When I was with Gannett, my regional president nominated me to take part in the Newsroom of the Future process, and it was quite an honour to be nominated after only a couple of months with the organisation. Gannett classified its properties into five tiers, and I was the only person in the room responsible for managing papers in tier four and five, meaning its smallest papers. Everyone else, to my knowledge, was working for a top 35 market out of Gannett’s, then, almost 100 properties. I remember one meeting in Cincinnati, and I projected my organisational chart on the screen. There were audible gasps in the room as they realised how few bodies were in the newsrooms at small sites like mine. And to the organisation’s credit, a senior member of the leadership reminded everyone in the room that half of Gannett’s properties operated at that scale.
In that same meeting, I remember clearly as solutions were mooted that I said that I worried that they simply didn’t scale down to the hyperlocal journalism at small sites like mine. The solutions being suggested didn’t take into account the physical distances involved and the unique nature of the communities. There is more to write about from that meeting, but the overriding sense was that the solutions scaled up so they would scale down as well.
I bring up this up because so much of the discussion about journalism is focused on the question: Does it scale up? I want to applaud Sam Ford for asking these questions about scale and championing other experiments that focus on scaling down. In a media world where scale has become everything and even if the shine has come off the scale play in 2017, the reality is that national players like the New York Times and the Washington Post might be turning the corner, but that isn’t the case at regional or local newspapers in the US. If anything 2017, was not a year of rebuilding but another year of grinding losses, brutal consolidation, and heart-wrenching cuts.
What is interesting in the process driven ideas that Sam talks about is how civically grounded they are. I think the future is going to be small-scale indie digital shops like the ones represented by LION Publishers, but I also see the solution coming from civic partnerships. I am also on the board of my local library, and I do wonder if the mission of libraries as local information hubs might be reimagined to fill in some of the information and civic engagement gaps left in news deserts.