Discovering The Role Of Local Journalism In Communities

Communities are unique, we know that, but how can we discover what makes them unique and how local journalism needs to be shaped to better meet their needs?

This was a question I asked myself as I passed through big cities and small towns during a recent road trip across the U.S. The beauty, characteristics, motions, emotions, and personalities within a community are what makes traveling feel so adventurous, you never know what you’ll discover in the next town over. Their uniqueness is what gives residents the sense of belonging; fitting in. And, for local journalism, it has the same mission to fit in respectably with what the community has to offer. However, its uniqueness is both a gift and a challenge for publishers.

There is not one community that is exactly the same as a neighboring one nor one across the country. This gives the publisher the responsibility of finding out what makes their community unique from its available resources, interests and habits of the locals, as well as the intentions of the government, businesses and the economy as a whole — to name a few. This is the challenge — you don’t quite have a proven template for sustaining a hyperlocal news outlet for your community’s “type”. To those not aware, hyperlocal publishers juggle a diverse range of marketing strategies and revenue streams across the country — typically, entirely different plans from one town to the next. What interests me is finding a easier way to find their uniqueness and the role that local journalism needs to play.

From observations at a coffee shop, to small talk at a bus stop, I found that there are opportunities around every corner on the block that can help craft a profile for the local journalism. If these lessons can then be communicated effectively back to publishers to influence their service, I believe the confidence and reliability of their coverage will be in better hands.

Those who know me well, know my curiosity to explore beyond what is seen to the naked eye. No matter the situation, I’m eager to take a little time to learn more about a person than what’s just written on their name tag, or learn more about a business than what’s just displayed in their window sill. I like to say I’ve trained my curiosity throughout many years traveling — from road trips through Europe, to living in the cities like Paris, NYC, and DC. These places have made me well-accustomed to having an unfamiliar situation by morning and making it familiar before night.

In these types of scenarios, it’s essential to be able to lower your senses of intimidation, hesitation, and, sometimes, fear of taking a walk through a new city or small town to meet locals, eat locally, commute locally, etc. What should motivate you is that there’s a chance to develop a well-rounded understanding of their community that can’t be found anywhere else. You never know what stories and lessons you’ll learn to take back home — the most valuable ‘souvenir’. As a benefit from my time at Bloom, I’ve naturally added a new focus point when traveling — to understand the role of local journalism.

This past January, I took a cross-country road trip that brought me through a dozen new cities where I found my curiosity targeting local journalism. I wanted to learn what it covered, what it didn’t cover, its perspective and approach, and what role it played in the lives of the people in that particular community. Don’t get me wrong, my tourist instincts still led me straight to a local museum, park, or cafe. However, during these little excursions, it is key to keep your curiosity aware of the influence of (or lack thereof) journalism around you. Denver and Boulder, Colorado were a highlight of my trip and I’d like to specifically share my experiences from there.

Method, Approach, and Intentions

Learning about the local journalism was my chosen goal of the trip but, like many trips of mine, there was not yet a chosen plan. I think these types of trips are best executed by leaving the plan to be naturally crafted by the day’s weather, your gut feelings, and availability of WiFi. I prefer it that way — like a conversation, lacking pre-defined rules. As Michael Oakeshott puts it, an “unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” As long as your goal is clear, you just have to be confident that the path to get there will naturally develop. In this case, you never know what or who you’ll stumble across and need to open up your schedule to.

When wanting to learn more about the communities in Denver and Boulder, I took an open-minded approach, taking every opportunity that came to mind where I could interact and talk with locals. Denver, especially, is home to a very diverse group of people where it was important to equally accept anyone no matter their age or status — even all of those ‘green rush’ transplants. Everyone has a story to tell.

