Good afternoon, it’s great to be here and to have the opportunity to take part in newsrewired. Today I’m going to talk a bit about some of the new research that I’ve been undertaking, looking at the health and prospects for local newspapers in the United States.
This is a fast moving space. Just this month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) approved a bill dedicating $5 million to strengthen local media outlets in the state, through a "Civic Info Bill" – which will be managed by a consortium of five univeristies and local news orgs, focused on "underserved communities, low-income communities and communities of color"
In April, the Denver Post ran a brave editorial criticizing the business strategy of their owner, and the upcoming loss of a further 30 jobs from their newsroom. Despite being profitable. Gone from 250 to under 100 in a relatively short space of time. The only daily paper in one of the fastest growing cities in the US. This picture here shows you who’s left from a photo taken in May 2013, after the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.
Some of those that have left have gone on to begin something new... which some see as a source of optimism. https://news.joincivil.com/colorado-sun/
The Denver Post is owned by a hedge fund, and talking of which, the entry of Warren Buffett in this space in 2012, was also heralded as a new era for newspapers, given his vast wealth and willingness to hang on to stocks and businesses for a long time. But he's recently announced the outsourcing of much of the day-to-day operations for his titles.
So that's a few quick examples of some of the things that happening day to day in US journalism, but I want to focus my time today on the bigger picture, and taker a wider look at the local newspaper landscape.
And in doing this, I want to share conclusions from 3 new pieces of research I've published over the last year, and their implications for everyone in this room.
So when I moved to the US in 2015, just under three years ago – after nearly two decades working in industry here and in the Middle East – these were the questions I set out to explore, interviewing practitioners, funders and others with an interest in this space, with the aim of providing insights which could inform, reaffirm and hopefully inspire people across the local media ecosystem.
And aside from a long-standing interest in local journalism – born from starting my journalistic career in that space and then more recently writing about it for the likes of Ofcom, Nesta, Cardiff University and others – I was also keen to explore this because I felt that not enough noise was being made about the importance and value of local journalism and that too often the industry narrative is dominated by the new digital poster childs, or large legacy players.
And - to some extent - that lack of interest surprised me. Because there's plenty of literature and research which shows the value and importance of local journalism.
As you know, small market newspapers do exactly what their larger cousins do: they help keep the powerful accountable and act as a watchdog for democracy.
And the impact of this is demonstrable. Research has consistently shown links between those who read local newspapers (and consume local news) and the likelihood of both voting and being active and engaged in your local community.
Moreover, as we all know, local media also plays a pivotal in defining communities, providing that all important first draft of history and supporting different information needs; ranging from investigative and watchdog reporting (that's the pitbulls) to the softer side of work (the poodles), which doesn't just inform a community, but also reflects the lives of a community back to itself. And, interestingly, we know from previous research that actually it’s this role of the "good neighbor" - rather than the traditional 4th Estate Role – which audiences say they value the most. That mix is important.
And what better way to demonstrate this impact than to see what happens when titles are shuttered and jobs lost. As Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), expressed it during an interview for one of these papers: “the declining enrolment of journalists who are on a payroll in this country ... creates an environment that is just a breeding ground for the kinds of corruption, bad deeds that are desperately in need of the kind of watchdog journalism which is in decline.”
And that’s not to say this type of reporting doesn’t exist, it palpably does, but that arguably it’s harder to finance and resource than ever before.
And democratic and civic purposes aside, this also matters in terms of the wider media ecosystem and our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
For the next generation of journalists - a diminished local press - has real implications: where can they learn their trade? And what are the implications not just for recruitment, but also retention? As wages stagnate and opportunities for career progression are reduced.
So this is the wider philosophical backdrop for the research I’ve undertaken. It’s a world where we face daily challenges and long term structural ones, the implications of which I believe need to be acknowledged if we’re to understand where we are today and how we might move forward.
As we know, it’s been a turbulent and tumultuous decade. One where the newspaper industry of 2017 looks considerably different to the one of 2007.
Exploring that last column in a bit more detail. Data from ANSE shows substantial cuts to the size of newsrooms since the start of the new millennia, and it’s not as if these jobs have all migrated to the big new digital players. Lest we forget Mic, Mashable and others have all laid off staff in the past year.
And whilst it’s hard to get a sense of actual numbers of shuttered titles, the trend lines are clear, and this is before you begin to take into account other considerations such as reduced publishing schedules, thinner publications (pages) and increased content from wire services/press releases etc.
