25 million people in his country using the social media platform, Olorunyomi said. This is particularly distressing, said Olorunyomi, because “the media, particularly newspapers, were at the forefront” of pulling his country out of 30 years of dictatorship.

The true newsroom in Nigeria is Facebook.

Dapo Olorunyomi of Nigeria’s Premium Times

Pana Janviroj, a Thai journalist who is Executive Director of the Asia News Network, with 24 member organizations in 20 countries, agreed that internet tech companies have changed the game, and not to the benefit of local news organizations.

“Every member is struggling with the technology disruptions,” Janviroj said, with many traditional media revenue streams taken over by Google and others.

Nigerian journalist Dapo Olorunyomi says tech companies have disrupted local news organizations in this country.

Jasmin Off, Deputy Editor in Chief at Lübecker Nachrichten in Germany, had an interesting example of a way to diversify revenue.

“We just bought a travel agency, a bus company that takes tours for readers all across for Europe,” Off said. “… I think as long as the core of your media outlet is still … news, that’s actually a good thing, to look for other opportunities to make some money.”

Off also mentioned a way that foreign journalists are trying to build morale in tough times: At a newsroom in Norway, the staff sings a song together at the start of the workday.

Joy Jenkins, an American who is a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based at Oxford University in England, said of local and regional media, “This is a sector in countries around the world that has seen declining advertising revenue, circulation and subscriptions. They’ve seen shrinking newsrooms. We’ve had a lot of examples of ownership consolidation and concentration and layoffs resulting from that.”

“It’s important not to see local media as a monolith,” said Jenkins, citing some signs of strength among European news outlets. She said a French outlet was emphasizing solutions journalism. As a staffer there told her, “This was a way to focus not just on the who, what, where, when, why, but the ‘Now what?’”

Bettina Chang (left) of City Bureau and Jen Sabella of Block Club Chicago discuss sustainability of non-profit news start-ups.

Participants in the Global Seminar on Local News came from six foreign countries on four continents. In addition to those already mentioned, foreign presenters and panelists included Maria Dimitrova, Editor-in-Chief of ZOV News in Bulgaria; and Eduardo Garcia, Editor of Sentido Comun in Mexico. A wide variety of American media experts also gave presentations.

Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, cited the research of the Medill Local News Initiative to address the crisis in local journalism, telling the group: “We anticipate having a greater impact as we continue this work, and we look forward to engaging with you on these topics so that that impact can go beyond the U.S. and we can spread this new knowledge that we are creating throughout the world.”

I don’t want to worry about ‘saving’ anything anymore. I would worry about building the next.

Chris Krewson, Executive Director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers

Some other highlights of the seminar:

◾️ Angie Muhs, who became a symbol of the local news crisis when she left the Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register as editor in an attempt to stave off layoffs of other staffers, said that “what scares me is the level of burnout” among journalists. Despite leaving her journalism job, Muhs remains President of the Associated Press Media Editors group.

◾️ Chris Krewson, Executive Director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, said local news is at a crucial point where old ways are ending. “I don’t want to worry about ‘saving’ anything anymore,” Krewson said. “I would worry about building the next.”

◾️ Two editors at Chicago non-profit local news start-ups described how they find a variety of revenue streams to stay vital. Jen Sabella, Co-founder and Director of Strategy for Block Club Chicago, said her news outlet works hard to sell memberships, but doesn’t stop there: “We sell T-shirts, we sell tote bags: “We are doing more events and fundraisers. It’s like a hustle. It’s doing it all and seeing what works.” Bettina Chang, Co-founder of City Bureau, said: “What we found through our research is that people are willing to pay if they feel included in the process.”

◾️ Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism/Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, shared her groundbreaking research on “news deserts.” Matthew Weber, the Cowles Endowed Fellow of Media Management at the University of Minnesota, discussed his analysis of how much news on local news sites was original and local and served a critical information need. Amy Mitchell, Director of Journalism Research for the Pew Research Center, joined the seminar via Skype to share survey results showing that only 2 in 10 people said they had ever spoken to a journalist.

◾️ Ed Malthouse, Research Director of Northwestern’s Spiegel Research Center, presented analysis on 13 terabytes of data on subscriber retention. He joked that when Spiegel’s researchers worked on the huge data set, “the lights would dim in Evanston.”

◾️ Idalmy Carrera-Colucci, Senior Director of Editorial Operations for Tribune Publishing, was asked about digital subscription pricing and said her chain is testing prices in all of its markets. “We think there’s really great example at the Boston Globe, which is a metro that has gotten to 99 cents a day. … We think in some of our larger markets we can push to get there.”

◾️ Two Northwestern experts discussed creating a mentality of innovation. Medill Professor Rich Gordon, Director of Digital Innovation, offered a succinct statement:  ”Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.” Joe Germuska, Executive Director of the Knight Lab, said: “If you try to design for everybody, you satisfy nobody. You certainly delight nobody.”

◾️ Casey Pallenik of Google urged news innovators to apply to the Google News Initiative’s North American Innovation Challenge. Pallenik said Google has similar programs in other parts of the world.

Medill Associate Dean Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative, welcomes particpants to the Global Seminar on Local News, held June 25 in Chicago.

Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, head of the Medill Local News Initiative, said the seminar came at a crucial time for both local journalism and for the world’s self-governed democracies.

“The diminishment of local news is to democracies what climate change is to the environment,” Franklin said. “It’s a slow-motion crisis, the effects of which we’re just beginning to see.”

Paul Linnarz, Director of Konrad-Adenauer-Stifting USA, admitted after the session that the idea of examining local news “from an international perspective was kind of a paradox,” but “I think it was worthwhile.”

In Part 2 of this report, we detail the seminar’s discussion of physical threats against journalists at the United States and abroad.

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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