Medill News Leaders Project 2019

Sustaining the Business of Local Journalism

The crisis in local news is indisputable: Round after round of layoffs, expanding news deserts and abandoned areas of coverage, particularly in the case of long-established print publications. Now, the challenges to local television news are beginning to accelerate.

The Great Recession of 2007-09 and a technological transformation in news delivery have combined to disrupt the business model for news organizations and their advertisers. That has set off a scramble — some would say panic — in search of solutions.

This research effort, the Medill News Leaders Project 2019 at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, does not have all the answers. What it has are more than 50 interviews with some of the news industry’s finest thinkers. In these talks with Medill, they share eye-opening insights and bold innovations to help news organizations navigate through today’s choppy waters and deliver information to the American people.

Medill thanks the Robert R. McCormick Foundation for its generous support of this project.

The Report

Interviews with 54 people who are managing the transformation of local news offer insights into the crisis and possible paths to financial health.

Revenue Models ‘Making Something Worth Paying For’

We focus on the theoretical promise, and the actual difficulty, of embracing a financial model built around direct payments from readers and users. Can thinking of these people as members or subscribers lead to real, ongoing engagement, or the sort of lifetime habit that formerly characterized profitable mass media in America?

Rise of the Nonprofits ‘Stop Thinking About Competition’

The increasingly familiar models adopted by public radio and the Texas Tribune are juxtaposed with interviewees’ increasing interest in philanthropic investment and a focus on specific niches where supply and demand can be carefully calibrated.

Innovation Not ‘just chasing flashy, shiny objects’

The interviews reveal a certain tension that has been created by perceived overuse of the word “innovation” without attention to context. No one denies that new ideas are central to navigating the present and the future, but how about creatively applying concepts that may have been around for more than a few months?

Local TV ‘Disruption Is Coming’

To fail to look past the obvious current struggles of local print organizations is to fail to understand what’s next for the medium where most Americans still say they get their local news. Sufficient money is still flowing in many local broadcast operations, but the slow pace of digital adoption in some places may augur poorly for the industry as pressure increases on revenue sources like retransmission fees.

The Future of Local News ‘To Do Different With Less’

This section’s title conveys a fundamental optimism that there still can be a future — in the right circumstances, with the right set of actions based on local-market discernment and careful attention to broader trends. Looking for simple answers? Don’t look here. Looking for a clear-eyed analysis of what still needs to be done? That crops up throughout.

In-Depth

The project took a close look at two aspects of the crisis: the struggle of some African-American media, and a North Carolina news outlet’s efforts to diversify.

News Leaders

We interviewed a wide variety of people representing newspapers, digital start-ups, TV and radio in markets big and small.

About the Project

This report is aimed at the news industry, academic researchers and the public, with the goal that all will better understand the challenges we face by listening to these expert voices.

We solicited input from a wide range of industry stakeholders, and many aspects of journalism are covered here. But this report puts a particular focus on regional and smaller markets, where many news organizations are especially vulnerable now.

As Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Foundation, told us: Local newspapers, or the institutions formerly known as newspapers, have gone out of business or shrunk to the point of almost uselessness in many parts of the country.

Perhaps the most significant industry trend in recent years is a shift from reliance on advertising dollars to getting customers to pay directly for the product, especially through digital subscriptions and memberships. That trend has raised hopes for the survival of larger news outlets. Although this could be a growing source of revenue, there are serious questions about whether smaller local news organizations can achieve enough scale to reach financial stability solely through a user pay model. One piece of advice heard repeatedly in these interviews is to diversify revenue sources in this fluid environment. This report provides news executives with plenty of food for thought on that topic.

Beneficial Memberships for Local Newsrooms

A number of associations are designed to help bolster local news organizations. Though most of them require paid memberships, the cost can be worthwhile for outlets seeking additional resources or support. The list below outlines some of the more prominent options and what they have to offer.

Local Media Association

  • Industry trade organization that brings all local media together for the purpose of sharing, networking, collaborating and learning.
  • Focused on future business models and maximizing opportunities for the digital side of the business. Members have access to conferences, webinars, research, consulting and training via online courses and certifications.
  • Must pay annual dues.