*** Check figures****
And clearly part of the reason for this is that Google, Facebook, Craigslist and others have created new advertising markets, diverting traditional ad revenues from newspapers + replacing these mass markets with more targeted opportunities to engage with known consumers.
This migration of monies sits alongside the increasing homogenization of Main Street and the rise of eCommerce, all of which have reduced the pool of local advertisers that small market newspapers can tap into, a trend which has also been accompanied by the rowing back of out of market advertisers – e.g. from bigger nearby towns – who might in the past have wanted to target secondary markets (1-2 hours away) through newspaper ads.
So, here’s what we found. This is a TL;DR version of 3 studies and a talk that usually takes 45 mins to an hour…. The first thing to say is that we found much higher levels of optimism than might be expected given the past – and on-going upheaval – that the industry is contending with. Upheaval that includes 20,000 jobs lost in two decades. This was matched by a strong desire to innovate and experiment, across the revenue, sales and content sides of the business, and a very quick realization that we need to change the way we talk about this sector.
Let me explain what I mean… We need to stop talking about “the newspaper industry” as if it were a single, monolithic, homogenous industry. And recognize that it is is many industries. Although often dealing with many of the same challenges, there are huge differences between metros and local papers, weeklies versus dailies, legacy publications versus those that are digital only, large chains versus smaller groups, family owned publications and Mom and Pop outlets, titles based in urban versus rural environments. And so on. The diversity that we see in this room is writ large across the wider news industry and so we need to do more to unpack this story, to tell the main stories therein.
Alongside this need for nuance, the second overarching conclusion was that for all the doom and gloom, there are reasons for optimism.
And I believe that sometimes we overlook these factors when we’re talking about our industry. In fact, when asked to describe the state of the sector, most interviews started with sighs and very downbeat analysis, before outlining a plethora of positives, some of which I’ve included here.
So that’s nuance and optimism, the third key finding was the volume of innovation and experimentation taking place across the businesses. And a real desire to learn more about how others are approaching the challenges of digital disruption.
Arguably the biggest - and most important - of these topics concerns the bottom line. So I wanted to share with you ten of the most common – and potentially successful - ways in which small market newspapers are looking to increase (or maintain) their revenue base.
Not all of these ideas will be relevant to you. Not all of them will work in your markets, but at I said at the beginning, hopefully these findings will provide a source of inspiration or reaffirmation for the way you’re doing things.
The predominance of paywalls, often present at even the smallest small market titles, is a more recent phenomenon than you might recall. In 2012, Gannett, Lee Enterprises and McClatchy all announced plans to introduce paywalls for some - or the majority - of their titles with Scripps following suit later that year and Digital First Media in 2013. Since then, paywalls have rapidly become an established, means for newspapers to generate income from readers. This doesn’t mean, however, that paywalls aren’t necessarily a source of potential tension for newsrooms and audiences alike. In an era where journalists are frequently rewarded for pageviews, anything which creates a barrier to readership can be a source of friction. Meanwhile, for audiences, spoilt for much of the early internet age by access to free unmetered content, the move to paywalls marks a major shift in their online relationships. It’s incumbent on newspapers to try and address this and to communicate why they’re in place - not just when they’re introduced – but an on-going basis.
Journalists can also play a direct role in contributing to this conversation. Lauren Gustus, Executive Editor of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins (CO) observed how her reporters will often share details on social media of special subscription offers, telling their followers “I’m proud of the work I do...Here’s the link if you wanna subscribe.” Our research also found clear evidence that paywalls and digital subscription models are not set in stone. There are plenty of opportunities to experiment with them. The Dallas Morning News, for example, has deployed three different paywalls over the years, from a hard paywall, and later a mixed premium vs free site, to a metered model. The current paywall also distinguishes between “in-market” and “out-of-market” audiences. For titles like The Dallas Morning News, some sections of its site (e.g. Entertainment) don’t count towards the meter, as the content is well supported by ads. Other outlets, but not all, take a similar approach to popular verticals such as job boards and what’s on listings. It’s clear from our research that not only are paywalls newer than we might realize, but they’re also a space that is far from static.
The Dallas Morning News is also one of many companies who have branched out into media services – or who have acquired companies with this skillset – using this as a way to help underpin the journalism that they’re producing.
Here’s a few examples on screen from the Register Guard, my local paper in Eugene, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. An example of a title which is seeking to leverage the skills it uses day-to-day online and in print, as part of a wider commercialization strategy. And perhaps it’s worth noting that the Publisher and CEO – Logan Molen – leads both operations, which may help to best leverage these synergies.
