Damian Radcliffe
Published in

Damian Radcliffe

Why Local Journalism Still Matters

“You know, our weekly newspaper … has the same ability to deliver news and information that is on such a small scale that no major entity is going to come in and replicate our ability to gather that information.”

— Les Zaitz, Editor and Publisher, Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon)

This is an extract — Chapter 1 — from a new report “Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest: Why It Matters, How It’s Evolving, and Who Pays for It,” published last week by the Agora Journalism Center, University of Oregon.

Introduction

Local journalism remains important. “Local news is the lifeblood of all newspapers,” says Lou Brancaccio, emeritus editor at the Vancouver Columbian (Washington), “particularly smaller newspapers.” Small-market newspapers (under 50,000 circulation), which tend to primarily focus on local issues, represent the majority of daily and weekly printed newspapers in the United States (6,851 out of 7,071).[1]

Meanwhile, although the audiences for local TV news affiliates have declined in the past decade, they still reach 11.9 million people most mornings and 22.9 million in the evenings.[2] And, lest we forget, both local and national radio continues to reach 91 percent of all Americans age 12 or older every week.[3] Nielsen notes that national and local “radio reaches more Americans each week than any other platform.”[4]

A key reason for the continued popularity of local journalism is the role local media can play in delivering original — and well packaged — news and information to communities that is not necessarily found elsewhere. Offering unique, valuable, unreplicated, local reporting may be at the heart of creating a sustainable business model for local news operators.

Despite facing a number of demographic (notably, aging audiences) and financial challenges (including reduced ad revenues and the difficulty in getting audiences to pay for content), local media continue to deliver a number of important journalistic functions.

We can see the positive impact local journalism can make on communities and the wider news/information ecosystem on a daily basis. It supports community, democratic, and civic needs and remains valuable to audiences and communities alike.

However, as Lou Brancaccio cautions, “being optimistic about local news is a completely different dynamic than how optimistic one might be about the future of local newspapers.”

We touch on issues related to business and revenue models in Chapter 4 of this report.

Journalists interviewed for this report consistently articulated that, despite the pressures and uncertainties their sector faces, core journalistic values and purposes still matter and positively influence the work they do.

Interviewees identified three key reasons local journalism remains important in the Pacific Northwest and beyond:

1. Holding Authority to Account

Accountability remains at the heart of the journalistic mission. This is just as true at the local level as it is for regional, national, and international journalists. For Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), changes across the media landscape — including the reduced number of journalists and the shuttering of titles — mean that this essential function of the Fourth Estate is potentially at risk.[5]

As he explains:

The declining enrolment of journalists who are on a payroll in this country … creates an environment that is just a breeding ground for the kinds of corruption, bad deeds that are desperately in need of the kind of watchdog journalism which is in decline.

Zusman’s focus is perhaps not surprising. His paper was the first weekly to win a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting,[6] and it was also the first newspaper to win a Pulitzer for a story first published online, Nigel Jaquiss’ investigation revealing how a former Oregon governor had concealed sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl over a 30-year period.[7]

The need for watchdog reporting, Zusman argues, has never been greater.

It’s very clear to me that the trend lines, both in terms of employment and the strength of local journalism institutions, is such that I think we’re creating an environment in which the potential for corruption and misdeeds has never been greater because of the lack of watchdogs on a local level, not on a national or a federal level.

Despite a challenging economic backdrop — in 2015, advertising revenues at seven publicly traded newspaper companies in the United States fell by 7.8 percent, the largest annual decline since the Great Recession[8] — journalists across the Pacific Northwest continue to deliver hard-hitting, impactful journalism on a regular basis.

