Local News in a Digital World [launch event slides]
There are over 7,000 newspapers in the United States, 97% of which have a circulation below 50,000. These smaller, local, outlets play an important role holding authority to account, creating a sense of community and producing original reporting which supports the wider media ecosystem. But the past decade the sector has witnessed dramatic declines in ad revenues, the closure of titles and the rapid shrinking of many local newsrooms. So, what does the future hold for this important industry? Drawing on new research, this event will show why, despite all of this, there’s still reasons to be optimistic about the future of local journalism.
These slides are from the launch event, hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, for "Local News in a Digital World: Small Market Newspapers in the Digital Age" - a research project led by Tow Fellows Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali.
Good afternoon it’s great to be here and back at LION and in lovely Chicago, even if the cold is a bit of a shock to the system! So, a quick bit of background about me... As you can probably tell from my accent and teeth, I’m British. I moved here two years ago to teach journalism at the University of Oregon and that was my first foray into academia after spending two decades working in the content, strategy and research sides of industry, a large part of it in local media.
And over the course of the past year I’ve been involved with several new projects looking at local journalism in the US, working with Dr Christopher Ali at the University of Virginia for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia – I think a few of you got drunk with him here last year – and the Agora Journalism Center in Portland.
And these were the questions I set out to explore, with a real focus on understanding how local newspapers were responding to changes in the media landscape and getting a greater sense of what’s happening in the Pacific Northwest. And that matters to me, because for many of our students, local newspapers are where they initially go once they graduate.
And more widely, I as 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.
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 there are reasons for optimism. I don't want to overstate this, it's a cautious optimism, but it's one routed in steady - or growing - circulations (at a time when ad $ are decreasing), the physical proximity to the audience that many local newspapers enjoy, as well as the recoginition and respect many outlets are still enjoy.
And 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.
The one everyone want to talk about, of course, is how to make money.
Now not all of these ideas will be relevant to you. Not all of them will work in your markets, but hopefully these findings will provide some 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. Rolled out in 2012, Gannett, Lee Enterprises, McClatchy and Scripps and Digital First Media in 2013. They're not set in stone. Publishers are tinkering with their models, offering certain verticals outside of the paywall - and as Dallas Morning News is doing - also having different meter limits depending on the location of visitors, recognizing that local audiences are more valuable than “out-of-market” audiences.
Newspapers like the Register Guard, my local paper in Eugene, are also creating spin-off services, leveraging the skills they use day-to-day online and in print, as part of a wider commercialization strategy.
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.
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.
And it also means we may have to do somethings differently. In all 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.
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**
And of course one way that you can potentially deliver some of your goals in this challenging environment is through partnerships. Tracie has talked about these earlier today, and I believe that partnerships will become increasingly important, as a means to achieve impact in a world of depleted resources. So, just a few examples here:
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. Let's change that conversation. And let's start today.
Local News in a Digital World [launch event slides]
Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali
Local News in a Digital World:
Small Market Newspapers in the Digital Age
Focus on local newspapers:
• Survey of 420 local newspaper journalists (pub May 2017)
• 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?
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.”
What we found
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 practice (aka content).
• 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?
3. Philosophical shifts
• Objectivity and Distance.
• Solutions Journalism.
• Part of the community
not just reporting on it.
What does this mean to you?
Five strategic considerations
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 + print dependency.
• Events, Media Services, Crowdfunding et al.
• New funders (e.g. local/state foundations)
• Audiences (some) will pay for content!
5. Partner on everything else
• Ad inventory.
Final thought: Change the narrative
• Great work going on. Need to share it!
• “Doom and Gloom” risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Thanks for listening.