The third area that I’d like to highlight is the events space. Now these can be time-consuming to produce, and there’s more potential (in terms of frequency at least) in larger markets, but this is proving to be a space which is unlocking revenue in terms of sponsorship and ticket sales. Meanwhile the profile from this may also bring new people to your paper, be that online or offline.
And, of course events are not just opportunities for income generation, they’re also great sources of content and story leads. I think this last benefit often gets overlooked.
From the survey we did at the end of last year, it was perhaps no surprise that digital proved to be an increasingly important part of local journalist's role, and that their storyload has increased, as the pressure to produce content for multiple platforms continues to increase.
But for publishers, this is a double-edged sword. Likes do not equal dollars. There are important questions being asked about how you monetize these platforms, and whether you move to them in the hope that the business model will follow, or indeed if you can't afford to *not* be on them, because that's where your audience is.
The importance of digital platforms is part of the reason why we are seeing an emergence in the role of engagement and engaged journalism.
And it's a term that means many different things, including:
Engagement on other platforms, getting stuck into comments. Viewing events as more than just money makers. opening up your processes e.g. Seattle Times Editorial Board on Hangouts. And working with audiences to shape the stories you tell.
And this is part of a wider philosophical shift that we heard from our interviewees; shifts which are seeing many traditional journalistic principles being challenged, as part of a recognition that if journalism is to be successful in the future, it may have to do some things differently.
SoJo: https://buzzlesdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/17821339_10210831473355757_642990006_n.png Good SoJo: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*KwATMtrbBAaN9aGvZ2v80Q.png Remarkable: https://www.globaleditorsnetwork.org/media/361893/screen-shot-2015-08-29-at-195025_496x250.jpg
So, what does this all mean to you? Every outlet is unique.
There is no silver bullet or cookie cutter model to ensure success. But I do believe that there are a series of fundamental, strategic, questions which everyone should be asking.
States like Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona and Oregon – my home – are all bigger geographically that the UK, as are California, Texas and Alaska. TV ad revenue in the UK totaled £5.28 billion in 2016, a figure which includes VoD. But In 2015, 833 local news-producing stations in the USA took home 3 times that amount $15.8 billion.
So, what does this all mean to you? What’s clear is that every group in this room and every paper being represented is unique.
That means that there is no silver bullet or cookie cutter model which can be deployed to ensure success. But I do believe that there are a series of fundamental, strategic, questions which everyone should be asking.
And I want to conclude today by outlining what I believe are the key issues everyone in this room should be thinking about, if you’re not already.
The first thing to say is that the local journalism of tomorrow, will not be the local journalism of yesteryear. That may seem obvious, but too often discussions about the shape of journalism are rooted in the past, and a desire to turn back the clock and return to some by-gone era. But, this is a golden age. As consumers we access to more quality news and information than ever before. And as journalists and content creators we’ve also never had access to so many tools and platforms to tell stories and engage with audiences.
At a time when we have access to more news than ever, scarcity is a valuable commodity. So that means covering stories and beats that others are not. Do that, and you may have a proposition that some people will pay for. “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”
But if the local journalism of the future is to be successful and financially viable, we may have to do somethings differently.
Aside from doubling down on original reporting, I also believe that a few scared cows may have to be killed along the way. And that’s hard. Readers and newsrooms are often resistant to change. And everything has a constituency of one.
But in the interviews I’ve conducted over the past year, without fail, people told me their newsrooms had shrunk. Yet, when my follow-up question was “what have you stopped doing” ”what are you doing differently” too often the answer was nothing.
Yet in a world of diminished resources – and demands to actually produce product faster and be in more places with your content – that approach isn’t sustainable.
So I’d urge you to consider how you can use programs like the American Press Insitute’s Metrics for News, and other programs to really find what matters to audiences, and where you should focus your energies.
And ask hard questions about resources and resourcing. Do you really need a GA to rewrite wire stories? **examples, ARTs as UGC. Columbian, Vancouver, Blazers**
75% of revenues still come from print, but that pot is diminishing, even if the income % isn’t really shifting. So, publishers need to “respect print and grow digital” And to There are tons of examples out there of ways that publishers are experimenting, and I think it’s also worth looking at other local providers – like PBS and NPR stations – to also see what can be learnt from them in terms of underwriting, legacies and membership schemes. In the revenue arena, I firmly believe that diversification will be fundamental to financial success.