In March 2017, Rob Davis of the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) won a Scripps Howard Foundation award for his work on “Toxic Armories,” a two-part series that took 18 months to produce. The Oregonian notes:

…Davis filed more than 100 records requests in all 50 states and amassed more than 23,000 pages of records, that led to the creation of a one-of-a-kind national database of contaminated armories…. Some of the worst lead problems in the nation were detected in Oregon. [9]

In the same month, the Northwest News Network — a collaboration of public radio stations broadcasting in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho[10] — produced the powerful four-part audio series “Suicide Behind Bars,” which explored the surge in inmate suicides found across Washington’s prison system in 2014–2015.[11]

“During those two years,” reporter Austin Jenkins noted, “11 inmate deaths were ruled suicides, giving Washington one of the highest prison suicide rates in the country.”[12]

Warning: this story includes descriptions of suicides.
Warning: this story includes descriptions of suicides.

These in-depth investigative pieces sit alongside the more day-to-day watchdog and accountability work that journalists across the region continue to produce every day.

2. Meeting Public Information Needs

A key challenge for all news outlets — local, regional, and national — is grabbing and retaining the attention of their audience.

That’s not necessarily easy.[13] Consumers have access to more information and entertainment sources than ever before, but their information needs are not necessarily met by the expanding range of sources that many communities now have access to.

One obvious way to address this, argues John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) is to “understand who your audience is, what their wants and needs are, and make sure that you deliver them in ways that are more responsive and more informative than anybody else in the area.”

“I know that it sounds like a truism,” he added, but “I suspect that a lot of papers don’t think about that often enough. I worked at other big papers before I came here, and I’ve always been surprised at how infrequently they think about the evolving needs of readers.”

News providers are using a variety of means to determine these evolving needs, from digital analytics to focus groups and opportunities for face-to-face engagement. But, underpinning all of this, news providers need to recognize they are in the relationship business.

“It’s a relationship you can have in a print product or a broadcast or an app or whatever,” suggests Morgan Holm, senior vice president and chief content officer of Oregon Public Broadcasting (Portland, Oregon). “But it is a relationship where you’re meeting somebody’s needs.”

He continues:

And if you’re able to convey to people that you understand that, you continue to have value in this explosion of an information environment that we live in. But if you treat people like customers who are just on the receiving end of the production pipeline, they have options at this point that they didn’t used to have. So the loyalty has drained away in so many cases.

The information needs of communities vary, and so do the editorial approaches local media organizations employ to meet this challenge.

Some local news providers continue to take a “general store” approach: offering a little bit of everything.

Others specialize based on a specific hyperlocal geographic area (like West Seattle Blog) or particular audience characteristics. Examples in the latter category include The Evergrey,“the daily Seattle newsletter for people who want to make the most of their city”[14] and the Seattle-based Crosscut, which “strives to provide readers with the facts and analysis they need to intelligently participate in civic discourse, and to create a more just, equitable and sustainable society.”[15]

Seattle is home to a number of news start-ups, between 50–100 according to Dr. Matthew Powers, Asst. Professor, Dept. of Communication, University of Washington. Image via: https://tech.co/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/seattle.jpg

Alongside targeted geographic reporting and material aimed at audiences with particular interests, many local media outlets continue to undertake traditional shoe-leather reporting, covering topics that audiences don’t necessarily know about until it they are brought to their attention.

Reporting by the Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon) on the sale[16] — and performance[17] — of Lane County’s for-profit coordinated care organization Trillium Community Health Plan is just one example of journalism that might fit this category.

In addition to meeting the information needs of communities through traditional public affairs and watchdog reporting, local news outlets continue to play an integral role in sharing important local information, including softer stories that are no less valuable to communities.

As Les Zaitz, editor and publisher at the Malheur Enterprise (Vale, Oregon), has observed:

There is no other entity that can replicate our ability to cover the gristle of daily life in a small town. You know, the high school’s football scores, what did the city council do. You know, who won an award or a scholarship from the local rotary club, the obituaries for the local families.

Much of this local content — both hard and soft news — is not necessarily found elsewhere. Subsequently, there remains a role for media providers who can present news and information in a dynamic, contextualized, and useful manner.

