Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, NYSBA President Hank Greenberg announced the formation of the Task Force on Free Expression in the Digital Age, to look at the crisis currently facing local journalism and make recommendations for how to address it. Penny Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina and a noted expert on the nationwide local news crisis, addressed the task force in September. This article is adapted from her writings and includes many details from her presentation to the task force.
Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost one-fourth of its local newspapers – 2,100 publications including 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies. As a result, hundreds of communities – inner city neighborhoods, suburban towns and rural counties – are without reliable sources of local news and information.
Compounding the problem, over the past 10 years, we’ve lost more than half the journalists on our surviving papers. That means there are many fewer reporters to cover routine government meetings and breaking news or to produce the investigative pieces that save lives and tax dollars and hold our public officials at all levels accountable.
Abundant research in recent years has found that strong local journalism builds social cohesion, encourages political participation, and improves the efficiency and decision-making of local and state government. However, the business model that supported local newspapers throughout the 20th century has collapsed, leaving start-up and legacy news operations to reach for new models – for-profit, non-profit, and, perhaps even publicly funded – as they attempt to fill the void. Those local news organizations that survive and thrive in this digital age will be led by journalistic entrepreneurs who are creative and disciplined strategists, willing and able to invest for the long-term to serve the information needs of their communities.
THE COST TO SOCIETY, DEMOCRACY
The void created when we lose a local newspaper has significant political, social and economic implications for our society and our democracy. Historically, newspapers have been the prime, if not sole, source of credible and comprehensive news and information that affects the quality of life of residents living in the thousands of small and mid-sized communities that dot this country.
To understand the consequences, consider my hometown in rural, eastern North Carolina. It is located in the Ninth Congressional district, which is gerrymandered across eight counties, some the poorest in the state. For almost a year, residents of the Ninth District were deprived of representation in Congress because of significant election fraud in 2018 that flew under the radar of severely understaffed local and state newspapers, as well the state’s broadcast and digital outlets. It was a political science professor at a small college miles away – not a journalist – who first discovered how the fraud was perpetrated.
Important local news also goes unreported. A member of my local city council recently asked me, “How do you correct a story on Facebook?” As it turns out, no reporter had showed up to cover an unexpectedly contentious council meeting. The mayor’s rather one-sided Facebook post about the meeting was the only account of what had transpired – and it had been shared hundreds of times.
My research has focused on two overlapping areas: Documenting areas of this country at risk of becoming “news deserts,” and researching sustainable business strategies for local news organizations so they can continue to provide us with news that educates and informs us as citizens in a democracy.
WHAT IS A NEWS DESERT?
Early on in our research, we defined news desert as a community without a newspaper. Recently, we have updated and expanded that definition to be a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.
Across the country today, there are less than 7,000 surviving newspapers, the vast majority under 15,000 circulation. Most of the communities that have lost newspapers are struggling economically. But, increasingly, affluent and well-educated communities are losing their papers. Two years ago, for example, Chapel Hill, a city of nearly 60,000 and home of the University of North Carolina, lost its storied 100-year-old paper.
During the past decade, large investment entities such as hedge funds and private equity firms have swooped in to purchase hundreds of the remaining 6,700 dailies and weeklies at rock-bottom prices. Most employ a standard formula for managing their newspapers – aggressive cost-cutting and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy – that erodes the quality and quantity of local news. Many of these papers have become ghosts of their former selves, both in terms of the quality and quantity of their editorial content and the reach of their readership in the print and digital realms.
LOCAL NEWS ISN’T JUST ABOUT NEWS
The fate of communities and local news organizations are intrinsically linked, journalistically and economically. From our very beginnings as a nation, newspapers have played a vital role in both educating us and building community. Researchers in disciplines such as political science, sociology and economics have identified three ways newspapers historically built a sense of community and trust in grassroots democracy. Each is under economic assault.
First, newspapers have helped set the agenda for debate of important public policy issues, and, as a result, influenced the course of history. They accomplished this journalistically through the stories they published, the extended coverage they provided certain topics, and their editorials that recommended specific actions.
