Where Does the “Community” Fit in “News”?

A hot debate in journalism whether local newspapers have a future — and if their communities are vanishing with them

David Cohea

Community has been called the new business model for journalism. This is strange, because journalism’s business has always come from communities. As Tom Rosentstiel put it, “the news has never belonged to journalists. It has always been the public’s.”

The big disagreement in journalism today has to do with evolving visions of community — and whether local newspapers can continue to have a voice in them.

If a community is defined by a shared geography and a range of interests defined by that space, then local newspapers should be the most valuable go-to source for trusted community news and information — so much so that some day, subscriptions may overtake advertising as the primary source of revenue for newspapers.

But getting there is fraught with difficulty. While print editions still have a loyal readership in small communities, local news online is hardly reaching audiences. Platforms like Facebook dominate attention and big digital news platforms like Buzzfeed and Huffington post lionize traffic.

Advertising continues to slump at a seemingly irrecoverable rate, and if Clay Shirkey is correct in his estimation (count on him to be aggressive), once ad solutions are found for mobile, the remaining advertising base will flee from newspapers in droves.

So there really isn’t much time to act.

Sadly, in the face of challenges that are difficult even to properly name, many newspapers are doing very little; certainly not enough. They are like victims of a storm so devastating that it seems less trouble to pack up and go rather than to rebuild. Their communities may be struggling just as hard as disruptive economic impacts of the digital age transform everything around them.

Whether newspapers — and the communities they support and advocate — can recover is now being argued out loudly between two schools of thought in newspaper research and innovation.

Thriving Local Newspapers Foster Strong Communities

The first school is voiced best in Penelope Muse Abernathy’s 2014 book, Saving Community Journalism: A Path to Profitability. Local newspapers can survive into the 21st century, she writes, but they must quickly adopt three strategies:

For community newspapers everywhere, the next decade will be a period of transition. In most markets, the circulation of the print edition will continue to decline as readers age and die and are not replaced by a younger generation. … Publishers have an option of managing that transition and tailoring it to meet the needs of their markets, provided they simultaneously pursue a three-pronged strategy that (1) cuts legacy costs associated with the print era; (2) builds community across multiple platforms, and (3) aggressively pursues new revenue opportunities.

I summarized the book’s salient points in an earlier post, so I won’t go back over them in detail again. The solutions are practical and doable. Papers must become multi-platform entities. The financial formula is a 30 percent net reduction in legacy costs paired with an equal increase in revenue. Editorial tools for building community are discussed and special emphasis given toward training a sales force adept at selling across platforms.

Since the book published, Abernathy has been the keynote speaker at newspaper conventions across the country. Later this month, the Southern Newspaper Publishers’ Association and The UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication are co-hosting a 3-day workshop for local newspaper publishers across the country seeking to build on the book’s recommendations.

During the workshop, publishers will be asked to think about who their readers are, how to transition that knowledge into new products and then model revenue based on “the lifetime value of readers.”

Abernathy says she’s been surprised to find how many publishers have already rolled up their sleeves and substantially cut legacy costs. “But that was just the easy part,” she says. “Now they have to think about who their readers are, transition to new products and figure out how to grow revenue from them.”

Abernathy says the response is quickly picking up speed. “I see a huge difference from last year,” she says. “We couldn’t have even done something like this before. People will be leaving with practical ideas that they can put right to work.”

The Earth Is Vertical. Newspapers Are Flat.

In the second view, community newspapers’ last ship has already sailed.

The thinking, which I summarize from a Peter Winter post, goes something like this.

