Journalists interviewed for the Agora report consistently articulated that, despite the pressures and uncertainties their sector faces, core journalistic values and purposes still matter and positively influence the work they do.
Interviewees identified three key reasons local journalism remains important in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Previously I talked about how journalism keeps authority accountible. In this post I will discuss the role local journalism plays in meeting public information needs
Meeting Public Information Needs
A key challenge for all news outlets—local, regional, and national—is grabbing and retaining the attention of their audience.
That’s not necessarily easy. Consumers have access to more information and entertainment sources than ever before, but their information needs are not necessarily met by the expanding range of sources that many communities now have access to.
One obvious way to address this, argues John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) is to “understand who your audience is, what their wants and needs are, and make sure that you deliver them in ways that are more responsive and more informative than anybody else in the area.”
“I know that it sounds like a truism,” he added, but “I suspect that a lot of papers don’t think about that often enough. I worked at other big papers before I came here, and I’ve always been surprised at how infrequently they think about the evolving needs of readers.”
News providers are using a variety of means to determine these evolving needs, from digital analytics to focus groups and opportunities for face-to-face engagement. But, underpinning all of this, news providers need to recognize they are in the relationship business.
“It’s a relationship you can have in a print product or a broadcast or an
app or whatever,” suggests Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer of Oregon Public Broadcasting (Portland, Oregon). “But it is a relationship where you’re meeting somebody’s needs.”
And if you’re able to convey to people that you understand that, you continue to have value in this explosion of an information environment that we live in. But if you treat people like customers who are just on the receiving end of the production pipeline, they have options at this point that they didn’t used to have. So the loyalty has drained away in so many cases.
The information needs of communities vary, and so do the editorial approaches local media organizations employ to meet this challenge.
Some local news providers continue to take a “general store” approach: offering a little bit of everything. Others specialize based on a specific hyperlocal geographic area (like West Seattle Blog) or particular audience characteristics. Examples in the latter category include The Evergrey,“the daily Seattle newsletter for people who want to make the most of their city” and the Seattle-based Crosscut, which “strives to provide readers with the facts and analysis they need to intelligently participate in civic discourse, and to create a more just, equitable and sustainable society.”
Alongside targeted geographic reporting and material aimed at audiences with particular interests, many local media outlets continue to undertake traditional shoe-leather reporting, covering topics that audiences don’t necessarily know about until it they are brought to their attention.
Reporting by the Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon) on the sale —and performance — of Lane County’s for-profit coordinated care organization Trillium Community Health Plan is just one example of journalism that might fit this category.
In addition to meeting the information needs of communities through traditional public a airs and watchdog reporting, local news outlets continue to play an integral role in sharing important local information, including softer stories that are no less valuable to communities.
As Les Zaitz, editor and publisher at the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon), has observed:
There is no other entity that can replicate our ability to cover the gristle of daily life in a small town. You know, the high school’s football scores, what did the city council do. You know, who won an award or a scholarship from the local rotary club, the obituaries for the local families.
Much of this local content—both hard and soft news—is not necessarily found elsewhere. Subsequently, there remains a role for media providers who can present news and information in a dynamic, contextualized, and useful manner.
By curating, analyzing, and building on the information provided across a given locale, news media can continue to offer a service that communities value, need, and may potentially ( financially) support. Identifying opportunities to deliver unique content may lie at the heart of a successful economic future for local news providers.