Does Local Journalism Still Mater?

I recently published a new, 22,000 word study, on the evolution of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking up the research into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Here’s the first part, setting the scene for the wider report.

The way we consume, create, and distribute media has changed dramatically in the past decade. This has had a profound impact on the business models of many media companies and the skillsets they need to prosper in the digital age.

Addressing this challenge is a source of continued debate, experimentation, and innovation as publishers attempt to navigate these uncharted waters.

In embracing this digital storm, news organizations must contend with a myriad
of separate—and interlinked—considerations, including declining circulations
and revenues, competition from new entrants, fewer journalists and smaller newsrooms, waning availability of audience time due to the proliferation of other media choices, and challenges of cultural change and the level of digital skills in newsrooms. There are also grappling with fundamental questions about how to harness (and monetize) social, video, mobile, and other notable emerging trends in media consumption.

The ongoing efforts of major media players in this arena, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and others, continues to be well told. However, the experience of smaller local publishers receives much less attention from scholars, journalists, and industry.

Yet these local outlets are facing many of the same challenges as their larger counterparts. To explore this I talked to 10 local media outlets in the Pacific Northwest, using their story—ascertained through 12 expert interviews—to serve as a microcosm of how digital disruption is impacting local journalism more widely across the United States.

 

“You know, our weekly newspaper … has the same ability to deliver news and information that is on such a small scale that no major entity is going to come in and replicate our ability to gather that information.”

—Les Zaitz, Editor and Publisher, Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon)

Local journalism remains important. “Local news is the lifeblood of all newspapers,” says Lou Brancaccio, emeritus editor at the Vancouver Columbian (Washington), “particularly smaller newspapers.” Small-market newspapers (under 50,000 circulation), which tend to primarily focus on local issues, represent the majority of daily and weekly printed newspapers in the United States (6,851 out of 7,071).

Meanwhile, although the audiences for local TV news affiliates have declined in the past decade, they still reach 11.9 million people most mornings and 22.9 million in the evenings.  And, lest we forget, both local and national radio continues to reach 91 percent of all Americans age 12 or older every week.  Nielsen notes that national and local “radio reaches more Americans each week than any other platform.”

A key reason for the continued popularity
 of local journalism is the role local media
can play in delivering original—and well packaged—news and information to communities that is not necessarily found elsewhere. Offering unique, valuable, unreplicated, local reporting may be at the heart of creating a sustainable business model for local news operators.

Despite facing a number of demographic (notably, aging audiences) and financial challenges (including reduced ad revenues and the difficulty in getting audiences to pay for content), local media continue to deliver a number of important journalistic functions.

We can see the positive impact local journalism can make on communities and the wider news/information ecosystem on a daily basis. It supports community, democratic, and civic needs and remains valuable to audiences and communities alike.

However, as Lou Brancaccio cautions, “being optimistic about local news is a completely different dynamic than how optimistic one might be about the future of local newspapers.”

Examples of these community impacts, including potential reasons to be optimistic (due to experiments with business and revenue models) will be explored in future posts.

Read about this and more in the Agora report.

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