I found there are plenty of opportunities that we all encounter each day that can teach us valuable lessons about how one another values journalism. I ended up meeting locals of all backgrounds and perspectives who were kind enough to tell me their opinions about the city, the types of journalism they care about, and don’t care about. Some of the people I spoke with included:

  • Baristas, as well as people sipping coffee while reading or not reading the daily paper
  • Librarians and visitors at local bookstores
  • Uber drivers and bus drivers
  • Locals at the skatepark — young and old
  • Tourists at museums and central parks
  • Leaders at community development meetings and networking events
  • Even the neighborhood journalists themselves

Each of these people played a role in shaping my understanding of local journalism in these regions of Colorado. I think it’s important to trust that experiences like this will have a greater impact on your education than any other type of lesson. I’ll take a conversation with a prospective customer over a Google Analytics report any day.

During my conversations with these people, my intentions were not to tell them to read more local news, nor to promote Bloom, nor to help publishers figure out whether events or membership are a better revenue stream. Rather, my intention was to look for balance or imbalance between the priorities of readers and priorities of publishers. In my few years in journalism, I’ve learn that there are many newsroom strategies that are misaligned with the interests and behaviors of their readers. My intention was to see how I could discover these gaps (if they existed) and piece together their underlying patterns. Personally, these discoveries also continuously influence my understanding of local journalism as a whole and the efforts that my team and I put forth at Bloom.

Also, this trip was entirely funded by myself. As with all efforts at Bloom right now, we’re happily able to bootstrap our research, technology development, marketing campaigns, and any travel expenses in between.

Learning the role of local journalism in Colorado

I booked 9 days in Colorado while I was heading back to east. Prior to my arrival, I did manage to do some preliminary research about journalism in the two cities, which I think is very important to do. The research helped give me a sense of their history and some of the important topics or people that I could look out for. But, honestly, journalism seemed quite sparse —it was a big transition from my time in New York City last year. Here are a few things I noted prior to my visit:

  • There’s a large journalism presence from The Denver Post. However, with respect to their local coverage, they’re known to report beyond the outskirts of Denver. This has deterred their consistency of local reporting overtime, as well as their ‘community voice’ as I learned from locals.
  • The Examiner was recently headquartered in Denver and had a big local presence. They covered various news topics but, to most people, were not considered a true local news outlet. They closed in July 2016 as billionaire founder, Phil Anschutz, transitioned focus into entertainment media.
  • A number of hyperlocal outlets work to fill these ‘local voids’. Denverite that launched in mid-2016, and long-standing Daily Camera serves Boulder.

To make this brief, I’ll highlight just a few of my memorable experiences of the trip. With my observations below, I’ll note the experience that I had, what I learned about local journalism, as well as questions and further research opportunities I left with.

Observations in Denver

On January 16th, I attended the weekly community development meeting hosted by Code for Denver. They’re a “diverse group of volunteers dedicated to solving the problems of the community with technology.” They had a number of projects being worked on that night regarding improving recycling programs, technology education in middle schools, and a program that gives local musicians opportunities to play for medical patients. I was primarily there to learn more about these projects and see how I could help out that night, but I did get a chance to talk with a few people about local journalism. None of those I spoke with had experience developing tools for a newsroom, but they were all interested in learning about what’s needed.

My Thoughts
A majority of the room was filled with locals who work as programmers or designers— not business owners, non-profit managers, nor government officials. I recall many times seeing the reverse side of this at journalism conferences where the room is filled with journalism expertise, not so much digital expertise.
How can we encourage more collaboration between these two talented groups?
Besides, how can volunteer groups like Code For Denver better advertise their efforts to match with the needs of local business leaders?
How could hyperlocal publishers (who have small or no tech staff) get involved with these groups to help improve their digital presence and reach?
It’s also important to note that while sitting in on this meeting, I gathered a long list of ‘project management tools’ they were using that I had never heard of before (Flowdock, Waffle). I was able to ask questions and play with them while working on the projects — it was a very educational session that night.

The next day, around 10:00am, I started my day by taking a bus from the small historic town of Baker to a coffee shop downtown called Little Owl Coffee.