  • The economics of printing a newspaper and delivering out as far as you can go by sunrise meant static fixed local entities entrusted with a profitable monopoly.
  • With arrival of the Internet, digital upstarts like Craigslist and Angie’s List rapidly invaded local markets and fragmented audience.
  • Mass advertising models were disrupted by digital advertising’s ability to target individuals through data-driven targeting and analysis.
  • Also disrupted was the bundled content package, picked off the countless information streams coming in from wherever.
  • Geography in the Internet age is almost as useless as temporal boundaries.
  • Faced by these challenges, newspapers have done little more than put their newspapers online. As such they are terribly inept information sources; they have no archives, aren’t searchable, have very little reach into social channels, don’t have steaming video or podcasts or all of the marvelous digital gems offered in the born-digital news realm.

According to this second school, local newspapers are going the way of communities. So writes Winter (again) in a recent post on the end of local media:

The Town Square has gone digital. The ties that bind us are stronger than ever, but they’ve changed. Anybody under 30 stays in constant contact with a network of friends whose physical location is irrelevant. They know a digital acquaintance across the world better than they know their neighbor. So instead of bifurcating customers on the basis of where they happen to live, media today must take a more holistic view, basing segmentation on personal needs, interests and desires that include but transcend local geography. The earth is no longer flat. It’s vertical.

If digital disruption has so re-written the rules of the news game, then, according to this school, the only way to stay up with the disruption is by leaving old modes of media and community to fade away.

But toward what? A good outline can be found Bill Densmore’s From Persona to Payment: A Status Report on the News Ecosystem, and a Challenge to Create the Next One. It’s still in draft form but you can read it here. Densmore is a Reynolds Fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and a co-founder director of Journalism That Matters.

The report grows out the emerging need to create a unified digital market as a way to sustain journalism in “the Attention Age.” For this report, 85 leading journalists, technologists, researchers and educators were interviewed, probing ways the news “ecosystem” needs to change in order to conform to this new vertical community. The experts weighed in with ideas of how to rethink advertising from mass to 1-to-1, how to collaborate, and help users better manage personal information and privacy.

The report concludes that the newspaper industry is unable or unwilling due to corporate ownership to provide sufficient resources vital for collaboration. The technology for monetized sharing is there — it points out programmatic ad targeting technology already in use — but without a broadly supported, open-source, single-log-in information interface, users have no incentive to pay for any subscription service.

Its recommendation is to form a non-profit collaboration to share technology, users and content to help set standards for convenient web information sale. The framework would provide the public with more trustworthy information choices and better privacy controls. And the result would be what they call The Information Trust Exchange (or ITE).

Densmore envisages how this system would work for the individual in a piece that appeared recently in Editor and Publisher titled “Imagining the 21st Century Personal News Experience.”:

Jane Doe is up at 6 a.m. on a weekday. She wants a current update on the news that matters in her life. That’s information that could affect her family, her work, and the ideas and things she’s passionate about.
News to Jane is not just what would be on the front page of the newspaper she no longer subscribes to in print. To Jane, news is what her friends and colleagues think is important. Jane subscribes to a service that finds news for her. The newsroom of the her local newspaper is an affiliate and helps curate the stories and comment threads that comprise the Daily Update that arrived in her email box just after 6 a.m. It’s similar to hundreds of daily updates put out by news purveyors using email list technologies, except no other person besides Jane has received the exact package of 24 items that she is about to swipe through on her mobile device.
Even though the 24 information items in her Daily Update are from 24 different publishers, Jane gets all this information with a single, monthly subscription to her local “InfoValet” affiliate. Because of a microaccounting system used by the service, some of the money Jane pays her local affiliated news organization is parceled out to other publishers based on usage. Jane doesn’t have to do anything for this to occur; it’s a result of networked subscription revenue sharing among the publishers.
Not all of the items reached Jane because of her expressed or inferred preferences. A few items — Jane can specify how many she wants — are provided by her local news organization — the affiliate to which she pays a digital subscription fee monthly.
For Jane, this service is a by-request, on-demand, continuously updating and customizable view of the information landscape that matters to her. It’s is her personal information companion.