To do this, isn’t easy. Everyone is overworked and underpaid. But I’m firmly of the view that it’s imperative to create the headspace to do new things.
As one Editor suggested: “We really want everybody in our companies to be running at about 80% of capacity every day so that when we have new ideas, we're not taking someone who's already at 110% capacity and taking them up to 130.”
To do this, they suggested: “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.”
Another editor Mark Zusman said: “Newspaper companies were never really thought of as spending a lot of time and effort on R&D and yet, that's exactly what companies like ours need to do... There are a lot of opportunities to shift the business model,” he argues, “they take a little bit of time and a little bit of runway.”
And of course one way that you can potentially achieve some of these impacts is through partnerships. I believe that these will become increasingly important, as a means to achieve impact in a world of depleted resources. So, just a few examples here:
In Virginia, a partnership between Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress has resulted in over 2,000 stories been published in the Progress by the hyperlocal news organization. “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow produces more than 50 percent of the newspaper's content related to growth, development, education and local politics.” As Brian Wheeler, Executive Director at Charlottesville Tomorrow recounted to us: In 2009, their newsroom had shrunk dramatically, from about 45 people to about 18. The managing editor, approached us. He was looking for other things they could have on their website.... and they finally reached the point where they said "we could do more in partnership with you than trying to work against you." So, the partnership was a simple one-page back and front memorandum of understanding between myself and the editor. There were no lawyers involved. And it was, in 2009, the first of its kind in the country where a non-profit was doing beat reporting for a daily newspaper. Klamath Falls. We also found that smaller organizations are not necessarily disadvantaged in terms of ad buys either, an oft cited benefit of being part of a larger chain. One potential solution, as proselytized by Rusty Coats from the Local Media Consortium, is the networked model offered by his coalition. With more than 75 company members, representing 1,700+ titles, and board level input from senior executives at established local media operators such as The McClatchy Company, Lee Enterprises, Digital First Media and others, this offers potential revenue and learning benefits for smaller publishers which are typically the domain of larger corporate groups. As Coats explained: “We have an exchange of our inventory that's available to major buyers, like Honda, Disney, major brands who buy our non-locally sold inventory…. With one buy, they can have access to upwards of 2 billion impressions… Think about the scale of that.”
Finally, and this is perhaps the easiest thing of all to do…. A recurring theme in many conversations with industry practitioners, as well as our 2016-17 survey, was a need to change the conversation. If local newspapers keep talking about themselves as a “dying industry” then 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.”
As journalists, we operate in a climate where levels of trust in our industry are at records lows. And yet local journalists, whether they realize it or not, can play a pivotal role in fighting back. By being visible, and by sharing stories and experiences that audiences know are true, you can be a proxy for the wider industry. And in doing so, we can help larger media to do their job better, by reflecting and sharing the experience of real America. And that's an idea I think we can all support.
Editorial: As vultures circle,
The Denver Post must be saved
We call for action. Consider this editorial
and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a
plea to Alden — owner of Digital First
Media, one of the largest newspaper
chains in the country — to rethink its
business strategy across all its newspaper
holdings. Consider this also a signal to our
community and civic leaders that they
ought to demand better. Denver deserves a
newspaper owner who supports its
newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good
journalism here, it should sell The Post to
owners who will.
Buffet “outsources” to Lee
Berkshire Hathaway hired Lee Enterprises
to manage its newspaper and digital
operations in 30 markets.
• BH Media Group owns 30 daily newspapers
and 47 weekly newspapers.
• Lee expects to earn about $50 million of
fees under the initial five-year agreement.
• $5 million annually plus a share of profits.
• Strategic decisions will be made jointly.
Five killed in shooting at Capital
Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland
Focus on local newspapers:
• Survey of 420 local newspaper journalists (pub May 2017)
• Local journalism in the PNW (12 interviews, 10 outlets, pub Sept 17)
• Landscape Review, local newspapers in USA (52 expert interviews, Nov 17)
1. How are small market newspapers (> 50,000 circulation)
responding to the challenges of digital disruption?
2. What can they do to best prepare for the future?
3. What’s going on in my own backyard?
Why this matters
1. No new US-wide study since 2011. Considerable change since then.
2. Changes at NYT, BuzzFeed, Vice et al. often dominate.
3. Small + local newspapers often overlooked.
• 7,071 newspapers (daily or weekly) in USA (Editor & Publisher).
• 6,851 have circulations under 50,000.
• Means c.97% of US newspapers are “small market.”
Why this is important:
Local journalism matters more than ever
Proven democratic value
• Holding authority to account.
• Link to voter turnout and civic engagement.
• Define a sense of place ∴ help create communities.
• Pitbulls + Poodles - audiences value newspaper as “good neighbor”
What happens when it’s missing?
1. Declining turnout and
2. Important stories more
likely to be missed.
3. Already disadvantaged
Contribution to media ecosystem
• Historical progression route for young journos.
• Between 48% - 85% of all original reporting produced by newspapers.
(Turn and face the strange)
What did we find out?
A tumultuous decade
Data a challenge. But clear trends.
• Total workforce for U.S. daily
newspapers in 2015 = 32,900.
• Peak of 56,400 in 2001.
= 23,500 jobs lost in 14 years.
Source: American Society of News Editors
• 100 (Pew)
• 245 (FCC)
• 664 (Penny Abernathy, UNC)
• Demise of main street
• Decline of local traders
• Rise of Amazon
Funding model has changed
• Creation of new
1. Optimism at a greater level than might be expected.
2. Experimentation and innovation across the board.
3. Need for nuance – plurality of experiences.
+ Hunger for case studies and peer-to-peer learning
The need for nuance
• Aggregated data.
• Myriad of models
• Need to unpack.
Year Advertising Circulation Newsroom
2007 -7.30% -2.30% -0.65%
2008 -14.90% -0.60% -3.58%
2009 -26.60% -0.20% -14.4%
2010 -6.60% -2.40% -8.6%
2011 -7.00% -0.90% -2.22%
2012 -5.90% 5.00% -4.99%
2013 -6.80% 1.80% -4.8%
2014 -6.40% 1.00% -5.0%
2015 -7.80% 1.20% -4.1%
Data: Pew Research Center
Annual State of News Media
Circulation Number of daily
25,001 - 50,000 139
10,001 - 25,000 366
5,001 - 10,000 396
5,000 or less 301
Total number of
small-market dailies 1,202
Circulation Number of weekly
35,001 - 50,000 99
20,001 - 35,000 368
10,001 - 20,000 758
5,001 - 10,000 1,084
1.001 - 5,000 2,843
1,000 or less 497
Total number of small-
market weeklies 5,649(Source: Editor & Publisher)
1. People still buying local papers.
2. Often source of unique reporting.
3. Closer to audience than metros.
4. Change coming at slower pace.
5. Value of brand and heritage.
Innovation and Experimentation
• Revenue streams.
• Business models.
• Journalistic output.
• Evolving philosophy and approach.
1. Digital output as standard
• Increasing focus of role.
• Compared to two years ago,
70% said they were now
spending more time on the
digital side of their role.
• 46% also indicated the
number of stories they
produce has increased.
But often an uneasy relationship
• Some platforms eschewed.
• ROI unclear: conversion to print/pay, how to
make digital pay, branding and marketing.
• Where do you place your bets/resources?
2. Emergence of engagement
• Off-site (digital).
• Off-site (IRL).
• Accessibility / Visibility.
“How can we demonstrate to
them the value of a local news
organization and that it goes
beyond the printed product?”
3. Philosophical shifts
• Objectivity and Distance.
• Solutions Journalism.
• Part of the community
not just reporting on it.
1. Won’t be the same as the past
• Fewer boots on the ground.
• Smaller profits (if any).
• Battle for attention.
• More routes to eyeballs.
This isn’t going to change.
2. Focus on original reporting
• Often only provider in town.
• Double-down to maximize likelihood of paying audiences.
• Define and own the master narrative of your community.
Analytics can help identify issues and frame coverage.
Critical friend (champion and critic)
• End of “general store” approach?
• Killing, or changing, certain beats.
4. Income diversification is key
• Move away from ad-dependency.
• Events, Media Services, Crowdfunding et al.
• New funders (e.g. local/state foundations)
• Audiences (some) will pay for content!
5. Create time/space to innovate
• Experiment. Fail fast.
• Revenue + Content philosophy.
• Invest in R&D.
Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (OR).
“There are a lot of opportunities to shift the business model,
they take a little bit of time and a little bit of runway.”
6. Partner on everything else
• Ad inventory.
7. Change the narrative
• Great work going on. Need to share it!
• “Doom and Gloom” risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Frontline of our profession
• Help rebuild trust in era of “Fake News”.
• Often only journalists people ever meet.
• Help translate impact of politics and policy
into the day-to-day lives of audiences.
• Insight often lacking in metropolitan media.
Thanks for listening.