There are news deserts within the core coverage areas of daily newspapers in the U.S. Admitting it is the first step toward solutions that could include digital subscription models and a broader view of how to meet a community’s information needs.
What should be considered a “news desert?”
Well, there are some basic elements to a citizen’s relationship to their community. Paying taxes and having access to some basic knowledge about how that money is spent. Operation of the public schools, priorities around public infrastructure such as roads, sewers, public health and safety. The state of the local economy, and the health of the business community.
There are small to mid-sized towns in many regional newspaper markets that have no journalist covering town government, or the schools, or stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Public safety is covered in that someone will show up if there’s a murder, or fatal car accident, or bizarre or funny crime of some kind. But that’s it.
Increasingly, they’re not served by a weekly newspaper, either, in some cases because the chain that owns the daily long ago acquired all of the local weeklies in the area, merged or squeezed news operations and sales staffs, then shut them down as the business declined.
If the right circumstances exist (i.e., a laid-off journalist with enough savings or income from a spouse to take the plunge), some are lucky enough to have a homegrown local online news site spring up to fill the gaps.
But there are few options for bedroom communities that lack a retail base that could support something like that, or for towns that are too rural or neighborhoods too urban to be deemed attractive in the eyes of newspaper publishers.
I’m not sure publishers think as much anymore about how adequately they’re serving individual communities vs. overall survival metrics.
That might have to change soon, because of a shift to digital subscription revenue that presents both a problem and opportunity.
The problem, in both towns that are only covered when there’s a murder and a range of communities that are underserved: Why would I pay for a monthly subscription for regional coverage, and the occasional salacious, usually negative, story about my own town, when day-to-day news that affects me as a citizen, taxpayer and parent goes uncovered?
The opportunity is that individual communities are addressing their own information needs without newspapers. It’s happening in neighborhood Facebook groups, town government websites, email newsletters from local school districts, soccer parents spreading word to each other via social media about a hearing on budget cuts, or controversy over the new school calendar.
Communities need a journalistic layer on top of this digital commons. Local newspapers can provide it, but not in these communities, with their traditional beat reporting model and measures of return.
Instead, what if a publisher examined the information needs of a community like this, heard residents’ biggest frustrations, and built an information and community news resource center (and newsletter, social media and text messaging service) that incorporated available sources and identified gaps and filled them?
Hiring community managers to surface information and data and amplify or facilitate conversations in a community could provide a news source dwarfing the comprehensiveness of traditional beat reporting, while teeing up the most important story leads for editors and staff reporters.
What would a P&L for that kind of effort look like? How many digital subscriptions from these communities would you need to staff it?
There’s a strong case to be made that “being everything about something”—comprehensive in a particular area of coverage—is exponentially more effective in selling digital subscriptions than a flow of stories that feels scattershot.
Some readers could be sold on coverage of a subject matter that they’re passionate about—high school sports or state politics, for examples. But pretty much everyone cares about the basics of local news in the community where they live, and they won’t trust a local newspaper that can’t or won’t provide that baseline of coverage.
It’s not impossible. It will just look different and require different roles and skill sets than have been traditional in legacy newsrooms. Start with admitting your shortcomings in a single community. Listen to the people there. Try building something that serves their needs.
Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.