11:00am: A man sitting next to me at the coffee shop, in his mid-30s, was typing notes on his phone with a stack of books opened by his side. I simply asked him, “Where do you get your local news?” “Denver Post,” he quickly answered, with no other references to sources that he goes to regularly.

My Thoughts
Like many people I spoke with, they had one answer, one source of local news. Usually, the source was Denver Post — which I assume is because of their reputation and long-standing service to Denver.
What does it take for hyperlocal publishers to position themselves effectively to build a better reputation and provide better service?
Is it their voice? persistence? coverage? All of these must be important to the readers, but what in particular will make their answer to my question change?

11:30am: I proceeded to ask the two baristas the same question, they were likely in their mid-20s. “We don’t read the news” they said “We usually hear about news or events from our friends, or people who sit here at the bar stools.” News is not a priority to them unless other people are talking about it. They were pretty strict about this and seemed satisfied, no interest in reading stories or even picking up a newspaper.

My Thoughts
This is the next generation of news consumers, and their behaviors will influence the next generations to come.
Why aren’t they interested in the first place?
Again, is it the publisher’s voice or type of coverage? Or is it the medium they’re communicated through that’s not effective?
How can social platforms better highlight local coverage and present it in a way that encourages people to share and spread the word locally?

11:45am: I left in an Uber, Zouhair was the driver, an older fellow. He’s full-time driver and has been counting on the radio for news lately. His son shows him an app every once in a while and he’s intrigued, but not to a point where he sees it’s important to install on his own phone. He’s also moving away from watching news on TV — disgusted by it and truly an advocate for getting rid of TV altogether.

My Thoughts
How can we make it easier for hyperlocal publishers to partner and distribute content with radio stations and other outlets where residents trust to be ‘informed’? What are these ‘other outlets’ exactly and do they already provide resources for partnership? Why, why not?
How can we make mobile news websites more friendly for those with little time and attention to spare (especially those older folks who aren’t well-aligned with fancy tech)?
What exactly is it about news on TV that disgusts him? How can we make sure hyperlocal publishers don’t take the route that TV took and are more careful with how they present content in the future?

11:55am: I arrived at the offices of Denverite, a new hyperlocal publisher that launched in summer 2016 and covers communities in Denver. Denverite was founded by Dave Burdick, former editor of The Denver Post. They have a team of 10 journalists that cover a wide range of local topics, with the mission:“to feel like the ideal social stream for Denver.” Dave is most passionate about this venture to bring back the ‘strong local voice’ and community engagement that he saw was missing at The Denver Post. Denverite will be honing their focus on new services in the coming months before summer.

My Thoughts
How can public observations and conversations, like mine, in the community be more easily provided to local newsrooms to help them make important decisions?
How can it be easier for publishers to do outreach in the community themselves before and after planning new services? What about improving outreach (and confidence) for experimenting with new services?
Could community volunteer groups like Code for Denver be a viable option for publishers to reach out to for help? How could publishers best communicate their technological needs? —most aren’t techies…

1:00pm: In route to Union Station, I took another Uber, this time with Richard, a well-spoken family man. Richard had a lot of history to tell me while riding through the city — it was clear he knew the city well and is a daily news consumer. He told me he prefers The Denver Post as well. I told him about Denverite and he said he appreciates the reporting of smaller local publishers and would be interested in reading their news at some point.

My Thoughts
Where and how are large publishers marketing in the community that smaller publishers are missing out on? How could it be easier to follow their local marketing efforts — whether online advertisements, public advertisements, newspaper stands, etc?
How can these insights inform hyperlocal publishers of a missed marketing opportunity and help them strategize to get on board and reach new local readership?

Observations in Boulder (about 30 miles north)

After lunch at Honor Society, an amazing local spot, I took a bus up to Boulder for the remainder of my stay in Colorado. For those who haven’t been, I would say Boulder is more livelier and entrepreneurial than Denver — Google likes it too. Like I mentioned earlier, you never know how things will change and what you’ll discover in the next town over.

