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If It's True That Journalism Matters, Then Local Journalism Matters Most

Posted by Joe Antle on April 7, 2019 11:35 AM EDT
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Over the last decade, the combination of the explosion in content and advertising "inventory" and choices, combined with the impact of the financial crisis and recession and slow recovery have....

...put local media on its backside.  Whether it is newspapers and their subordinate local news websites, or local television news, the impact has been severe and lasting.  

The industry that I spent three decades employed by-local newspapers-has experienced the most severe impacts.  The loss of jobs, even during the recent uptick in the economy in terms of job creation, has been profound.  Yet, despite the enormous cuts in staffing, reduction in fresh local content due to cutbacks in newsprint consumption and a general turnover in newspaper ownership led by private equity firms purchases and by investor groups and others seeking incredibly, never-before-imagined prices, the level of adoption of true innovation has been almost unnoticeable.  And the fundamental and aggressive embrace of new business models tied to the primary purpose of the medium (informing the public on issues that matter most and helping galvanize action to make the communities they serve better places to live, work and play) has been negligible.

And a little known fact, that only people in the upper echelons of the industry my now recall, is that Dr. Clayton Christensen's consulting firm, Innosight, worked closely with the American Press Institute in the years 2006-2008 to produce truly groundbreaking work through two remarkable and deeply researched reports.  The two reports, one over 86 pages in length, the other over 110 pages were called Newspapers Next and Newspapers Next 2.0.  They were chockful of suggestions and examples within the industry of helping constituents-readers and advertisers, more importantly non-advertisers-to get the jobs done that they needed doing with good enough, affordable, convenient and simple solutions.  For the most part, though the industry's reaction was not disruptive innovation/market-creating innovation but sustainable innovation.  This basically meant the newspapers did extensions of what they have always done, create content and sell advertising around it.  And in the immediate years that followed, including the present time, selling local advertising in a world that advertising options have exploded has been a poor business model for replacing the advertising revenues that were lost from 2006-2012. 

While most newspaper companies, and their traditional local advertising and media competitors (broadcast TV, radio, cable TV and direct marketing) have suffered enormously, few have fundamentally changed their model.  The mantra "digital first" rings through the halls of every newspaper, television station and other traditional local media business office.  But the bets being placed on a fundamental reinvention of the business model and its purpose have not kept up with the need to be BOLDER.  My favorite local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot was sold for a shockingly low price and was bought by the private equity-backed owner of the former Tribune corporation.  The original name of the purchasing entity was TRONC, which was soon renamed to be Tribune Publishing Group (or something like that).

Some changes have followed, namely the merger of the two papers key staffs.  More layoffs, very large font on the obituaries, which are basically paid announcements and have been for years and the elimination of various publication components.  Nothing bold, other than the shocking reality that the newspapers known as The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot are finally now merged entities and that they cover the entire region of southeast Virginia called Hampton Roads.  The big question for many now is "so what"..or better said, "so what will happen NOW".  With an emphasis on the urgency for change, and bigger-better change-not the continued reduction in the relevance of the medium as a result of continuous cost-cutting.  The reliance on the primary revenue stream of advertising from local entities, many of whom are retailers or services businesses which themselves are under assault from Amazon, and online retailers of all sorts is a recipe for continued revenue shortfalls.  Subscription revenues decline still despite enormous increases in their rates.  My seven-day subscription to The Virginian-Pilot is now more than $400 per year...not so long ago it was less than $200.  And the quality, depth, and breadth of truly local content have declined.

So, I wanted to write this blog post for a long time.  The combination of the continued expansion of Amazon and all the various social media platforms, the decline of truly local media certainly have served as motivation.  And the recent in-paper promotional campaign by Tribune called "Journalism Matters" (see the attached photo of a recent "in-house" ad) have spurred me to action.  It remains to be seen whether my thoughts matter or are relevant is another topic entirely :).

What triggered me into taking action and writing it now, in addition to the "house ad promoting that journalism matters, is that local journalism matters even more.  And in my humble opinion, local journalism and it's revenue model(s) are getting lost in the over-repetition of the world and national news that is being played out over and over again across all media-social media included.  The other catalyst is the recent series of blogs written by our small team of three that have featured three very interesting and relevant books. These three books promote the role of groups in substance use recovery, the importance of market-creating innovation in terms of building enduring economic prosperity and the critical progress being made by the movement called "The New Localism".

The following bullet points are meant to be a possible formula for reviving and making local newspapers and their "branded" local news websites relevant again, perhaps even profitable.  The need for traditional media or something in its place, or appended to it, is definitely needed.  Traditional and local based media were originated by having a critical purpose.  In some ways this is not unlike their centuries-old meaning to inform the public of what matters and what's working or needs fixing.  And to do so in a way that encourages bold action that drives improvements in the "local" communities that they serve so that the communities become healthier, more prosperous and better places to live, work and play and raise a family.

In using The Virginian-Pilot newspaper as my model, I offer these honest and humble-perhaps somewhat BOLDER-suggestions:

-Publish the newspaper only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  Use newsprint savings from the other three days to reinvest in better "local journalism"

-Only publish articles that are locally-oriented, have a local meaning if national news or world news or play a role in strengthening community stewardship and engagement

-Identify no more than seven local issues that matter and focus all reporting resources against those.  Spend more time finding what works, or what works elsewhere that can be applied to some or all of these local seven issues that exist in all regional communities:

1. Improving community population health

2. Building more prosperity through innovation and job creation

3. Strengthening local education, especially for the less fortunate

4. Improving transportation and access for citizens

5. Creating more civic engagement among groups of people

6. Build resilience against issues of climate change

7. Using "cross-sector collaboration" to create sustained improvement

-Never run national and world stories unless there is a local impact or local "lens" on the issue.  Be relevant, be remarkable and be irreplaceable.  Be differentiated on a dimension that no other medium can match-"local journalism on issues that matter" to the civically-engaged members of the local or regional economy

-Seek economic value outside of advertising.  Offer other content specialties that people will pay for.  Consider transactional revenues, services revenues beyond simply being another social media content creator for small businesses.

-Find ways to galvanize "collective action" against the key seven issues-find grant revenue sources, private equity, micro-finance, and sponsorship revenue sources.

-Partner with other local media in new and novel ways.  Nor just co-sharing content in different formats....but in real and substantive new ways.  For example, what can the local media do to promote the role of nonprofits, volunteerism and civic-engagement concepts that can be monetized?

-What are other jobs that businesses, nonprofits, local NGOs and individuals need to be done and how can those be monetized through ad revenues, sponsorship revenues, grants, and micro financial tools.

-How can the media partners in a local region help fill up abandoned local retail space?  How can they capitalize on the "sharing movement"-not just ride sharing, but space sharing, food sharing and services sharing?  

Make all of these or some of these moves NOW.  Before it's too late.  And while the resources, reputation, and skills that the local media owners have that are not forgotten.  O

Here's one final recommendation for my friends that are still left in the local newspaper and local news and advertising online/digital world:  

Set a goal of reducing substance use disorder now by a factor of 50%-and promote the principles in the book "It Takes A Family".  Find solutions in the substance use recovery space where new innovations can create meaningful new jobs by enabling recovered addicts to be recovery coaches and apply principles from the book "The Prosperity Paradox".  Lastly, partner with the governmental, university, private enterprise, employer, nonprofits and civically-engaged volunteers and families and leverage collective impact in the process like is proposed in the book "The New Localism".

There is 1 comment



Very well said. Good recap of what's happened to the industry, how they didn't respond, and now how they're facing an increasingly critical situation. I like your prescription. Will it work... perhaps not. But action is certainly better than doing nothing and riding the thing entirely into the ground.

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David Richards

1 year ago

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