The Future of Local News

‘To Do Different With Less’

The financial siege faced by many local news operations has an upside: It has forced the industry to focus on what’s truly important. Being perceived as a provider of “commodity news” is dangerous, and setting yourself apart with established excellence on specific topics is differentiating successful local news organizations from their competitors.

Being all things to all people is not really possible right now, if it ever was.

Ann Marie Lipinski Curator, Nieman Foundation

Focus, people.

One of the things I have hated the most from this era of constrained resources is the ridiculous and oft-repeated notion that the newsroom is going to ‘do more with less.’ The fact that anyone says that with a straight face to its audience is offensive and the fact is newsrooms have to learn to do different with less, but it’s pretty rarely more. So I think with that as a kind of an umbrella statement, let me add that I think the papers or the newsrooms that are finding a way to focus and do well with things that they decide to emphasize are the ones that have the best chance of success. Ann Marie Lipinski Curator, Nieman Foundation

News outlets must listen before they talk.

I always say when the phone stops ringing, that’s when we’re in trouble. So the more interaction you have with the community, the better. So I really try to stay involved in the community and our editors do as well. Karen Andreas Regional Publisher, North of Boston Media Group (CNHI)
One of the things that folks in local media, whether it be Advance Local or elsewhere, can’t forget, is you’ve got to cover real issues that affect real people, living real lives. And that’s where the social listening, it’s being out and about, this is, where engaging with your audiences, plural, and this whole diversity issue, really all come together. Because it’s all about relevance. No one has a civic obligation to consume our content. Question is, is it good? Is it quality? Is it meaningful for them? Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local

Good Journalism Is Good Business

Because it’s essential for news outlets to differentiate themselves in order to survive, this difficult era may actually be beneficial for quality journalism.

It’s time to become indispensable.

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. That requires not only a different approach to the business, but ... a kind of different approach to the journalism. And it probably means being much more selective about the kinds of things you cover, making sure that your coverage is absolutely hands down the best, that it’s indispensable to the community, not simply that it skims the surface. Kinsey Wilson President, WordPress.com
It’s very much like back to basics, like beat reporting, which I think is easy to forget about when you’re just trying to be competitive and chase the sexiest story. But sometimes it’s something as simple as this community is really concerned about X, Y and Z, and we found out about it because they were talking about it on a Facebook group, or they were talking about it on the Nextdoor app or they were talking about it in their community. Christine Portela Director of News Operations, Local Media, Univision

‘The death of the 15-inch story.’

Quite honestly, 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 Vice President of Community News, Gannett

Not all the pressure favors quality news, of course.

Slowing down the news cycle might be something that needs to happen in journalism right now. I think sometimes, we let all this technology … dictate what has to go out at a much faster rate than it what it probably needs to go, and so it has to slow down. André Natta Editorial Director, Lenfest Local Lab
We’re very focused on what our newsroom needs to be doing. So, we make a conscious effort not to get distracted by telling our reporters to go out and get video from the scenes, and we’re very focused in the way, and limited in the way, that we use social media. And I know that neither of those are trendy, but I think a lot of news (organizations) have gone astray because they have asked their reporters to do all of these different things at the sacrifice of good quality journalism. So we’re kind of doubling down on having our reporters stay focused on solid news gathering. Peter Imes Publisher, The Commercial Dispatch

Customer service must be Job 1.

What we’re seeing is, does it hit a really targeted audience, what would be described as a passion tribe, you know you love great storytelling, or you’re a big sports fan. And then having engaging personalities, who sort of in many ways are filling the needs that have always existed among readers. Are you making them smarter? Are you giving them something to talk about? Are you looking after their interests? Those are the three principles that really came out of the Readership Institute at Northwestern a couple of decades ago. I don’t think as editors we’ve really understood that the work that was done there still holds up now in terms of how do you actively engage with folks. Bill Church Senior Vice President of News, GateHouse Media

Sometimes news also requires salesmanship.

