Local Journalism – What will the new ecosystem look like?

January 16, 2014

Last year, the Democracy Fund convened a cross section of journalists, editors, and media experts to begin a dialogue about the major issues facing the field. It was a productive discussion that has greatly informed our approach to ensuring that the public has the information it needs to make informed choices. Perhaps the clearest priority voiced at the forum (and one that has the greatest impact on our thinking) is the need to support and improve the quality of journalism at the local level.

The challenges for reporters and publishers at the local level are legion—audience size is limited, online advertising rates aren’t anything like the rates obtained by print publications in the past, staff numbers in such outlets are small, and there are few opportunities for reporters to develop distinct capabilities or expertise. In the last months, the downsizing at Patch (AOL’s hyper-local network) and in Gannett’s community publishing division has just reinforced how tough this space is for all.

Since our spring 2013 meeting, I have been exploring how we can best understand the needs in this space and have been heartened by the research into news deserts being undertaken by Michelle Ferrier and the development of MediaCloud and the MediaMeter mapping the level at which the Boston Globe covers news stories. Thanks to these and other projects, we may soon be better able to understand both coverage and consumption at a much more granular manner than before.

What I have become most interested in are three themes that appear to be emerging as local news ecosystems transition:

1. Collaboration and sharing at a regional level.

One solution to the challenge facing local journalism is higher efficiency in the production of stories, or broader distribution through regional collaborations. As Jan Schaffer’s very useful recent research shows, collaborative efforts are emerging across the country. In Colorado, a local collaboration been led by the INewsNetwork started off as an independent organization and has now become part of a local PBS television station and built partnerships with 21 other outlets. In New Jersey, Montclair University’s School of Communications and Media is hosting NJCommons an effort to build collaboration between outlets within the state. This includes a story exchange as well as providing training to partner organizations. Other partnerships such as IdeaStream in North East Ohio that combines public television, radio, public access cable, and an online engagement platform shows how collaboration can grow within public media.

Regional and topic focused collaborations have also emerged. In radio, there has been the State Impact Project across public radio and partnering outlets. In public television, multiple local journalism centers have been set up. How much of this infrastructure will survive in the long term is unclear, but collaboration, often in a non-traditional manner, seems to be central to the provision and distribution of public interest journalism.

2. Specialization of outlets around news beats.

All too often, reporters at local papers simply do not have the bandwidth to develop the specialized knowledge they need to cover complex stories. Outlets that focus on a single beat can address this challenge by enabling local media to build on top of reporting they do and adding a local flavor. InsideClimateNews, winner of a Pulitzer for National Reporting in 2013, is perhaps one of the most well known example of a successful vertical outlet. They actively encourage republishing of their stories. ProPublica, goes a step further and provocatively asks people to steal their stories. The presence of non-profits such as the Food and Environmental Reporting Network suggest that there is momentum in provision of specialized beat news. In particular, Homicide Watch has been lauded for its coverage in D.C. and has expanded to Chicago via a partnership with the Sun Times.

3. Provision of services by a central organization

Another solution to improve local coverage is for small outlets to rely on a central entity to provide them with shared resources. The Shorenstein Center publishes Journalists Resource with the objective of providing journalists with easy access to relevant academic scholarship that can aid reporters. The Investigative Reporters and Editors organization has long provided datasets and operates DocumentCloud. For its part, our new grantee, the Investigative News Network provides a customized WordPress configuration that they are willing to customize further and host for organizations. The Public Insight Network operated by American Public Media serves as a source development platform for a number of outlets. The soon to be launched FOIA Machine platform is another great example. Nearly all of these are solutions narrowly tailored to a particular challenge but all seem to represent a promising trajectory.

There are many reasons to be cautious about the future of local news and journalism, but the impact of these three threads coming together in the right way appear considerable. We don’t know all the answers and how this field will develop, but we will continue to explore the space and welcome input on Twitter. @tglaisyer.