Today, there are 50% fewer newspaper journalists than in 2008, resulting in a decrease in quality and quantity of public service journalism. Often, no reporter shows up at town council meetings, nor do the journalists at many newspapers receive the time or encouragement to produce in-depth analytical pieces that illuminate and inform. As a result, Facebook has become the default medium for sharing local news.
Second, strong local newspapers have built community by encouraging regional economic growth and development. Through advertising, newspapers have helped local businesses connect with local consumers. However, print newspaper advertising, which has historically furnished 75 to 90% of total revenue, is at an all-time low and continues to decline. Making matters worse, as much as 75% of the dollars devoted to digital advertising in even the smallest markets go to Facebook and Google, leaving all other media outlets – radio, television, online and print – to fight over the remainder.
Third, strong community newspapers have encouraged social cohesion and political activism. Just as all politics is local, all news that matters is ultimately local. Readers of local newspapers are residents not only of a county, but also of a region, a state and a nation. Strong news organizations put into local context issues that may seem to be national or regional ones, such as health care, gun control, or the opioid crisis.
In his recent book, Democracy’s Detectives, Stanford economist Jay Hamilton attached a price tag to the lives saved and environmental disasters averted through investigative journalism produced by news organizations large and small. But that sort of journalism requires the financial wherewithal to withstand the legal challenges that arise when a local news organization has to sue to obtain public records, for example. As profit margins have declined from double to single digits, many publishers now think twice before giving the go-ahead on potentially controversial and time-consuming investigations.
REVIVING TRUST IS CRUCIAL
Trust and credibility suffer as local news media are lost or diminished. Reviving and restoring trust in media starts at the local level. If we can figure out how to craft and implement sustainable news business models in our smallest, poorest markets, we can then empower journalistic entrepreneurs to revive and restore trust in media from the grassroots level up, in whatever form – print, broadcast or digital.
Here are four lessons we’ve learned from a decade of studying and advising dozens of local news operations:
• Successful business models will be directly tied to the needs of each individual community. Our research has found that strong local newspapers typically enjoy significant loyalty from both current readers and advertisers – at rates as much as twice that of our national and regional papers. But advertisers follow audiences, so news organizations need to follow the technology and follow their customers if they are going to follow the money.
• Instead of one business model that works for most news organizations, as has historically been the case, we will have many. Business models that work for large national and regional news organizations will probably not work in small and mid-sized markets.
• Smaller news organizations have less room for error. With profit margins in the single digits, a bad quarter can force a sale or bankruptcy. Therefore, small news outlets must be very disciplined about prioritizing cost-cutting, as well as investment. Our latest research focuses on how local news organizations can identify and fully utilize their human, as well as financial, capital.
• Finally, news organizations that succeed are forward-looking and invest for the long-term. Both start-up and legacy news operations need to have a strategy in place for transforming at least a third of their business model every five years. They need to develop five-year financial goals for costs, revenue, and profitability and then work backwards to build a business plan – identifying and prioritizing endeavors most likely to lead to long-term profitability and sustainability. For the most part, local news outlets that have pursued integrated business plans and disciplined strategies based on the specific needs of their communities have begun to reap the fruits of their digital investments.
But there are still many forces that remain beyond the control of individual publishers, editors and founders of local news organizations – especially those in communities that are struggling economically, where the loss of a major employer or advertiser, for example, can tip the balance.
There are a range of potential solutions, including encouraging partnerships among and between news organizations and institutions, funding civic engagement and journalistic coverage of under-represented communities and “flyover regions” of the country that are in danger of becoming news deserts, and updating government policies and regulations to reflect digital realities and encourage news competition.
In an age of economic and technological disruption, the fate of thousands of communities – and our democracy – is at stake. Through their journalism, strong local news organizations have the ability to not only educate us as citizens, but also show us how we’re connected to people we may not know we’re connected to. We need to make sure that whatever replaces the 20th century version of local newspapers serves the same educational and community-building functions.
This must be a collaborative effort, including journalists, local activists and residents, educators, business leaders, media owners, nonprofit groups, regulators and legal experts. It will take a community of individuals and institutions working together to nurture the sort of strong local journalism that revives trust in our local media, engenders strong attachment to our communities, and feeds our democracy at the grassroots level.