Concluding the report, Densmore sidesteps both communities and newspapers to focus on what he considers even more essential. “This report does not seek to detail public-facing services or plead for a particular industry’s survival,” he writes. “… Rather, we argue for new collaborations and services that can sustain the values, principles and purposes of journalism for a participatory democracy. “

Local News In a Hyper-Vertical World

Which vision of journalism and community should we focus on? A few thoughts.

William Gibson once said that the future is here but unevenly distributed. We live in an age where time seems to be going in every direction. Some people have morphed fully into the digital. Others still faithfully read newspapers. Some do both. Some people pine for the 1950s. Others can’t wait for the next iPhone. And some do both.

Small communities do still exist. Community newspapers may be much more financially secure than their metro daily counterparts precisely because they are doing business in communities that are changing far slower. The future is thinner in these places, a paler roar.

Those papers can survive if they can strengthen not just their profits but their voice in their communities. The recommendations coming out of Saving Community Journalism offer sound and practical ideas for these publishers, and if they can adapt and adopt, then may be around for a long time to come.

Moreover, I think it’s essential for local newspapers to survive, because the survival of their communities stands right behind them. Too much is being too quickly absorbed into an extra-geographical space, something hat is too vacuous and shifting to be called a community — at least not one I care to call myself a citizen of. I like knowing what my sister is doing on Facebook, but she’s in a feed that swims away too fast for me to much notice. Data engineers are gaming my iota of attention will aggregate into something big enough to rack up significant enough sales for entities I can never know, no matter how perky and social a face they may put on.

Abernathy would be quick to point out that newspapers do need to broaden their conception of community. In a 2014 Nieman Lab interview, she suggests that diversification could open up enough new revenue streams to offset advertising and circulation declines:

You can craft six different communities pretty easily within the community that you serve. So part of it is just getting journalists to start thinking about writing stories in different ways that are going to appeal to various communities, understanding that the standard will be that you learn to write or that somebody that expects you to write on a town council meeting is not necessarily going to be the one that gets it for more than anybody that’s interested in the town council. And that, you know, if you’re bringing people into the sports page, how do you then get them to understand some important issues that are happening in education or any other place that resonate through your community?

The issue of corporate ownership of small newspapers — especially investment banks looking to maximize short-term profits — does throw a wedge into this thinking. When newspapers are given no resources to expand, you can only squeeze things so far, and when the banks leave there’s too often nothing left.

Furthermore, the information universe is exploding; hard work should be put in to develop the sort of user interface that maximizes both credible information and privacy. Networking is essential and the reach of this network must extend through a multitude of memory organizations, including libraries, research institutions, museums, broadcast, public news organizations and born-digital news outfits.

If the infrastructure for linking to this information isn’t done — or is carried out only among the larger newspapers — significant voices will surely be lost. (Last week when I wrote about personal archival issues, this cropped up again — will the historical digital record only be populated by the 1 percent who could afford to fund a diligent archival?)

A lot to get cabled together in short order. But if this isn’t accomplished in a real and tangible and durable enough way, then the big tech platforms and corporate interests will rule the Internet hold sway over democratic channels.

Is that what newspapers are supposed to stand up to in their communities?

Then where would we be?

Maybe we will have to live in many futures at once, in both vertical and horizontal communities. An idea like this was put forth back in the 1970s in Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave: For humankind to survive massive technological upheaval, it must cultivate a complete openness to change on one side while maintaining deep traditional ties on the other.

The alternative is to have to decide. If a community is defined by a geography and shared local interests, then local newspapers can and should be the most valuable go-to source for trusted community news and information. If the Internet is replacing that sense of community with an extra-geographical one defined more by fluid interests and affiliations, then local newspapers may have no place in the journalism of tomorrow.

We might be able to live without newspapers, but I wonder what’s would be left to animate a world without them. A Facebook feed or iWatch notification stream will never make me feel that I’m home.

David Cohea is general manager of King Features Weekly Service, an editorial service for 700 weekly newspapers.