By curating, analyzing, and building on the information provided across a given locale, news media can continue to offer a service that communities value, need, and may potentially (financially) support. Identifying opportunities to deliver unique content may lie at the heart of a successful economic future for local news providers.

3. Building and Supporting Community

In addition to sharing useful information and providing accountability and watchdog reporting, local media also helps empower communities by reflecting their experience and encouraging participation in local and civic life.

Research from Poindexter et al. (2006) and Heider et al. (2005) found that readers were keen for local media to act as a “good neighbor” even more so than being a “watchdog,” although both types of activities remain important.

This can be particularly true in a crisis, when local media continues to often be the leading — and sometimes sole — reliable information source for a community.

In the Pacific Northwest, one high-profile example of this type of coverage came from the Methow Valley News (Twisp, Washington) in 2014, when the biggest wildfire in Washington state history shut down the power in the town of Twisp, where the paper is based.

Image: Top of the front cover for the Methow Valley News, July 23, 2014.[19]

This meant no internet. No cell phone coverage. And a paucity of reliable information.

“I realized with surreal clarity that if I wanted to do my job, I’d have to get out of the valley. And no journalist wants to leave the scene of the story,” publisher Don Nelson recalled.[18]

After initially decamping to Seattle, Nelson and the paper’s designer, Darla Hussey, began using Facebook to capture — and share — the latest news.

They later returned to the town with a borrowed generator to focus on putting out the paper. Sharing files on flash drives, as their network was down, the team produced copy that a sales associate drove 100 miles through the fire zone to print.

Our attitude,” publisher Don Nelson later recounted, “from the moment the power faded, was not whether we would make a newspaper, but how.”[20]

“Nelson saw their duty as two-fold,” Mike Wallberg wrote on the IVOH (Images & Voice of Hope) website: “To relay important safety and other fire-related news to affected residents, and to provide an uninterrupted presence to folks who have come to see the paper as an integral element of the community.”[21]

These sentiments continue to drive activity at local media outlets across the United States, and not just in times of crisis.

One clear way local media helps to build and support a sense of community is through day-to-day reporting and campaigning on issues that matter.

The Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon), which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, is currently embarking on a yearlong project tackling homelessness. As in many cities across the region, this is an important issue. Around 3,000 people,[22] including large numbers of students and young people,[23] are homeless in Eugene at any given time.

Further north, in Washington State, the Seattle Times launched “Under Our Skin” in June 2016 “as part of an effort to deepen public discussion and understanding of race.”[24]

Image: Screenshot from the Seattle Times’ “Under Our Skin” project.[25]

The initiative featured 18 videos, guest essays, and opportunities — online and offline — for readers and members of the community to offer their reflections on race, policing, and equality. The Seattle Times shared some of these reflections[26], while the series also provoked discussions in other spaces about the issues raised.

The University of Washington’s football coach, Chris Petersen, invited one contributor to the series, Bishop Greg Rickel, to talk to his team about race and racism. As Adam Jude, a Seattle Times staff reporter, noted, this conversation wasn’t always comfortable, not least because “Rickel grew up as a white Southerner and who describes himself as a ‘recovering racist.’”

“It definitely made us uncomfortable — it’s an uncomfortable topic for everyone,” Jude quotes Greg Gaines, a sophomore defensive tackle. “But I liked it. He forced us to think like real men.”

Talking about the series, the Seattle Times’ managing editor at the time, Jim Simon, indicated that the initiative was “a powerful thing” that played an important role in building relationships with new audiences and finding a fresh way to build community engagement.

“All the data we had showed that it gets audiences that we don’t normally hit,” he said. “It didn’t do so great among our typical audience, but it hit a lot of other audiences.”

Image: Comments card from the interactive booth set up by the Seattle Times at BAAMFest 2016, a free event hosted by the Rainier Beach Merchants Association “celebrating the culture, diversity, energy, and talent in the thriving Rainier Beach community!”[27]

Recap and Reflections

Although audiences, in many cases, are declining, local news remains important — especially for older demographics.

