Report summary: Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest

Why It Matters, How It’s Evolving, and Who Pays for It?

Here’s an advance opportunity to read the Executive Summary a new report on local journalism that I have written for the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. The full report will be published shortly. This extract offers an indication of some of the main themes — and findings — featured in the study.

Based on detailed, in-depth interviews with 12 editors, reporters and a leading communications scholar based in the region, this paper shines a spotlight on the practice of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

Local journalism — like the wider news media — has been massively disrupted by the advent of new digital technologies and behaviors. This has unlocked a wider range of information and entertainment sources for audiences, created new spaces and opportunities for advertisers, and resulted in layoffs and the shuttering of titles in many communities across the US.

However, this upheaval, which shows no signs of abating, has also produced new possibilities for journalists and storytellers. Digital platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for speedy distribution of content, as well as a means to enjoy genuine two-way interaction with audiences, whilst also enabling new ways to tell stories.

These creative possibilities, coupled with an ongoing challenging economic backdrop, are also encouraging some journalists to re-evaluate their craft and profession. This is leading to discussions about new forms of journalism and the need to revitalize the profession for the digital age.

The interviews which underpin this paper highlight these developments and discussions. They demonstrate the reinvigoration of local journalism, its continued importance to communities and pinpoint a number of outstanding issues that the sector must address.

Here are nine key ideas to emerge from this research:

1. Local journalism remains important

Journalists interviewed for this study reminded us that local journalism remains incredibly important to communities, in terms of delivering civic, democratic and journalistic value.

Local media produces a range of content — ranging from watchdog reporting to coverage of local sports, arts, human interest stories and listings — which support the varied information needs of communities. Much of that content cannot be found elsewhere.

2. The practice of local journalism is evolving

This evolution includes elements of engaged journalism, with a particular focus on listening to communities, as well as harnessing digital platforms to tell stories. Usage of video and social media are already well-established means to engage audiences and share “the news.”

Local journalists are also increasingly keen to explore different approaches to their craft. This includes Solutions Journalism and a recognition that you can maintain your journalistic independence and integrity whilst still being active — and visible — in the community.

“The answer is not to isolate yourself in the community,” says Lou Brancaccio the Emeritus Editor of the Vancouver Columbian (Washington). “The answer is to put yourself into the community but let people understand, and know, that if things go south for them you’re gonna write about it.”

3. Local news providers will not look like they did in the past

Despite the best efforts of local news providers, much of the income — and many of the jobs — that have disappeared from local journalism will not return.

Partly, that’s due to the impossibility of turning back the clock to an age of information and advertising scarcity, which meant that audiences and businesses had to come to you.

“Whatever local journalism is in the future, it won’t be what it was,” Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has said. “It’s going to be something different.”

4. Newsrooms will be smaller and increasingly visually oriented

The local newsrooms of the future, much like the newsroom of today, will need to do more with less. Smaller staffing levels may require fresh approaches to aggregation and greater use of wire services, as well as dropping certain beats or doing them differently.

We can expect to see a greater emphasis on the role of analytics to shape content and inform the beats that newsrooms focus on, as well as an increased importance attached to journalists with data and visual — an in particular video — skills.

As Logan Molen, publisher/CEO of RG Media Company and and the Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon) suggests: “Video’s an opportunity for newspapers to come back and tackle, in a low-fi way, the content that it’s too expensive for the TV stations to go after.”

5. Doubling-down on unique local content may be essential for survival

When considering the future prospects for the sector, scarcity matters. Because audiences have access to more information than ever, local media outlets need to offer something different in terms of content, perspective, and applied journalistic values.

Their contribution includes adding value through additional context, perspectives and analysis, which ensures that we avoid a churnalism culture; a world where independent reporting — and the values and attributes associated with that — is replaced by a media ecosystem of press released and content produced solely by PR professionals.

As John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) observed:

“If you can go beyond the obvious in those areas that are the most important to your reader, I think you’re going to have a sustainable business.
If you don’t, you’ve got a big problem. Because it doesn’t make any difference how you distribute it, if you’re not telling people something that they either need to know and can’t get somewhere else.”

6. Outlets are experimenting with multiple ways to increase revenue

Given the continued challenge of securing sufficient revenues to sustain (and ideally grow) their business, local media providers are exploring a number of ways to expand their revenue base.

These include paywalls, subscriptions (including special offers and sales through third parties, such as Groupon), events, income from foundations, sponsorship, and membership models.

Typically, a combination of these methods is required for success.

Image: Independence Day 2017 subscription offer from the Salem Statesman Journal (Oregon)

7. Engagement, both online — and in real life — is an emerging priority

Definitions of engagement vary, but are applicable to both digital and offline relationships with audiences. Local news outlets are increasingly placing an emphasis on “engagement” recognizing this can both impact their bottom line and improve their storytelling / reporting.

Outlets measure engagement with their content — which in turn can help to define their digital advertising rates — based on pageviews, unique visitors, time on site and other metrics. Offline engagement may include events, opening up editorial meetings and other opportunities for direct dialogue, as well as the emergence of “engaged journalism.”

As Jake Batsell, associate professor, Southern Methodist University wrote in 2015:

“An engaged journalist’s role in the 21st century is not only to inform but to bring readers directly into the conversation.”

8. Local media needs to be more diverse in staffing and content

Alongside this, as many newsrooms are already acknowledging, the skills and make-up of their teams will also need to change. Cities in the Pacific Northwest like Seattle, Portland and Bend are growing fast. In some cases, their demographic make-up is shifting, and newsrooms will have to reflect this.

Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in Portland, acknowledged this when he observed that changing demographics in his city. “A lot of the hiring here took place fifteen, twenty years ago,” he says, “when this was a fairly white — it still is a pretty white — community. Pretty middle class.”

“There’s a lot of homogeneity in the staff here,” he admitted, “and that takes nothing away from their skill set — they are very good at what they do — but to reach a broader audience in the future, we’re gonna have to hire some people who look more like that audience.”

9. Local Journalism is the vanguard for the wider profession

Local newsrooms, just like their larger counterparts, would benefit from being more diverse, so that they better reflect the communities that they serve.

At a time when trust in the media is at a low ebb, and the sector is attacked on a daily basis by politicians, local journalists can play a vital role in ensuring that grassroots concerns are escalated to elected officials and the mainstream media.

Local journalists, often the only journalists that most people will ever meet, also have an ambassadorial role for the wider profession. One that they should not take lightly.

“I think local media has an important role to play in building the overall reputation of, and belief in, journalism,” explains Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon).

“Engagement plays a part in this, in that it gives people a one-on-one relationship with journalism. They begin to understand how it works, what’s legal to print and what’s not, what news tenets are and why some stories are irresponsible and others are worth their time.”

“To do this, it’s essential that journalists leave the office and go out into the community,” she adds, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by interviewees as essential for establishing the on-going relevance and vibrancy of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Image: Editorial from Caitlyn May outlining her paper’s approach to local reporting.