I really do believe that it is the job of the news media to make the important things interesting so it’s not some sort of choice between those things that are important and those things that are interesting. But 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. You have to find a way to make the audience understand why they should care, and maybe that says that you have to throw out traditional story forms to get there, or maybe you have to try new channels, or maybe you have to find new ways to engage directly with the audience about what they care about that’s happening at the city council level. Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

Public Service Reporting in Jeopardy

As journalism tries to find its future, news outlets must maintain their importance and relevance by equipping citizens to make informed choices about their democracy.

Holding onto core values.

We’re always looking at things that are growing and things that are contracting, weighing them against what our core journalistic values are, and what our mission is, especially when it comes to public service reporting. It doesn’t always get the biggest audiences, but it’s a big part of our DNA, and it’s why we do what we do. It’s one of the messiest, hardest balancing acts that anyone working in local media has to grapple with. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local

True public service includes serving diverse audiences.

Our organizations don’t reflect the diversity of the communities we’re trying to serve,” said Siegel. “And I think, as we think about the future, that’s one of the things we’re spending a lot of time thinking about, trying some new strategies with, and trying to be really creative, because that’s the one thing in addition to all the disruption we face, that will ultimately, I believe, decide our trajectory, the level of success. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local

And that may mean more multilingual reporting.

We’re in the midst of the breath of change in digital platforms. And one of the things that we have discussed that we would like to do is to have a story simultaneously in English and Spanish, and maybe even Creole. Teresa Frontado Digital Director, WLRN News

What ‘Local’ and ‘Hyperlocal’ Mean

In an era of splintering news and information, it’s more important than ever to smartly define your target audience and fully understand it.

Creating a sense of community.

Local news organizations, where they’ve had the most success, they’ve been very clear about ... who is their target audience, and how is that audience being served and not being served, as opposed to being sort of a broad platform for all news, including national and international news. Vivian Schiller CEO, Civil Foundation
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 Director of News Operations, Local Media, Univision
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 Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune

We’re the media, and we’re here to help.

For example, during Hurricane Harvey, I was working with our Houston station, and there were people who were calling the Univision local station before they were calling the police, before they were calling the first responders. Because to them, they see Univision as the organization and as the brand that is there to help them. Christine Portela Director of News Operations, Local Media, Univision

Some sources of local news aren’t even journalism.

I would know nothing about the local news if I wasn’t on Nextdoor. I read Nextdoor religiously in my neighborhood. You get to deal with some real crazies in there but you do learn a lot. I think that’s local. That’s not even a publication. That’s just people coming together and sharing. Mandy Jenkins General Manager, The Compass Experiment at McClatchy

Looking for the ‘micro-audiences.’

I think we probably, historically, have organized around the metro desk, the high school sports desk, the crime desk, maybe. I think it’s much more nuanced and complex. There are probably micro-audiences out there that we need to understand better and serve. I go back to, we can start with the people who use us as one base, but then there’s a lot of people who don’t come to us, and we’ve got to figure out who they are, and what information they want, and figuring out whether that is something that we can actually do well. Timothy Knight President and CEO, Tribune Publishing
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 Director of Global Affairs, Facebook

Statewide coverage can be a conundrum.

The good thing is, you get instant data on what people are consuming. We don’t let the data drive all the journalistic decisions, nor would we ever, but if you’re too heavy on just statewide news, you lose the local connection. If you just focus on local or hyperlocal ... a lot of these issues, a lot of people’s identities are tied into their states. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local
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, GateHouse Media
The collapse of statehouse coverage is just an enormously important part of the problem and really needs to be part of what we’re talking about. Steven Waldman Co-Founder and President, Report for America

Don’t ask Berkeleyside’s Lance Knobel about ‘hyperlocal.’

The reason why I shy away from ‘hyperlocal,’ in fact have an allergic reaction to it, is I think it’s used by many people to diminish what sites like ours do. You know, you go back to the 1960s and there were several newspapers published out of Berkeley, and no one ever called them hyperlocal newspapers. They were just city newspapers. Lance Knobel Co-Founder and Publisher, Berkeleyside

Is Australian politics local in Detroit?

I once had somebody define local news as anything that happens in the city, or is of interest to anybody in the city. And I thought, ‘Man, that is about as broad a definition...’ So, anybody in Detroit who’s interested in Australian politics, you guys ought to have Australian politics on your site. What is the limitation of that framing? Jim Brady CEO, Spirited Media

‘Local’ isn’t always defined by geography.

