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Local news is in trouble. Can new publications turn it around?

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With local coverage and civic engagement in decline in U.S. cities, outlets are experimenting with new ways to fund journalism

A Village Voice newspaper stand is visible on the sidewalk in the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, August 22, 2017. The Village Voice, one of the oldest and most well-known of the alternative weekly newspapers, announced today that it will no longer publish a print edition. The publication will maintain a continued online and digital presence.
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Even in the best of times, covering Southern California news required a form of journalistic triage. It’s an extensive territory—there are 88 cities in Los Angeles County alone—filled with strange political fiefdoms, competing power centers, overlapping cultures, and the intoxicating draw of celebrity gossip. Any publication attempting to keep the public informed and engaged was bound to miss stories on the margins.

As many media observers would agree, this is not the best of times. Like other U.S. metro areas, Los Angeles has experienced a dramatic thinning of its journalistic ranks, one that’s left local press bereft of reporters and resources, and local stories uncovered and untold.

“I’m really seeing the fallout from losing essential voices in a market the size of LA,” says Mara Shalhoup, the former editor of LA Weekly, a pioneering alt-weekly that saw its staff slashed, Shalhoup included, after a secretive group of new owners reorganized the business last fall. “It’s not easy to dig up new information. It’s easy to report on what other people are talking about. It’s more echo-chambery than ever, and that’s not a good thing.”

Since last fall, Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest media market, has seen publications shutter and reporting staffs decimated by layoffs. In addition to the Weekly saga, the region’s largest daily, the Los Angeles Times, continues to cut staff as part of a “sweeping reorganization,” and the Los Angeles News Group eliminated dozens of positions at a number of smaller local papers. And, in November, the website LAist was shuttered when its billionaire owner Joe Ricketts abruptly pulled the plug on the network of local news sites to which it belonged. Media observers have called it a “journalistic collapse,” going so far as to ask, “Who’s left to hold California’s government accountable?”

A perfect storm of circumstances is shrinking the number of writers covering local news, meaning city and local governments across the nation are losing an important check-and-balance, while local communities are becoming increasingly disconnected. A cocktail of damaging circumstances—the decline of digital ad dollars, the increasing market share of Google and Facebook, the albatross of legacy costs associated with print publications, the contest for reader attention in the social media age, and new ownership looking for quick profits over long-term viability—has meant that fewer stories about fewer neighborhoods are being told. That can have a detrimental effect on civic awareness and engagement.

Jesse Holcomb, a journalism professor at Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Calvin College, spent the previous decade studying and writing about the media landscape for the Pew Center. He says that while it’s a hard relationship to quantify, studies have shown a robust relationship between access to local news and civic engagement, and that local news connects readers with ways to engage.

A 2014 paper called “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge, and Participation in US House Elections” found that the “deleterious consequences of a decline in local coverage are widespread.” And others have found a lack of accountability feeds polarization and discourages voting in local elections.

“There’s a virtuous circle happening between all forms of local news and civic engagement,” Holcomb says.

The Queens County courthouse in New York City, which has a docket of more than 200,000 cases annually, now lacks regular coverage, a symptom of how, even in the epicenter of the media industry, local coverage isn’t considered cost effective. The Bay Area, ground zero for the tech boom, has seen area news staff shrink from roughly 1,000 reporters in 2000 to around 100 now, meaning the local business stories that may shape tomorrow’s tech scene go under reported. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, advocates asked why, after local groups had meticulously documented the issues that led to the tragic fire, the media had failed to cover the issue.

And it’s not only local politics that suffer when newspapers and websites shutter.

“Much has been said about news coverage, but it’s not just that,” says Shalhoup. “Music, food, and culture suffer. The LA Weekly had writers who broke names, made careers, who were excited about hitting the pavement and figuring out who should be the next big name.”

And LA’s fall-off is far from unique. DNAinfo and sites in the Gothamist network also shuttered last fall; alt-weekly stalwarts like the Houston Press and the Village Voice trimmed staffs last year and operate as shadows of their former selves; the Baltimore City Paper shut down; and much of the national local-news ecosystem seems to be either shrinking or in decline. It’s all happening alongside a longstanding trend impacting digital journalism, too.

An FCC report from 2011 underlined the consequences of this decline: Local papers and news sites do most of the on-the-ground reporting that holds the powerful accountable; without them, “the ecosystem is missing a key element.”

But during this period of ferment and change, there are signs that local journalism may be entering a new, less centralized, and increasingly entrepreneurial era. The ad-driven digital media age may be taking a hit, but experiments in local funding, subscriptions, and organizing events present a new way to operate and even thrive.

Chicago’s Block Club, a forthcoming publication run by ex-DNAinfo staffers, convinced 3,143 backers to pledge $183,720 before it had even published a single story, and a coalition of public radio stations will resurrect some of the Gothamist sites. While local news sites may be down, readers don’t want them out.

