8 strategies for saving local newsrooms

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Since 2000, nearly half of newsroom jobs—more than 20,000 of them—have disappeared. Revenues have plummeted by almost $20 billion. Titles continue to be shuttered, and layoffs are a regular occurrence.

In telling the story of the changing fortunes of the newspaper industry, the focus has been on large metro and national newspapers. Less attention is given to the small-market newspapers, with a weekly or daily print circulation of under 50,000.

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Our research for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University seeks to shed light on the experience of small newspapers. In May, we published results from a survey of 420 local US journalists. We found them to be cautiously optimistic about the industry’s future and keen to harness new digital platforms and storytelling tools.

Later this month we will publish a follow-up study on how local newspapers are responding to the challenges of digital disruption, based on 53 interviews with senior industry figures, including: small-market newspaper editors, publishers, journalists, and owners; metro newspaper editors; executives at major newspaper chains; editors, publishers, reporters at hyperlocal online news organizations; researchers, think tanks, funders, foundations; as well as policymakers, industry watchers, advertisers, and associations.

The conversations, which took place in summer of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, suggest further reasons for optimism, as local newspapers seek to refine their diversify revenues and find new ways to engage with audiences.

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Based on our research, we have identified key strategies local newsrooms should be considering to reinvigorate themselves.

 

  1. Focus on original reporting.

Local newspapers publish work that is seldom replicated elsewhere. This is what local newspapers should focus on; if they provide content readers can’t find anywhere else, local newspapers will be better able to find paying audiences.  

As Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told us, “The kinds of things people get from a local newspaper are the kinds of things that people will continue to want one hundred years from now.” He continued, “What’s going on within my locality? What’s happening with my school system? What’s happening with my taxes? What’s happening with planning and zoning? What kind of businesses or jobs might we get? It’s only the local newspaper that is likely to be the consistently reliable source of that information.”

Local reporting remains incredibly important to the wider news ecosystem. Somewhere between 45 percent and 85 percent of all original reporting is done by newspapers and then picked up by other media. While hyperlocal blogs pick up some of the slack in areas where newspapers have shuttered or been cut back, these blogs seldom replicate the breadth and depth of many print papers, and they don’t usually exist in many smaller or more disadvantaged communities.

What’s happening with my school system? What’s happening with planning and zoning? It’s only the local newspaper that is likely to be the consistently reliable source of that information.

Having fewer local newspapers means there’s a risk that public officials are potentially less accountable than they should be, and that citizens are more likely to miss crucial information Perhaps the most famous example of this occurred in Bell, California in 2010. The closure of the city’s paper made it more difficult to sound the alarm when officials in the town were believed to be financially exploiting their position. Instead, it took a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the LA Times to reveal that several of the town’s top officials were being paid double or triple the salaries of their counterparts elsewhere. As the journalist and Columbia Journalism School professor Jessica Bruder noted in 2012,

There’s no telling whether a tiny, now-defunct paper would have detected—or deterred—corruption in Bell. But it’s also impossible to know how many communities, in the absence of watchdog institutions, are currently getting hollowed out from within.

 

  1. Own the master narrative of your community.

Many people we spoke to told us their newsrooms had shrunk in recent years while the demands had grown. Journalists are producing more content, especially for digital channels, than two to three years ago, and working longer hours.

We therefore encourage local newspapers to consider which beats they want to own, and which they want to approach differently, if at all. Most titles continue to take a “general store” approach to local news, endeavoring to maintain the same breadth (and depth) of coverage as they have in the past. With often dramatically reduced resources, this is not always viable.

As Billy Penn founder Jim Brady told us, in this day and age “you can do anything, but you cannot do everything.”

Some outlets have begun to recognize this. For example, The Columbian, in Vancouver, Washington, now uses wire services to cover basketball games featuring the Portland Blazers, whereas in the past a dedicated staff reporter covered this beat. Journalists we spoke with from other titles noted that certain beats, such as the arts, had evolved to incorporate user-generated content instead of work from paid journalists.