I think Chalkbeat’s a perfect example of this. A teacher in Detroit can think of local news as information that she got from a teacher in Chicago, even though that’s not local. Maria Archangelo Chief Revenue Officer, Chalkbeat
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, The Compass Experiment at McClatchy
I think that the better chains understand that you need a local loyal audience, and local’s maybe too strong a word because retired Eagles fans in Florida are part of the local Philadelphia audience. It’s not fully geographic, but if you don’t have that audience you’re not going to be reader-supported and then you’re gonna need to be advertiser-supported and that’s a really hard fight. Ken Herts COO, Lenfest Institute for Journalism

More local and less ‘fake’?

Some consumers are looking at local news as an alternative to the anger and bitterness of the national political picture. And people are less likely to believe local news is “fake.”

Everybody is looking for local as a sort of hope for the future because we have a toxic, polarized national climate. You know there’s a pothole on Elm Street. … There’s a traffic light that doesn’t work well. … We are united in our interest in getting that fixed. … So there’s common ground and the news there can’t be dismissed as fake because it’s there for all the world to see. Andrew Heyward Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, Research Professor

Too Big (or Small) to Fail?

Big and small news outlets are feeling the crisis differently, but there’s little agreement on which size of organization has the better chance of survival.

Community connection versus scale versus subscriptions.

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 Media Analyst, Nieman Journalism Lab
I think that it’s harder for local owners who don’t have scale to compete anymore, so let’s start with that. The reason that more newspapers have been sold in the last two years than any other time in history is because it’s just harder for them to compete. So let’s talk about GateHouse. They’re the largest newspaper company by both circulation, I believe, and certainly by the number of newspapers. They have 550 publications now and yet their business model is they really find economies of scale at reduced costs. ... They have created a Center for News and Design in Austin, Texas, that they essentially have taken somebody who used to make $80,000 a year as a copy editor and now they can hire somebody to do that job for multiple, multiple, multiple markets because it’s all in one place and so they’ve kind of in-sourced it, so to speak. So they’ve created a business model to really reduce costs and it allows them some competitive advantages. They also have a very good digital network that they have created and they have been very smart about that. Mike Petrak Executive Vice President, Tactician Media
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, Local Media Association

A chain idea that didn’t work.

We’ve tried doing packages among local properties. So for example, if you live in Milwaukee but you spend the winters in Phoenix, would you like to have a subscription to both? That has not really proven to be all that advantageous because I just don’t think that’s a big enough bucket of people to do that. Randy Lovely Former Vice President of Community News, Gannett

The staying power of weeklies.

The national evolution of newspapering and local news might come back to its roots. I think the weekly newspaper that serves not a huge area, our weeklies are still doing a pretty good job because they have all those overlaps and you’re able to hold together those communities in a way that the bigger and bigger you are, you’re losing them or they’re being picked off by silos. Doug Phares Former CEO and President, Sandusky Newspaper Group

Whether big or small, the issue is financial support.

If you’re a 200-person newsroom, you have people to assign the newsletters, you have some resources that you can reassign. If you’re a 20-person newsroom, unless you have a, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a young techie person … or are part of a chain which provides resources, it’s a really hard transition to make … new revenue sources. That said, if you’re a 200-person newsroom you may be $20 million in revenue to support that at $100,000 a person and that may require 100,000 digital subscriptions. If you’re a 20-person newsroom you only need $2 million a year or less if you’re in a small, less expensive market. You need a million and a half dollars a year in digital subscription revenue to support your newsroom, maybe three million total, you only need 30,000 digital subscriptions. Does your market support that? To me the question is not how does the organization survive. How do the newsrooms survive? How do you have a 200-person newsroom in a major American city, how do you have a 30-person newsroom in a smaller city in some part of North Carolina? Ken Herts COO, Lenfest Institute for Journalism

The Path Forward Is Poorly Lit

Some markets will benefit from wealthy “local heroes” who take on journalism to serve their communities, and there are also calls for government to come to the rescue.

The industry has received its diagnosis.

