Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

3 thoughts on “Saving local journalism with vision

  1. I think many of the legacy Hyperlocal projects will fail because they were never set up with an audience, but rather to try and sell them something. The Telegraaf group in the Netherlands has a network of local websites called Dichtbij (Closeby). It’s a collection of press releases, and stories written by local ambulance chasers. As an advertiser, I wouldn’t want my products next to this trash about break-ins or traffic accidents. It will just get worse. In the UK I have been surprised at the local TV franchises – like Mustard TV in Norwich. Definitely one to miss. On the bright side, I thought several projects in Brazil did well because they had backing from national networks. They approached local football leagues and did a sports show on Saturday putting the local leagues next to the national results (same graphics). And some of the local hyperlocal projects in Kings Cross and Sheffield continue to serve their audience well, even if they look rather clunky. They did the math – what’s the editorial catchment area required to sustain a core staff team of 4 through advertising?

    • Thanks for the comment Jonathan. I think you’ve hit on an important point, which is what size and kind of market will sustain a local news offering. Here in the US, I think that this has a few characteristics, and I’ll be writing about this in the near future for the Media Briefing in the UK. I’ll not give the entire analysis away, but here in the US, if the community has more than 50,000 people and no local TV competition, a local news organisation has a good chance of success.

      • The math in Brazil was an editorial area of 75,000 could support a team of 5. Of course wages, ad rates, etc all vary. But it is a useful exercise. In this case the hyperlocal was combined with a local TV station.

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