The challenges for local publishers are immense. As Kinzen builds technology to connect citizens with sources of quality information, the local newsroom, journalist, newsletter writer, or curator is in our thoughts.
A lot of industry research has gone into local news, particularly in urban settings; less so rural. That’s why we jumped at the chance to travel through Indiana in November to learn about the information landscape there in 2019. We were kindly invited by Professor of Practice Elaine Monaghan at Indiana University’s Media School, and the trip was funded by the Center For Rural Engagement.
We wanted to understand how local Indiana publishers navigate through an era of commercial decline, disengagement, and disinformation. We met with and interviewed four newsrooms — The Greene County Daily World, The Dubois County Herald, The Brown County Democrat and The Salem Leader. We also held focus groups with members of their communities to understand their perspective. Finally, we met with Emily Alford, Head of Government Information, Maps and Microform Services at the university library.
This is the first of two posts highlighting our learnings from the week spent in Indiana interviewing 25 people. Here we focus on the publishers themselves. Next we will post about the community perspective.
Listening to Learn
Truly understanding the problem requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are on the ground every day. That’s why we planned this visit as a listening tour.
The largest of the publishers we met has a staff of 15, while the smallest has just three. They each shared similar challenges — unsurprisingly, they struggle with resources and rarely get to cover all the stories they would like.
Each publisher has an extremely strong sense of their identity, and of what their obligation is to the community. They each believe they serve as a bond that brings the community together. The paper provides insights into what is good and could be great about the local area, with a lot of focus on charity drives and feel good heritage pieces.
There is another side to all this: the role of the paper as moral compass. Through reports on jail listings and arrest reports people are shown the darker reality of the area, and stay informed on where things can be improved. One paper publishes “Mugshot Monday”, showcasing photos of people who were arrested over the last week. (The community members we spoke to found this slightly distasteful, but many were still avid readers of the section.)
Each publisher said they struggle to inform people about just how much work is involved in the production of their journalism. They feel their factual reporting, which takes time, struggles to compete with local Facebook groups which are updated with speed, yet often fail to provide accurate reports.
Kinzen has worked with local publishers before, but none quite as rural as these. We were struck by a number of takeaways which must be taken into account when designing solutions to the problems we encounter at this level.
1: The paper still matters
Each publisher is still hugely reliant on print circulation, even though it’s in decline. Print advertising from local businesses is still a core part of their revenue model. In one case the paper sent free ‘shoppers’ (supplements entirely devoted to advertisements) to every house in the county regardless of whether they held a subscription to the paper. There is a fear of moving away from print because of the perception that most readers are older and won’t be comfortable with technology.
2: Little data; lots of assumptions
With very little quantifiable data or user metrics, each publisher is relying on assumptions which may or may not be true. In a small community, where neighbours know each other more intimately than in cities, it is easy to see how such assumptions can be made. Many of the journalists know their readers on a personal level. Yet there is clearly a reserve of untapped potential with new readers. As we went into further detail, we found that newsrooms were aware of disengaged younger families who recently moved to the area. They know very little about this group’s desire for local information, but there is clearly a new need to be served here.
3: Local means news you can’t Google
A defining attribute of these rural publishers was their strong understanding of what their product should be. It is clearly differentiated from other outlets, and defined by geography. They won’t specialise in national or even regional information; they seek to offer what no one else can. This was summed up by one editor, who said:
“We want to offer information about the things that are going on in this community — not even in the state of Indiana. You can Google that, likewise you can Google national news. That’s not the product we want to offer this community.”
4: No competition; little innovation
Due to the uniqueness of their content there is not much competition. Often there is one provider of news per county or town (if that). This often leads to little appetite for experimentation or innovation. There are lots of reasons for poor investments in digital: resources and demographics play a part. But we must not underestimate the publisher’s own monopoly as an important factor also.
5: Fear of going digital
Each of the publishers had varying degrees of digital presence. They had issues with leaky paywalls. Much of their technology was outsourced in the past and is not flexible. There is a real fear that further investment in digital would be wasted as older readers would rather stick with old routines — and yet there is a fear that new and younger readers will not be served by the old systems.
While there are clearly lots of challenges, as outlined here, we see huge opportunities to help deepen the bond with existing readers through technology, to provide better journalism by becoming more data-driven, and for reaching new readers through new user experiences. Just as we build tools for large publishers and platforms, Kinzen is excited to explore ways of rejuvenating community journalism throughout 2020.
But first we must focus on what the audience themselves actually want. In the next post, we’ll report back on their concerns, and the potential role for libraries as an independent, trusted vector in our complicated modern information landscape.
We are grateful to the Center for Rural Engagement at Indiana University for providing the funding for this exploratory research visit. We also want to thank Elaine Monaghan for her guidance and support.