If unique content is most likely to ensure the sustainability of local newspapers, editors need to consider whether non-local content is the best use of limited resources.

 

  1. What are the metrics telling you? To what extent does this matter?

Newsrooms have access to more data than ever before. “If anything, there’s almost too much,” said Elinor Shields, Head of Audience Engagement for BBC News. Making smart use of data, while challenging, can inform storytelling techniques, improve the user experience, support online revenue strategies, and enable publishers to distribute content on third-party platforms.

Levi Pulkkinen, senior editor at Seattle PI, suggested to us that data from tools like Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Parse.ly, and Omniture might challenge traditional journalistic practice, such as incremental reporting. For him, “the newspaper isn’t this kind of serialized thing that you have to read everyday for it to make sense.”

Pulkkinen pushed back on the narrative that paying attention to analytics means producing clickbait. He explained: “People like smart things. Our experience has been that smart things do just fine. What doesn’t do well are boring things and uninteresting things.”

Understanding which metrics matter, what they are telling you, and the implications of this, are questions every newsroom needs to be asking more frequently.

 

  1. Consider content partnerships.

Another strategy for newsrooms with fewer resources under higher pressure is to partner with other news organizations. This approach is one that several local newsrooms are beginning to embrace.

Downsizing at a traditional paper is one motivation for innovative partnerships born out of necessity. As Josh Stearns at the Democracy Fund reflected,

Once people start feeling that momentum, that critical mass, then they realize that there’s people [who] shared [a] struggle with them and there’s possibly shared solutions, and that becomes the foundation for possible collaborations and partnerships, and that strengthens them in general. You know, they’re looking out for each other, they’re keeping in touch, they’re sharing information.

For example, there has been a decade-long collaboration between the Daily Progress and the digitally native Charlottesville Tomorrow in Charlottesville, Virginia. When The Daily Progress newsroom was halved in 2009, the paper reached out to the hyperlocal news website. Nearly a decade later, more than 2,000 stories written by Charlottesville Tomorrow staff have been published in the Progress.

The partnership between 13 journalism schools for ProPublica’s Electionland, which reported on voter fraud, demonstrates the potential for mobilizing students to support national organizations (like ProPublica) and their partners (such as NPR stations and the Gannett papers).

Finally, partnerships can support efforts to experiment with new media, such as the AR and 360-video work produced by Digital Media Design students at Klamath Community College, and then published by the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon. We have also seen partnerships support campaigns across a newspaper group, like Gannett Wisconsin’s “Kids in Crisis” initiative, and create opportunities for local newspapers to join larger groups—via organizations such as such as the Local Media Consortium—when selling advertising inventory.

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  1. Do you have the right mix of structure, staff, and skills?

Given the pace of change across the media landscape, small-market newspapers, like all news and media organizations, need to reconsider their staffing and business models.

Since digital output has become central, hiring requirements have also changed, and some newsrooms are restructuring. Newsrooms are not just looking for journalists with traditional skillsets. Experience with engagement, analytics, social media, and multimedia is emerging as necessary in the newsroom, alongside the need for greater diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and class.

Following an extensive period of buyouts and restructuring, last year The Dallas Morning News restructured primarily around verticals, and 50 percent of the newsroom was reorganized. “We redefined every single job,” said Vice President and Managing Editor Robyn Tomlin, “and then we had everybody on staff reapply for jobs.”

The move reflected a recognition that the paper needed a different emphasis to serve the changing interests and habits of its readers. Following the restructure, there’s now a dedicated team “that handles social, and newsletters, and the homepage, and all of the different distributed media platforms that we’re experimenting with,” Tomlin said. “And we eliminated whole departments that we had. We added new ones. For instance, we did not previously have an audience team,” she added. Previously, “audience development was nobody’s full-time job.”

The Coloradoan, in Fort Collins, Colorado, too, restructured its 30 to 40 person newsroom to include a 10-person engagement team.

Many of the new skills newsrooms are looking for can be found among graduates and newer entrants to the industry, though our survey respondents cited challenges of attraction and retention, fit with the local communities (especially an issue for young people and those from diverse backgrounds), and newsroom culture when it comes to finding the right graduates.

 

  1. Diversify your income.

Most small-market newspapers will not be able to survive with the traditional mix of subscriptions, advertising, and single-copy sales. Multiple income streams are essential to a stable future.

“We’ve really tried to spread the love around,” said Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Emily Ramshaw, “so we’re not beholden to those single-source funding streams.”

As the consultant and former Gannett regional executive editor and news director Kevin Anderson has previously observed, when retail moved from local to regional to national, so too did advertising: “Looking back at old editions (of the Sheboygan Press in 2015), it’s not just the volume of the ads that’s striking, but also the variety—the number of local businesses that used to advertise with us . . . hundreds of small, local businesses that would have advertised with my newspapers simply no longer exist.”

If local newspapers keep talking about themselves as a dying industry, they risk creating this reality.

It’s not easy, but fortunately, good ideas are plentiful: there is a plethora of articles and reports showcasing how local newspapers can generate income.

Some titles have also recognized that their unique content resonates beyond the local area. One such example, identified by Christian Hendricks at McClatchy, is The State in South Carolina, which has featured a paywall around its college sports vertical.

As Hendricks acknowledged, this is an example in which “a small newspaper [is] allocating resources towards something in the marketplace that’s unique and they can actually cover very well, not just for the folks who live in the city or live in Columbia proper, or go to the university, but to global fans.”

 

  1. Make time to experiment.

In smaller markets the pace of change is slower than that of metro papers, giving publishers more time to anticipate how their businesses will need to evolve. Small-market newspapers should take advantage of this to test new ideas, and experiment across the content and business development side of their operation.

A number of factors contribute to the slower pace, including: lower audience take-up of digital (in particular among older and more rural demographics) and the continued importance of traditional advertising routes (print, TV, and radio) for local businesses.

“Newspaper companies were never really thought of as spending a lot of time and effort on R&D,” said Willamette Week’s editor and publisher, Mark Zusman. “And yet, that’s exactly what companies like ours need to do . . . There are a lot of opportunities to shift the business model. They take a little bit of time and a little bit of runway.”

Robert York, publisher and editor in chief of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania (part of Tronc), offered some practical tips for media organizations to ensure that they are able to accommodate this approach:

My view is we really want everybody in our companies to be running at about eighty percent of capacity every day so that when we have new ideas we’re not taking someone who’s already at one hundred and ten-percent capacity and taking them up to one thirty.

York shared our view that avoiding scope creep is essential, if you’re to make this ambition a reality. “You just have to be willing to take a look and measure the actual value, both real and perceived by your audience, and decide to spend your time doing things that matter to them, and stop spending your time on stuff that they’re not even looking at.”

 

  1. Stop talking the industry down.

While local outlets face the same challenges as their larger counterparts, local newspapers may be in a stronger position than their metro cousins. Their resilience is thanks in part to exclusive content not offered elsewhere, the dynamics of ultra-local advertising markets, and an ability to leverage proximity to their audience.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this, however, based on the “one foot in the grave” image the sector often paints. For local journalists responding to our online survey at the end of 2016, there was a clear recognition that we need to change the conversation.

As one respondent wrote: “We are allowing the naysayers to kill our industry. We still offer something unique which residents want, but we allow the screaming voices of gloom and doom to convince people that that we are worthless.”

If local newspapers keep talking about themselves as a dying industry, they risk creating this reality. As Gannett’s Joel Christopher told us: “I think we’ve had this self-fulfilling prophecy where we’ve told our readers that we’re dying and therefore we’re dispensable.”

This doesn’t mean that the economic realities the sector faces should be glossed over, but local newspapers need to do more to showcase and reiterate the great work they’re doing, as well as explain the tough choices they have to make.

The industry is wounded, but not fatally so. It’s time we started telling audiences that.

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Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe are the authors. Christopher Ali is an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and a Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He joined the department in 2013, after completing his Ph.D. at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon; a Fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University; an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media, and Culture Studies; and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA).