If local journalism is ‘dying in plain sight,’ what are you going to do about it?

WITF’s Tim Lambert interviews Anthony Lewis, an interpretive guide at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. In 2014, Lambert produced a multimedia story about a western Pennsylvania soldier buried who was killed in the Battle of Normandy in 1944. The man’s family has never visited his grave site. (Photo by Samantha Broderick)

The last few weeks have not been pretty for journalists serving communities across the country.

Each day seemed to bring another gut-punch to the industry:

If this were the manufacturing industry, cries to find ways to save factories and jobs would be heard from the county courthouse to the White House.

Instead….quiet resignation.

“Losing a newspaper,” Keith Pritchard, the chairman of the board at the Security Bank of Pulaski County and a lifelong resident of Waynesville, Missouri, told the AP in its March 10 story, “is like losing the heartbeat of a town.”

Nobody seems to know what to do to stem the tide of job losses and cutbacks. So, here’s a small suggestion to struggling media organizations:

Tell. Your. Story.

Think of it as taking a proactive step in helping the community you serve understand why they should support your work.

Since the beginning of March, I have served as one of four national coaches for the Trusting News project, which aims to guide media organizations in doing just that. It means detailing things like their decision-making process, being transparent about their ethical standards, and most importantly, demonstrating credibility while holding a conversation with their audiences.

It’s important to remind readers/listeners/viewers that their daily life is affected by the actions of school boards, borough councils, county commissioners, state government, and the federal government. They all set policies, tax rates, regulations, etc. Journalists break that information down — by doing things like reading proposed laws, talking to experts, digging into budget numbers, getting and reporting on public records — and putting them into context.

So when journalists are no longer around to do the heavy lifting, what happens? It sometimes feels like no one ever thinks about the “doomsday” scenario, until a local media outlet is gone.

WITF’s StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Marie Cusick interviews Rob Boulware, director of Stakeholder Relations for Seneca Resources. She was inside a natural gas compressor station in the Loyalsock State Forest. Marie’s work focuses on the energy economy in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Ulrich/WITF)

A newsroom on life support

One of the organizations I’ve worked with through Trusting News is facing basically a life or death situation. It’s a locally-owned newspaper, and despite the high quality of work its team puts out on a daily basis, the organization is practically on financial life support:

A drop in advertising is outpacing a fall in circulation.

Its building has been put up for sale.

The news hole has been slashed.

Vacated positions have been left unfilled.

Readers are questioning its health and future.

The editor and I chatted about ways to have an honest dialogue about his organization’s situation.

The first recommendation was to focus on transparency. Write about the newspaper’s history, some of the big stories the paper has covered and why journalism is important on the community level. Show the breadth of its coverage and emphasize the public service that journalism provides.

Place a note on the front page somewhere. Something like: “If you value local news, we need your help. Read how.” Find ways to detail why news costs money. (Jennifer Hefty at The Coloradoan did a nice job explaining such an approach in this Medium post.)

Another strategy is as simple as placing a note on stories — like “We’re your neighbors (not “the media”). We want to tell the stories of this community. We care because we live here too.” Emphasize that a locally-owned newspaper is a locally-owned business that needs community support.

Next comes the pivot to why the paper is at a crossroads and what the editor’s plan is to rebuild staff and trust with the community. Make the case to readers that the organization is worth supporting and community support is vital to helping the paper maintain its existence. “If the community takes us for granted, we may not be here tomorrow.”

Basically, define the situation, outlook and strategy — while emphasizing that journalism, first and foremost, is a public service.

All media organizations are searching for a way to stay relevant and financially solvent in an era of partisan news sites, echo chamber social media algorithms, and public distrust of journalists. While the Trusting News initiative isn’t going to magically save the day for the industry, it’s a start to taking back journalism’s role in society.

After all, if we don’t tell our stories, who will?

Tim Lambert is the multimedia news director at WITF, a public media organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also serves as interim co-editor of PA Post, a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization to hold Pennsylvania’s government accountable to its citizens.

Trusting News, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation.