Business of News: Rooted in Their Communities, Local Newspapers are Still Optimistic

By: Tim Gallagher

Start the press: We’ve got some good news about local newspapers.

Local community newspapers should be optimistic. “Or, perhaps better put, not pessimistic,” said Dr. Christopher Ali, who is, with a partner, conducting a major study on small newspapers.

“Small market newspapers are a field that gets brushed aside all too often,” Ali said. More than 96 percent of America’s 7,071 daily and weekly newspapers are less than 50,000 circulation. “This is not a forgotten minority of papers, but a silent majority. A majority that we never hear from, and who seldom get to speak to a national audience.”

If you have not heard of Ali and his research partner, Professor Damian Radcliffe at the University of Oregon, you soon will. For the past year, they have been studying the state of small newspapers. Ali has never worked in a newsroom but has been studying local media for years. He is an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Virginia and holds a Ph.D. in communications from the Annenberg School for Communication. His book, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” was published this past February.

Ali and Radcliffe will soon release two major studies on the state and future of America’s small newspapers for their fellowship at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. They started the study because, “our community of researchers, industry watchers, commentators, reporters, etc. had stopped talking about the future of local news and we wanted to join those working to rekindle the conversation,” said Ali.

The study seeks to answer two questions: “What is the state of small newspapers?” and “How are small market newspapers responding to the challenges and opportunities of transitioning to digital?”

The short answers are “hanging in there with hope and hard work” and “if there are 7,071 small newspapers, there are 7,071 answers to the question.”

Small newspaper leaders told the researchers they understand the business is not what it once was, but they are passionate about what they do, passionate about their communities and “many of them are making it work.”

They are vital in their community because many are the only source of local news. While national media struggles with claims of bias and fake news, they are trusted by their local communities who rely on hard copies of the print edition. “Small market newspapers are a beast entirely different from their metro/national counterparts—in terms of their communities of readers, their advertisers, and their content. Local journalism is rooted in a specific community in the way that national journalism cannot be.”

As for the digital side, it is everything from a PDF of the page posted to a website to some vigorous experiments. Their answers are a product of knowing their audience demands and their staffing limitations. In the meantime, they are learning lessons from digital delivery by the major metros.

The key issue for them—whether in print in person or online—is to be a part of the community conversation. But Ali cautioned, “There is a moment, right now that small market newspapers need to capitalize on. Online hyperlocal news sites have not moved into the small-town space just yet, but they will, and when they do, these newspapers will face competition for the first time in a while. They need to start these experiments now.”

The biggest challenge faced by small newspapers is attracting that smart young person to a small-town newspaper job. They have more options these days.

Ali said one of their key findings is “small market newspapers perform a different type of journalism. It’s a local journalism that is entirely community focused. Often these reporters and editors are balancing the commitment to journalistic excellence with the commitment they’ve made to their communities. In editorial content, what this can mean is a search for solutions as part of the reporting process, rather than simply a focus on problems.

“These papers understand that they are a part of and not separate from their communities, and with that comes a level of responsibility to doing your part to help the community succeed (again, without compromising journalistic integrity). It’s a challenging balancing act and we do not give nearly enough credit to those reporters and editors whom perform it.”

Look for their study to be released soon.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

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Published: June 16, 2017

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