“People realize our democratic traditions are threatened, and see the press as one of our safeguards,” says Matt DeRienzo, executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, or LION, a consortium of news organizations. “Advertising disruption has pushed papers to look at reader revenue, and readers are primed for the asking due to the political climate.”

A New York Times newsroom in 1942. The golden era of newspapers and local reporting was sustained by advertising revenue that doesn’t exist today.
Library of Congress

Blame Google and Facebook, not digital media

For the last two decades, the story of technology and journalism seemed pretty straightforward: To pay for good journalism, and local coverage, legacy publications needed to get online, get their stories in front of as many readers as possible, and find a way to make money selling ads on a new platform.

“I honestly think that daily newspapers always figured that people would come back, that this behavior wouldn’t really change,” says Kristen Hare, a media reporter at Poynter. “But digital is not catching up fast enough.”

As shrinking print page counts and dwindling employment figures have shown, that model isn’t working out. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 41,000 local newsroom employees, compared to 69,000 in 2006. Newspapers made more than $49 billion in ads in 2006. In 2016, Pew estimates ad revenue cratered to $18.2 billion.

But it’s not as simple as a legacy industry being slow to adapt. Digital publishers, whether it’s an established paper online or the wave of digital-only outlets that grew up in the last decade, have been clobbered by an ad market that’s increasingly owned by Google and Facebook, and pushed to find stories that “scale up” and play well on digital distribution platforms. Craigslist’s insatiable hunger for classifieds, and its destruction of local news, seems quaint compared to the power wielded by these tech giants.

Pew Research Center

A December 2017 study by Pivotal found that Google and Facebook control 73 percent of all digital advertising (up from 63 percent in 2015) and account for 83 percent of digital advertising growth. Targeted Facebook buys, AdWords, and the ability to reach customers for free on social media have lowered the rates for digital ads so much that even in a time when traffic for local papers is rising, ad revenue is plummeting.

Shalhoup saw the same dynamic at play at LA Weekly: Traffic was growing, but local businesses weren’t supporting the paper like they did in the past. They weren’t hurting for eyeballs or readers: They were hurting for revenue. The stats back her up. Between 2004 and 2016, local business spending on newspaper ads fell from $44.4 billion to $12.9 billion.

“Local advertising was the bread and butter of local news,” says Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “What we’re seeing now is that not only are local businesses advertising less, there are literally fewer local businesses that exist.”

This shift has caused many publications to shutter or search for another way to subsidize their work. According to DeRienzo, LION’s executive director, many members of LION who were 100 percent advertising-based a decade ago have concluded that that model is unsustainable now. The commodification of digital advertising is challenging sites large and small.

“The economy, and business models, have been holding publications back,” says Hare.

Dozens of writers, journalists, labor activists, and DNAinfo and Gothamist employees attend an afternoon rally at City Hall Park, hosted by the Writers Guild of America to support the journalists and other staff members who lost their jobs at the publications after they voted to form a union on November 6, 2017, in New York City. Local New York news websites Gothamist and DNAinfo were abruptly shut down by their billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, just a week after company employees successfully unionized.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Harvesting them for profit”: Corporate raiders and a reinvigorated grassroots

The demise of DNAinfo and the Gothamist network of sites has been held up as an example of the fragility of local news economies. These well-read local sites, some of which had yet to run a profit and were propped up by their owner, found themselves shuttered unexpectedly. The strongly anti-union billionaire closed shop after staff formed a union, arguing that a union newsroom would make it harder to turn a profit (Gothamist, which was unionized, was profitable).

DeRienzo believes that some sections of the public learned the wrong lessons from this episode, chiefly that local publications are money pits without economic futures. The Ricketts shutdown, as well as the LA Weekly’s takeover bid by Semanal, a company formed weeks before purchasing the paper, demonstrate a more obvious lesson: Owners with no background in the journalism business, and with no interest in the journalism business, are “harvesting them for short-term profit.” (And in the case of Semanal and the Weekly, underestimating the challenges ahead.) The collateral damage this practice brings to an already-distressed industry is severe.

“What happens when a newspaper is owned not by a newspaper company, but by a hedge fund, is that the owners come in to sell it for scrap,” says Ali.

And it’s not limited to outside investors or tech money trying to change journalism. DeRienzo points to companies such as Gannett, a national corporation that owns numerous local publications, as playing the short game for the sake of investors, rather than making long-term investments in local news. They’re not going to go back to the communities where their papers run and do more hiring; they’re going to return profits to shareholders.

“The measure of success in local news is not rapid expansion or a 25 percent profit margin,” he says. “The average LION member is a bootstrapped operation, with no venture capital funding. They’re not trying to give a 15 percent return to a hedge fund, or trying to scale it. They’re just figuring out how to make enough to make a decent living off of journalism.”

