Shoptalk: Is Local News on the Cusp of a Renaissance?

By: Damian Radcliffe

It’s not an easy time to be a journalist in the United States. Since 2000, nearly half of newsroom jobsmore than 20,000 of them—have disappeared.

Yet now, more than ever, we rely on journalists to act as a check on those in power, create an informed citizenry and encourage civic engagement. This is particularly true at a local level. Local journalism not only fulfills an important watchdog function, it also helps create—and define—a sense of community.

Telling this story through the eyes of 10 local news outlets in the Pacific Northwest, my new report for the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, is a microcosm for discussions and activities taking place in local newsrooms across the country.

To understand the importance of local journalism, one need only look at what happens in media deserts—communities devoid of “fresh” news and information—an environment where citizens may miss important information and public officials are potentially less accountable than they should be.

One prominent example took place in Bell, Calif. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed some of the town’s top officials were paid double or triple the salaries of counterparts elsewhere. The story triggered a criminal case, leading to jail time for several public officials.

That this investigation was conducted by the Times, rather than a local paper, is partly because the city’s paper was no longer around. As local newspapers continue to shutter, and further newsroom jobs are shed, the risk of “more Bells” is very real.

Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Ore.), believes these trends point to “an environment in which the potential for corruption and misdeeds has never been greater, because of the lack of watchdogs on a local level, not on a national or a federal level.”

To do their job, however, journalism needs to be on a firmer financial footing. “You cannot have an artistic success without a financial one,” John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon), observed.

As advertising dollars have flowed online, they’ve typically migrated to Google, Craigslist and Facebook, rather than the digital portfolios of newspaper groups. Subsequently, news providers realize they must find new revenue streams.

The Register Guard in Eugene, Ore. has a spinoff company, R-G Media, to produce websites, apps and digital content for commercial clients. Portland’s Willamette Week and Seattle’s GeekWire are producing events to engage with readers and generate money through ticket sales and sponsorship.

Membership programs are also worth considering. “I think one of the main ingredients of our secret sauce…is pledge drives,” said Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer at Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It forces you to articulate on a regular basis to your audience what you do for them and why it’s of value to them.”

In an era of “Fake News,” these types of activities force journalists to be more visible and accountable.

Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel in Oregon hosts a weekly, informal, “Meet the Editor” discussion at a local coffee shop. She also appears on a monthly radio show and takes questions from listeners.

Elsewhere, radio stations, such as KUOW Public Radio in Puget Sound, Wash. are using tools created by Hearken, whereby readers submit questions they want answered or suggest topics they want covered.

This represents a shift for many journalists. But in the digital age, journalists need to interact with audiences, beyond responding to online comments or tweets. Events, appearing on Facebook Live and producing podcasts are all ways to break down traditional barriers between the journalist and reader.

These types of interactions are essential if news providers seek to reassert their relevance and build audiences willing to pay for their products.

In this regard, local journalists potentially hold several advantages: they intimately know their audience and usually live within the community, characteristics national outlets cannot compete with.

Moving forward will require doing some things differently. The future of journalism cannot—and will not—look like the past. That means exploring new forms of storytelling like video and augmented reality, finding ways to engage with your audience—online and in the real world—and embracing concepts such as Solutions Journalism.

Although the journalism industry continues to face many challenges, there are causes for optimism. Newsrooms in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere are experimenting with new revenue, reporting and engagement strategies.

There’s no exact recipe for success, but these signs suggest an industry in the process of reinventing and reinvigorating itself.

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies. He has more than two decades experience working in editorial, research and policy roles in the UK, Middle East and USA. This is an edited version of an article originally published at The Conversation.

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Published: January 19, 2018

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