If you’re working in or running a local newsroom, and you want to keep up with what other outlets are doing to transform in the digital age, you probably should be following Kristen Hare.
Hare spent her first 10 years in journalism in local newsrooms, spending five years as a features writer for the Saint Joseph News-Press and another five as a staff writer at the St. Louis Beacon. These days, she is a reporter for Poynter Institute and has spent a little over a year covering the transformation of local news, both with traditional stories and a popular newsletter called Local Edition.
“Specifically, I cover the transformation of local news from legacy into digital, with a sharp focus on sustainability,” Hare said. “It’s not just about transforming newsroom culture, but transforming business models and what journalists have to learn to stay relevant and be informed.”
Hare spoke to E&P about the newsrooms she’s been most impressed by, the key to a successful events business and why its ultimately unsustainable to devalue local journalists. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some projects out there that have piqued your interest?
I’m really interested in the Malheur Enterprise, a 1,500-circulation weekly newspaper in Malheur, Ore. The editor is Les Zaitz, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who retired from the Oregonian a few years ago. He, his wife and his brother bought it, and just earned one of the seven local ProPublica reporting grants. I emailed him and said I wanted to come visit you, and he was like, “Are you sure?”
I love what Whereby.us is doing in Miami, Orlando, Portland and Seattle. The business is part of the strategy, and they are partnering really beautifully with places. The New Tropic (Whereby.us’ news website in Miami) partnered with the local NPR affiliate WLRN when the hurricane came through last fall to help map places where you could volunteer, where people needed water and were people needed to be evacuated.
The Richland Source is an online for-profit in Ohio that’s doing really cool community journalism work. East Lansing Info is another online non-profit that’s doing watchdog work at the ground level.
At all these places, I think you get the right mix of innovation, dedication to quality and a little bit of, “Let’s just try it and see what happens.”
You’ve written a number of pieces on media outlets turning to hosting events as a revenue stream. What are some of the takeaways from your reporting?
I think the biggest key is you need to hire someone to run events for you. If you’re a newsroom, that’s great; you should be covering the news. If you want to have events, it’s another business entirely.
If you wanted a revenue stream from printing a high quality publication, you wouldn’t go print that on your printer and pass it out to people and expect them to want to pay for it, would you?
If you want to have a great events business, I think you need to work with people who know how to do that. That could start with one person who works in your newsroom and helps you create an editorial and business strategy. But you can’t just go into it on a whim—you have to have a strategy and know what you’re doing.
What’s the most interesting events strategy you’ve seen so far, as far as legacy media is concerned?
I think the most interesting legacy example to me is actually from the USA Today Network, which has found success holding storytelling nights that started at the Arizona Republic, but have now spread to different cities across the country.
It took Gannett a couple of years to get viable, but live storytelling nights using journalism as the basis of storytelling is just a pretty great blending of two things we are pretty poised to do. It’s like “The Moth” (a global storytelling initiative based in New York City), except they’re working with journalists and working with the community, and they’re harnessing the power of narrative non-fiction storytelling. I think it’s really cool.
What’s a good example of a newsroom that you’ve visited recently that’s really turned things around?
I’ll give you two examples, and I love them as bookends with each other.
The Dallas Morning News’ strategy was really revolution, not evolution, and they really decided to avoid making changes slowly in favor of starting over. That included changing the way folks in the newsroom think about the process of producing news and the news they produce.
The Morning News created a print desk that’s responsible for curating content from the web to put in the print product the next day. The journalists in the room aren’t thinking about where their story is going or how long it needs to be—they’re just thinking it’s just going up on the web.
On the other end is the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which was much more evolution, not revolution. They took their time and had great support from their leadership to remake old habits and workflows. They began to lean more on digital metrics to figure out what was working and what wasn’t, and how to be in all the different places their readers are.
The Star-Tribune has done some really cool things, including creating a quarterly magazine based on the seasons in Minnesota and making use of their extensive archives during breaking news.
One theme you return to in your writing often is the need to value local journalists. What exactly do you mean by that?
As a profession, we’re skeptics. We always want to understand what’s happening and why. But I also think journalists have this odd mix of skepticism alongside these really lofty values that are super important to what we do.
What I’ve seen in the newsroom’s that I’ve visited, and what I see every time there’s another announcement of a layoff, is it feels like faith in our profession is slowly eroding on the local level.
It really struck home for me a couple of months ago when I spoke with (statehouse reporter) Eric Eyre at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and he mentioned at one point he worked with someone who had to work at Hobby Lobby on the weekends.
So, local journalists exist in this reality where there’s both vital and expendable, and I think can’t last forever. It’s frustrating to see newspapers ask their communities to support them when they treat their journalists like s—. They don’t deserve their community’s support.
I feel like this is a profession that has to be valued if we want to get any value out of it. That’s where it has to start.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.