Your local news source is dying. What are we going to do about it?

Do I have your attention?

Once upon a time, when people browsed through a newspaper page by page, headlines were designed to catch the eye. To convey a taste of what the article was about and draw you in and read the full story.

In today’s world of feeds and apps, headlines may be the only blurb a reader takes away. So I didn’t bury the lede. I gave you the whole thing at the top.

Your local news source is not in good shape. It is dying.

What makes me say this? 

I read a fascinating article the other day by Kevin Frazier, editor of The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan online publication. The article appeared in The American Conservative magazine under the title “Local news is collapsing” and made the case that one of the political parties should take on the cause.

He makes the same points many of us who are local news advocates make — local news is a cornerstone of democracy, bolsters small business and champions the community — all hills both dominant political parties say they would make a stand on.

Indeed, Congress has shown interest, typically spurred on whenever a hedge fund gobbles up another newspaper group. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, initially introduced in the House in July 2020 with bipartisan support died, in the Ways and Means Committee. That bill has been reintroduced in the wake of the purchase of Tribune Publishing by hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

That’s great. But I, for one, don’t put much faith in Congress swooping in on its white steed to save the day. Congress doesn’t move that quickly. And too often, partisans seem more interested in exploiting the appetite for local news to advance their own agendas.

In the real world, community journalism faces an immediate problem. That was highlighted in the Frazier article, citing numbers that appear to have come from a Pew Research Center study released in 2019.

  • 71% of those surveyed believed their local news outlets were doing a good job.

  • 66% felt they were doing a good job keeping an eye on political leaders

  • 62% thought they dealt fairly with all sides

That’s encouraging. In an increasingly polarized climate, most surveyed felt their local news sources were doing a pretty good job of avoiding the biases of those on the national level.

However, here are a couple of sobering numbers:

  • 71% of those surveyed believed local media was in good shape financially

  • Only 14% said they had paid for local news in the past year.

Even for someone who has been harping for as long as I have about the state of the business, these numbers are striking.

Just to reiterate what I have cited in the past, according to research by The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, an initiative of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, nearly one-quarter of the local newspapers in existence in 2004 are gone. Many places have no source for local news are are referred to as “news deserts.” 

Often, newspapers that do remain are “ghosts” — filled with submitted and syndicated copy — due to aggressive cost cutting, including dramatically slashing staff and selling off real estate. Many such properties are owned and/or operated by hedge funds and private equity funds. And, as the Tribune sale proves, that number is still growing. The New York Times did a fine piece a year ago on a colleague of mine who finds himself in that very situation.

Additionally, the pandemic has caused further newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures nationwide. The Poynter Institute has been tracking those numbers, an exhaustive list most recently updated July 13.

Those reporters and editors who remain have been sounding the alarm on their Op-Ed pages for years. Even simply picking up a newspaper, if one is still available in your area, would likely prove it to be a shadow of its former self. Quite possibly even identical to the one next to it from a neighboring community, save the different nameplate, due to joint ownership.

But if only 14% have actually paid for news in the last year, those reporters and editors are preaching to the choir. How else to account for that 71% who believe local media is in good shape? They likely based that judgment on an assumption. 

A personal example. When a particularly robust, family-owned newspaper where I grew up was bought out by a hedge fund, I had a number of friends ask me, “what happened to my newspaper?” I could only reply that I had been warning them for years, no one was listening.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and certainly don’t know what you got till it’s gone. It wasn’t on their radar until they picked up the paper and saw what had happened.  Too many other things were screaming for their attention.

For the first time, I feel safe in the prediction that small community local newspapers — the legacy titles — are finished.

For one thing, most of these companies have slashed human resources and infrastructure, two of the three “big ticket” items. The third are the print costs. That means going to a completely online model (website or app) is next. 

At first glance, that makes sense. One of the things that strikes me about the 14% number is that it confirms an unsurprising behavioral change. People don’t have time to read the paper. They no longer need to rely on it for calendars, classifieds and pictures of their kids in the community.  Papers stack up until they are tossed, until eventually the consumer figures out a subscription isn’t cost effective. 

The news-consuming audience has fundamentally changed. Lives are too busy and complicated to take time to peruse a newspaper. It is far easier to get a notification on technology, see something in a social media feed based on an algorithm or read something shared by a friend. No matter how flawed that method may be, it has become the simplest way to consume local news.

Unfortunately, most local newspapers have not created an online business model that supports that kind of behavior. Local sites either have to support themselves through advertising or charging readers. 

Web advertising is a different beast to print advertising, and too few newspapers have adjusted their rates to compensate for that shift. Paywalls make sense for The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal because of the demand for their exclusive kind of content. In my experience, on the local level, readers seem resigned to find ways around a paywall or simply give up when they hit it.

So, what’s next? Some organizations have turned to nonprofit models. Others have pressed for subsidizing news. The jury is still out on the sustainability of such courses. 

Subsidies, in particular, give me pause. While I agree wholeheartedly in the importance of  local news, I have never viewed it as a public service. Rather, I see it as a product to be sold to a consumer. If you can’t sell it, in my mind you need to figure out why and repackage it into something sellable. After all, if you are subsidizing an unsellable product, you are simply passing along the cost to the same public that doesn’t want what you are selling in the first place. 

I admit those are personal hang ups, I’m a capitalist at heart, but I think local news is a sellable product. Those numbers cited that said a healthy majority believed their local news outlets were doing a good job, kept an eye on their political leaders and dealt fairly with all sides should be seen as signs of encouragement.

As I have often said in this space, local news will survive in some fashion, if not in the way we know it now. There is a demand for it and nature abhors a vacuum. Ben Smith, media columnist for The New York Times, highlighted a few ventures in his most recent column. Some were issues-oriented organizations, but some straight out benefit local news and local news gathering operations. 

I recently was fortunate to work in a consulting role with a news site tied to a local radio station. It combines the resources and reach of the station to benefit its online “newspaper,” helping fill the gap in one of these “news deserts.” A 24/7 news operation as opposed to a weekly print product. I think that model holds promise.

The future of local news is going to take such innovation. Most legacy news outlets on the local level are too tied to old ways and technologies or lack the motivation or know-how to make this transition. Indeed, in many communities, it is too late. Those newspapers have ceased to be.

As I see it, it’s going to take three ingredients to seek each other out for community journalism to reinvent itself: 

  1. People in the community who demand coverage and accountability

  2. Professionals trained in credible newsgathering and how to produce it 

  3. Those who have the resources to make it happen 

So, the question is, how badly do we want it? I’m game. How about you?