Local television news continues to make a difference to the communities it serves. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, “57% of U.S. adults often get TV based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three.”[28]

Newspapers, radio, and online channels also remain important news and information sources. Collectively, they help to hold authority to account, share valuable public information, and shine a spotlight on communities and local issues.

As we shall see, local outlets are responding to the challenges in front of them in a number of ways as they seek to reinvent themselves for the digital age. This includes using new platforms for storytelling and distribution, exploring new revenue models, and re-examining the type of journalism they produce.

[1] http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/02/if-small-newspapers-are-going-to-survive-theyll-have-to-be-more-than-passive-observers-to-the-news/, accessed July 4, 2017

[2] http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/local-tv-news-fact-sheet/ (data relates to network affiliates for ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC)

[3] http://www.rab.com/public/marketingGuide/DataSheet.cfm?id=1, accessed July 4, 2017

[4] http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/audio-today-radio-2016-appealing-far-and-wide.html, accessed July 4, 2017

[5] As noted in an article co-written with Dr. Christopher Ali for Nieman Lab: “Between 2007 — when there were 55,000 people employed in newsrooms — and 2015, newspapers shed over 20,000 jobs. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 100 daily newspapers closed.” http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/02/if-small-newspapers-are-going-to-survive-theyll-have-to-be-more-than-passive-observers-to-the-news/, accessed July 4, 2017

[6] http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year/2005, accessed July 4, 2017

[7] http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/nigel-jaquiss, accessed July 4, 2017

[8] http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/newspapers-fact-sheet/, accessed July 4, 2017

[9] http://www.oregonlive.com/editors/index.ssf/2017/03/post_14.html#incart_river_home, accessed July 4, 2017

[10] http://nwnewsnetwork.org/about, accessed July 4, 2017

[11] http://nwnewsnetwork.org/post/how-11-suicides-forced-change-inside-washington-prisons, accessed July 4, 2017

[12] http://nwnewsnetwork.org/post/eleven-suicides-behind-bars, accessed July 4, 2017

[13] http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/, accessed July 4, 2017

[14] https://twitter.com/theevergrey, accessed July 4, 2017

[15] http://crosscut.com/about/#undefined, accessed July 4, 2017

[16] http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/35325691-75/trillium-and-other-oregon-health-plan-insurers-oppose-plan-to-make-oregon-ccos-nonprofits.html.csp, accessed July 4, 2017

[17] http://projects.registerguard.com/rg/news/local/34712811-75/how-trillium-can-miss-care-benchmarks-reap-state-bonus.html.csp, accessed July 4, 2017

[18] http://methowvalleynews.com/2014/07/25/putting-out-a-newspaper-with-a-low-tech-high-tech-mash-up/, accessed July 4, 2017

[19] http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.14/how-to-publish-a-newspaper-in-the-midst-of-wildfire, accessed July 9, 2017

[20] http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.14/how-to-publish-a-newspaper-in-the-midst-of-wildfire, accessed July 9, 2017

[21] http://ivoh.org/methow-valley-news/, accessed July 9, 2017

[22] https://www.eugene-or.gov/842/Homelessness, accessed July 9, 2017

[23] http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/35017190-75/homelessness-on-the-rise-for-local-students.html.csp, accessed July 9, 2017

[24] http://company.seattletimes.com/stc_announcement/under-our-skin-project-launch/, accessed July 9, 2017

[25] https://i1.wp.com/mediashift.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Screen-Shot-2016-12-20-at-3.11.25-PM.png?resize=1024%2C512, accessed July 9, 2017

[26]http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/reflections-on-race-policing-and-equality-heres-what-the-under-our-skin-team-heard-from-you/, accessed July 9, 2017

[27] https://www.facebook.com/pg/BAAMFest/about/, accessed July 9, 2017

[28] http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/07/08140120/PJ_2016.07.07_Modern-News-Consumer_FINAL.pdf, accessed July 9, 2017

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Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app