Coverage of the crisis in local news can also zero in on big-money stories, to the detriment of small, local successes. It’s easier to cover something like the downfall (and slow re-emergence) of Patch, an AOL- and hedge-fund-backed experiment in local coverage, than look at how small local publishers are establishing effective and economically sustainable sites.

“We’ll look back at this as a major decentralization of media, when local publishers take responsibility for local information,” says DeRienzo. “The safest, most secure ownership model is local and grassroots. But it’s going to be messy, diverse, and eclectic, and come in fits and starts.”

A new breed of entrepreneurs and nonprofits takes the long view

Local news has arrived at an interesting, almost paradoxical point, according to the media observers interviewed for this story. On one hand, it needs more patient, visionary, locally oriented ownership.

But local news also needs experimentation and radical new ways to fund writing and reporting. It’s a moment when American journalism at large is coalescing around new revenue streams and business models.

“It’s all about experimentation,” says Ali. “That’s where there’s opportunity—and fear. Today’s publications have been able to survive the crisis of journalism. But can they experiment?”

The rush to experiment with revenue sources has underscored that there’s no single answer, or model, to promote. Local papers and new websites have tested membership models, paywalls, special events, and reader services, says LION’s DeRienzo. NYU’s Membership Puzzle Project has done a deep dive into the economics of membership models for media, and how they can and can’t support a new breed of local news coverage, and recently launched a new initiative, “Join the Beat,” seeking to create networked local news coverage.

An increasing number of nonprofit organizations have started supplementing and expanding local coverage and investigative journalism. Organizations like Report for America and ProPublica’s Local Investigative Reporting Project aim to get more stories—and eyes—on how local government functions. Many local foundations are viewing reporting, especially on issues such as health care and environmentalism, as key to the greater mission of improving care or solving ecological problems.

While the crisis in funding and coverage is still very real, many smaller publishers have found success through hybrid approaches and public-interest publications with very specialized coverage areas; the nonprofit North Carolina Health News exemplifies this crop of narrowly focused, community-oriented sites.

Ali and his colleague Damian Radcliffe recently completed a study of small-market local newspapers in the United States with a circulation under 50,000. They found that there’s much more to the sector than the standard doom-and-gloom stories. Many are hiring and experimenting with new models of digital publishing. They’re not making the oversized profits possible during the heyday of local journalism, but there are success stories.

Chicago’s City Bureau showcases the value of this hybrid approach. A civic journalism lab founded in October 2015 by veterans of other local publications, including DNAinfo, City Bureau was formed around a vision of a more equitable and diverse newsroom. Supported by foundations, a recently launched membership model, and a syndication agreement with other local outlets, City Bureau trains local writers, shares reporting with residents, and launched Documenters, a program that trains and pays citizens to record or take notes at public meetings.

It’s a vision of a more transparent, accessible newsroom, says co-founder Darryl Holliday, especially in communities of color on the city’s south and west sides that are often overlooked by other outlets. For Holliday, City Bureau’s better-received reporting, like a timely February story about police in Chicago public schools, isn’t as important as creating a lasting public newsroom.

“There used to be a record of this face-to-face interaction with government processes,” he says. “There was accountability. That’s the work that we build on to get to these hard-hitting pieces. At the bottom of it, and at the core, journalism is a public good.”

Starting with community coverage

Holliday believes there’s a direct connection between journalism, civic good, and community support. That spirit has been at the center of these new experiments in collaboration and coverage, which many observers and reporters hope will help reverse the decline of local news coverage.

“I think where we’re seeing success is at the neighborhood, community-focused level,” says Poynter’s Hare. “The question I don’t have an answer to is, will they be able to build support fast enough to sustain themselves?”

Amid postelection anxiety, and the fears that came from calls of “fake news,” national publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post saw record digital sign-ups and subscriptions. Even the tech giants have promised to help local journalism, introducing initiatives and products this year to emphasize local information (though the changes seem more focused on surfacing existing local coverage than fund new reporters and resources). Stories of new local sites finding their legs suggest this linkage between reporting and community engagement is filtering down, or bubbling up, on the city and even neighborhood level.

Hare said a great example of this relationship, and its power to connect publications and communities, could be seen in the response to Hurricane Harvey. When the storm hit Houston in August, local writers and reporters responded with “heroic acts of journalism,” such as the Houston Chronicle staff’s on-the-ground work in the midst of the city’s worst storm.

“Doing the kind of work we’re most proud of as an industry shows people that we’re vital,” she says. “We have to do that work, and tell people we’re telling those stories. Many of these new independent operations make sure to get the message out to readers that we’re yours. It would be great if more legacy publications followed suit.”