Future of Local Journalism: Reflections

Why Does Local Journalism Still Matter?

Although audiences, in many cases, are declining, local news remains important—especially for older demographics. Local television news continues to make a difference to the communities it serves. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, “57% of U.S. adults often get TV based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three.”

Newspapers, radio, and online channels also remain important news and information sources. Collectively, they help to hold authority to account, share valuable public information, and shine a spotlight on communities and local issues.

As we shall see, local outlets are responding to the challenges in front of them in a number of ways as they seek to reinvent themselves for the digital age. This includes using new platforms for storytelling and distribution, exploring new revenue models, and re-examining the type of journalism they produce.

How will local journalism evolve?

Despite (and perhaps because of) continued financial challenges and unprecedented levels 68 of political antagonism toward the media, traditional journalistic values and mission remain fundamentally important to many working journalists.

However, the practice of journalism does not stand still. Journalists need to continue to be alert to the opportunities that new technologies and platforms o er them, as well as other opportunities to refine and revisit the shape of their craft in the digital age.

As a result, we can continue to expect further experimentation with storytelling formats and forms, as well as debates about what journalism should look like— particularly around issues such as advocacy, access to public record/officials, and journalism in the age of Trump—in 2017 and beyond.

How are local journalist getting engagment with readers?

Much like their counterparts at larger news and media organizations, many local news providers are trying to make sense of what engagement means in 2017.

“I struggle with this concept of engagement,” Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon) concedes. “You know, do people want their newspaper to be their best friend?”

Zaitz’s skepticism is understandable. Some engagement activities redraw
the journalist-audience dynamic, and not everyone will be comfortable (or in possession of the skills) to undertake this approach. Just as important, a lot of engagement activity can be time-consuming, with potential rewards that are hard to measure and immediately determine. This inevitably can create some tension, especially in smaller newsrooms, where resources can be particularly tight and where the demands on a small workforce can be especially acute.

However, Caitlyn May’s work at the Cottage Grove Sentinel shows that this approach need not be restricted to larger publications (the Sentinel has a reporting sta of two).

Meanwhile, the AR and 360 videos produced by the Klamath Falls Herald and News (Oregon) shows that content innovation can still happen in small newsrooms.

Nonetheless, smaller news outlets in particular need to strike a balance.

Engagement is increasingly important for local media—and other outlets— and there’s a myriad of ways you can embrace it (this chapter features 12 methods). But it’s not necessarily possible, or desirable, for every journalistic endeavor. Engagement opportunities will vary depending on the story, beat, or outlet.

While there is no one-size- fits-all approach, engagement tools and activities, when used effectively, can play a role in deepening relationships with audiences and potentially contributing to better content. In the process, they can also contribute to improving community and financial relationships. Engagement’s potential, therefore, needs to be explored.

How are local papers going to make money?

Business and revenue models underpin the ecology of the local media landscape.

As in other regions, organizations are exploring a plethora of different means to generate revenue, including paywalls, events, creative media services, and support from foundations, while NPR and PBS outlets continue to place a strong emphasis on donations and membership drives.

These efforts are part of a wide move to diversify revenue and reduce reliance on print advertising and subscriptions, income sources that are typically declining. Finding the right revenue mix to support acts of journalism is therefore a strategic priority for all news providers, whatever their size or scale.

How do we move forward?

The 10 organizations from the Paci c Northwest that feature most heavily in this report are a microcosm of the wider local news industry in the United States.

Collectively, they represent a broad spectrum of local media outlets, encompassing many of the types of media organizations found across the U.S. local media landscape.

This includes everything from large and smaller family-owned papers (such as the Seattle Times and the Eugene Register-Guard) to papers from smaller groups (Klamath Falls Herald and News, Bend Bulletin) an alt-weekly (Willamette Week), a “mom and pop” weekly (Cottage Grove Sentinel), a digital-only news provider (Seattle P-I), and a statewide TV and radio provider (OPB).

Yet, despite a challenging financial and political environment, these outlets all continue to perform important acts of journalism, engaging audiences and communities on issues that matter to them.

The future for the sector may be fragile, but the region shows vibrancy in experimentation and innovation with storytelling, concepts of journalism, and various revenue models.

As Willamette Week’s Zusman cautions, we have to “be wary of best practices, because what works in one market may in fact be the death of you in your market.”

Nonetheless, as Levi Pulkkinen, senior editor at Seattle P-I (Washington), argues: “We’re still not talking to each other as an industry,” and we need to do a better job sharing what we do.

I hope that the ideas and case studies in this report will help in this regard by providing encouragement and inspiration for local media professionals, wherever they may be.

Although the way forward will continue to be rocky, the innovation and work being done at local media outlets in the Paci c Northwest and elsewhere give cause
for optimism. Local journalism is evolving and working hard to adapt and remain relevant and valued.

Given this, it is imperative that policy makers, journalism schools, communities, and local news providers work together to help secure the future for local news in the region. This may mean the creation of new partnerships, new revenues models, and new ways of working.

If we’re unable to do this, the absence of strong, effective local journalism will be detrimental to the health of communities and our wider media ecology. That means each stakeholder has to play their part in helping to ensure a healthy and continued existence.

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