Daily Camera is the popular local news outlet up there — they’ve been around since 1890 and have quite the story as they’ve grown up in today’s world. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of pressure on journalism programs at University of Colorado, based in Boulder. They closed down the entire journalism school in 2011, as well as the innovative Digital News Test Kitchen program in 2012. Thankfully, in 2015, they restructured and reopened the journalism school as The College of Media, Communication and Information.

I met with the founder of Digital News Test Kitchen, Steve Outing, a few times during my stay. Steve is a former editor at Poynter Institute and, since then, has taken his experience to educate students at the university and be a strategic-foresight consultant for media innovation. What I admired most about Steve is how much attention to media he’s put into Boulder despite it not being a big, lively ‘news ecosystem’. He told me, “Journalism is actually not that big here.”

But what is big, and growing, is the local entrepreneurial spirit. He has seen it extremely important to teach about the challenges of media and exploring new ways for these energetic people to get more involved.

My Thoughts
How can we better define and communicate the challenges of local journalism to these entrepreneurs?
Everyone knows newspapers are falling out, but I don’t believe many people recognize and study the opportunities opening up to news in digital.

Steve invited me to a “futurist masterminds” roundtable one night, led by well-known futurist speaker Thomas Frey. The topic was autonomous cars — or, more generally, autonomous technology. Although, “journalism” wasn’t mentioned in the conversations, there were two topics that stood out to me that pertained, or could eventually pertain, to journalism. These were the shift of ownership, and the ability and ease of personalization.

For autonomous cars, the projection from Thomas and a few others in the room was that without drivers and with smarter autonomous algorithms, it will be easier to commute. This led to the question “do you need to own a car? Or will there be cars available for you to simply ‘request’ when you need ride?” Ownership may transition from the ownership of the vehicle, to the ownership of your experience in the vehicle — “car pods” they called it. Therefore, improving the in-car experience is reasonable for us to start thinking about — as Uber and Lyft are already experimenting with today. This theory also fits well with the recent jumpstart with virtual reality that has created a large movement of new experiences in the past few years.

My Thoughts
So, if the future is less about the material and more about the experience, how can we imagine journalism this way? The focus on digital news experiences is apparent, but are we aware of how it needs to be improved further to accommodate the direction of ‘experience’ technology?
There’s a chance we won’t need to own subscriptions and membership accounts anymore but we will be delivered news autonomously based off of our public profile or location. How can we imagine journalism with a change like this?
How will people prefer to be informed when entire communities transition to autonomous, smart cities? How could local journalism fit into its new information channels?

So, this was quite the ‘souvenir’

I take these experiences in Colorado as the most educational I had during my road trip. Obviously, my observations were few and were not meant to be a large scale study at all, but rather were meant to help shape my understanding of local journalism’s roles and direction.

A few things that I’d like to note that made my job easier were:

  • The participation from residents and how people in Colorado are very kind and open to talk with strangers — you don’t get that everywhere. It’s an important characteristic to pay attention to before visiting and studying a new city.
  • The publishers and professors I met with were also very friendly. I didn’t get to meet with all of the people on my bucket list, but the meetings I did have were extremely insightful experiences. I know their schedules weren’t always as flexible as mine was, so I encourage to plan for this. I also encourage publishers, professors, and other community leaders to consider opening themselves up more to those who want to listen, learn, and share.

I hope my experiences have been insightful and encourage you to try this on your own — perhaps, today. Whatever your topic of interest may be, whether local journalism or something else, be curious to learn more about the topic by asking a simple question to your next Uber driver or barista. Feel free to share your experiences with me too!

I’m looking forward to more trips like this later this year. My hopes for the next trips are to not leave with unanswered questions. I’d like to engage with more members of the community in public discussion meetings that can help facilitate observations and outcomes of those observations. It will take more time and people, but definitely worth it in the end. If you want to join or support the next trip in some way, I’d love to hear how you’d like to help.

Thank you to those who spared time for me throughout my trip, it was a pleasure listening to your experiences and sharing mine. Hope to see you again soon!