Stop saying local news is dying

By Kristen Hare
The Poynter Institute

We started 2019 with Gannett layoffs at local newspapers, we’re ending 2019 with Gannett layoffs at local newspapers. It’s quite the end to quite a decade.

News deserts, or places without news, have spread in the last 10 years, and they’ve most seriously hurt places that have poor and underserved populations, said the University of North Carolina’s Penny Muse Abernathy, who has tracked news deserts. Less local news has also led to lower voter turnout and increased political polarization.

The business of local news is in trouble, Clara Henderickson wrote in a recent report for The Brookings Institution. “This is a serious public problem; those who read, listen, and watch the news are not just consumers, but citizens that rely on news publishers to meet the demands of living in a democracy.”

The headlines this year have been in agreement – local news is dying.

But those headlines are wrong.

When they say “local news is dying,” they really mean local newspapers. And even that’s not specific enough, when it’s really about hedge fund- and chain-owned newspapers.

Local newspapers, specifically those that are locally and independently owned, are not dying. They are changing.

It’s rough.

But it is not death.

In Whiteville, N.C., the tiny News Reporter has replaced money lost from advertising with money made from subscriptions, publisher Les High told me in September, “almost to the dollar.”

The Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va., recently doubled digital subscriptions after a rough run that included bankruptcy, a sale and layoffs. By the end of 2020, publisher Jim Heady expects digital subscriptions will make up 20 percent of circulation revenue.

The Seattle Times raised more than $4 million in four years to cover critical issues, and this year turned its approach for harnessing philanthropic money for local news into investigative journalism. That fund has, so far, raised more than $700,000. And it’s being copied by the Miami Herald, a McClatchy paper, and the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns.

OK, let’s talk about what’s happening with local news online.

You probably know that Texas Tribune is thriving. Did you know it’s just created a local news and revenue training lab to help other local news sites thrive, too?

You maybe knew that the Institute for Nonprofit News now has more than 230 members, and that Local Independent Online News has about 250. Did you know that LION just got $1 million grant to help its members become sustainable?

You might have heard that Berkeleyside, an online for-profit site in Berkeley, Calif., raised $1 million from its community in a direct public offering. Did you know it’s now expanding to Oakland with funding from the American Journalism Project and Google News Initiative?

And the growth isn’t just online.

In November, my colleague Rick Edmonds reported that between 2011 and 2018, NPR affiliates added 1,000 full- and part-time journalists. Today, Edmonds reported that, thanks to political ads coming next year, local broadcast news is preparing to rake in money.

And while newspapers shriveled, online crept toward sustainability and radio started to grow, staffing at local broadcast newsrooms has remained solidly steady.

Here’s one more thing that might help you change out of your mourning clothes: We’re now seeing partnerships that benefit local newsrooms and, more importantly, local communities.

They’re between national and local newsrooms, like ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network and the nearly 30 newsrooms it’s partnered with to cover critical issues. They’re between national organizations and local newsrooms, including Report for America, which is adding new local statehouse positions, or the Pulitzer Center’s Bringing Stories Home project, which gives local newsrooms a resource boost, or the American Journalism Project, which just announced $8.5 million to help 11 local newsrooms grow.

And they’re between local institutions and communities, such as the ecosystem the Lenfest Institute is fostering in Philadelphia, the University of Kansas’ Eudora Times, which brought news back to Eudora for the first time since 2009, or the University of West Virginia’s new fellowship program that’s fostering a new generation of local news owners.

None of this changes the realities of local newspapers, particularly those owned by corporations or hedge funds. But it does change the reality of local news itself.

I asked a few people who work in and with local news what they say when they hear that local news is dying.

It depends on who’s saying it, said Ken Ward Jr., an investigative reporter at the Gazette-Mail, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow and a part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

If it’s readers, he tries to find out if they subscribe and if not, why?

If it’s coworkers, he reminds them that they have a duty to their readers.

“When it’s The New York Times or some other major national news outlet, I ask what their outlet is doing to help,” he said in an email. “Are they continuing to parachute in, doing often less-than-stellar stories about parts of the country they don’t know much about? Or have they started a program like ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network that builds on the strengths of local and national organizations to tell better stories and do stronger accountability journalism?”

For UNC’s Abernathy, the key is always be adapting.

“The local news organizations that survive and thrive will be the ones that are constantly experimenting and innovating in order to determine what they can uniquely offer the residents and the businesses in their communities.”

And for Tasneem Raja, who founded The Tyler Loop in Texas and is returning to Oakland to launch Berkeleyside’s sister site, “We’re at an inflection point in the ways we think about what local journalism can look like, who participates, and who it serves,” she said in an email.

“The good news is, there are bright and vibrant examples of people and organizations across the country doing the hard, rewarding, much-needed work to push those ideas forward. They need funding, training and networks, and I’m happy to see that there’s far more infrastructure to address their needs than there was 10 years ago, when I first got into hyperlocal, digital-first community journalism.”

As much as it hurts to read about what’s happening to local newspaper chains, she said, redirect some of that pain into the people and places that are working to figure out what’s next in local news, “because we certainly are out here.”

And they are very much alive.

Author: Rachel Howell

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