Local Media Consortium

  • Helps local media grow revenue and reduce costs through strategic partnerships with technology platforms and service providers. (The consortium negotiates deals that members couldn’t get on their own with partners like Google and Facebook).
  • Member newsrooms have access to regular webinars, newsletters, blogs, video conferences and events to learn more about the latest trends, network and share success stories.
  • Member organizations must apply and then pay dues.

LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers

  • Member organizations can learn best practices from fellow publishers across the country through monthly webinars and an annual conference.
  • Receive access to CrowdTangle (Facebook analytics tool) as well as CloudFlare (a service that protects your website from cyber attacks).
  • Get discounts on web hosting, software, graphic design, etc.
  • Must meet certain criteria to apply and are expected to pay regular dues.

Institute for Nonprofit News

  • Provides education and business support services to its member organizations while promoting the value of investigative and public-service journalism.
  • The community shares best practices, collaborates on stories, pools resources and receives cutting-edge training in professional, organizational and business development.
  • Organizations can apply for full membership (nonprofit newsrooms that produce investigative and/or public-service reporting), affiliate membership (news cooperatives, benefit corporations, charities, foundations, universities, etc.) or provisional membership (start-ups preparing to launch).
  • Yearly dues are scaled to the size of your organization based on its total annual revenue.

Civil

  • A network of newsrooms that will receive a package of free tools and discounts in areas like analytics, crowdsourcing and customer relationship management.
  • Get access to programming to help with technology, business and editorial practices, sustainability and trust.
  • Engage with other members through forums and salons.
  • To join you must buy Civil tokens (the organization runs on cryptocurrency).

Research Faculty and Staff

The on-the-record interviews in the Medill News Leaders Project 2019 were conducted by Beth Bennett, an Associate Dean at Medill, and Aubrey Baron, a Medill adjunct professor and research assistant, via phone and video chat, as well as in person, from the fall of 2018 to the summer of 2019. After the first round of interviews was complete, the researchers circled back to several of the news leaders to share overall impressions and get their evaluations of the findings. The report includes a few audio clips that are not radio-quality but are offered as samples of the interviews.

Beth Bennett

Associate Dean of Journalism, Assistant Professor

Bennett is an award-winning producer and reporter with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast television news and video production. Before joining Northwestern’s full-time faculty in 2006, Bennett was an on-air reporter for television stations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Wis., and Traverse City, Mich.

Owen Youngman

Professor and Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy

Youngman, a former Senior Vice President for Strategy and Development at the Chicago Tribune, is a pioneer in news website development, having created chicagotribune.com. He also directed the launch of RedEye, the Tribune’s daily for young urban commuters. In addition, Youngman was Associate Managing Editor/Financial News and Managing Editor/Features in a 37-year career at the Tribune.

Aubrey Baron

Adjunct Professor, Research Assistant

Baron's journalism experience ranges from covering the New York Stock Exchange to writing about politics on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Atlantic, USA Today, Bloomberg News and MarketWatch. She's spent most of her career in Chicago TV news. Baron teaches multimedia journalism at Medill and is a freelance writer.

Tim Franklin

Senior Associate Dean

Franklin is in charge of the Local News Initiative. Before joining Medill, he was President of The Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank. After high-ranking jobs at the Chicago Tribune, he was the top editor of three other metro newspapers, the Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. He also was Washington Managing Editor for Bloomberg News.

Mark Jacob

Editor

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 six books on history and photography.

The News Leaders Project is affiliated with the Medill Local News Initiative, which was launched in spring 2018 to help news organizations achieve sustainability and strengthen our communities. This project is the first segment of a larger Medill research effort called “Market-Based Opportunities in Local News Innovation” that is being overseen by Owen Youngman, the school’s Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, with funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and from the Knight Chair’s research budget. Bennett led the conceptualization and execution of the research data collection and analysis of the News Leaders Project.

The executive summary for this report was written by Youngman and Tim Franklin, the Medill Senior Associate Dean who heads the Medill Local News Initiative. Franklin also arranged many of the interviews for this report. The rest of the report was written by Baron and Mark Jacob, a writer and editor with the Medill Local News Initiative. Saleema Syed was our copy editor.

The web presentation was designed by Medill Associate Professor Zach Wise and Knight Lab Executive Director Joe Germuska, with illustrations by A.Skwish. The project team has added analysis and explanations as necessary, but has put the direct quotes from participants front and center in this report.