I’m actually very optimistic right now. I think it’s the reality of going to the doctor and him telling you’ve got to lose weight, and you’ve got to change the way you live your life. And that’s where the industry is right now, and it’s really up to us to decide whether we’re going to make the changes that we need to make. Bill Church Senior Vice President of News, GateHouse Media

We won’t find easy answers.

We’re now at a period of rebuilding and reimagining the future ... and there is no silver bullet. There’s no singular business model that’s going to replace the previous business models. Vivian Schiller CEO, Civil Foundation
What is a business model for the New York Times is not going to work in Moore County, right? Penny Abernathy Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I think that the biggest danger or tendency that we have in our industry is to look for simple solutions, like everyone should do podcasts or everyone should pivot to memberships or everyone should do X, Y or Z. And I don’t think that there’s any single answer. I think that it’s always a mixture of what’s the best opportunity for the audience that you’re trying to target with the capabilities that you currently have. Melissa Bell Publisher, Vox Media

Communities must realize the vital role of journalism.

There needs to be some holistic trusted place that is the clearinghouse for valid information that includes, I’m going to say Journalists with a capital J, meaning professionals, who can evaluate, understand and pursue things that need to be pursued. I don’t know what that looks like. I really don’t. And I wish I could tell you if I had this golden ticket it would change everything. I don’t know what the golden ticket would be. We need to create the value in our communities. There’s an understanding that if they’re going to have good government, roads that work, no graft in their county, a sheriff that does his job, schools that actually have some semblance of serving their kids, someone needs to be watching, asking and pushing those organizations. And that has almost always fallen to the newspaper. So the question is who does it if not the newspaper? Jim Friedlich Executive Director and CEO, Lenfest Institute for Journalism

The emergence of ‘local heroes’ willing to invest.

The best work, and this is completely biased, but there have been a number of what you could call local heroes who have embraced and bought and invested in their hometown paper. Glen Taylor ... has bought the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and invested back into it. John Henry, the Boston Globe. Gerry Lenfest in a different way with a nonprofit structure that is now supported by the community at large, not only his finances in Philadelphia. And I believe you’ll see more of that. It’s not a coincidence I think that the first two I mentioned, Glen Taylor and John Henry, also own sports teams. I think it’s the same mentality that I want to own the Boston Red Sox, this is my town; I want to own the local newspaper and make sure that it thrives. Jim Friedlich Executive Director and CEO, Lenfest Institute for Journalism

Some industry advocates are pushing for government intervention. A bipartisan bill in Congress, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, would allow local publishers to collectively negotiate with large tech platforms like Facebook and Google over distribution of content. The New Jersey government has allocated up to $2 million in grants to bring news and information to underserved state residents. Massachusetts is considering the formation of a commission to study news deserts. Yet few seem to think that government action is a primary cure for what’s ailing local news.


Why It Matters

More researchers and citizens are facing up to the local news problem. But is there time to develop solutions? Do we really have just 3-5 years to find them?

There’s a bright side, sort of.

I think it has suddenly become cool again to support the news. Emily Ramshaw Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune

Recognizing the implications of less local news.

I think that what we’ve lost over the last 20 years especially, but especially in the last decade, is that whole loss of the face to the community. There’s lots of good research going on right now. I’m really thrilled with the number of young scholars who are looking into the political, social and economic effects and the loss of local news, because that used to be a dead man’s land, you know back as much as 10 years ago. Nobody wanted to focus on local news. It was so yesterday. I mean, what they’re showing is that when you don’t have the boots on the ground, it has all sorts of implications for how badly decisions get made at the local level with government officials, how uninformed citizens are. Penny Abernathy Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

But awareness and solutions are different things.

I think one of the questions that gets perhaps overlooked in all of this is, inevitably we’re in a period of transition. The question really is, how much runway do publications need in order to get established, and to get to a place where a new model emerges? And that I think is a big unknown. Kinsey Wilson President, WordPress.com

The clock is ticking.

I truly believe that if we don’t find new and sustainable business models in the next three to five years, we will be looking at a lot of newspapers going out of business. And that keeps me up every night of my life. Nancy Lane President, Local Media Association