Coming Out from the (News) Desert: How Local News Outlets Can Compete in the New Media Era

By January 30, 2019Our Ideas

With the rise of the internet and social media over the past decades, local news – a stalwart of the American media landscape – has faced many challenges. Local newspapers, TV, and radio stations are critical for keeping people informed about issues in their communities. These news sources, properly run and funded, also have potential to serve as an antidote to social-media driven “fake news” and click-bait stories from other outlets. But without changing how they operate, local news media outlets may have trouble surviving.

The modern information era has savaged the two traditional primary revenue sources for local newspapers: print advertising and classified ad placements. Print advertising revenues have been pulled down by declining newspaper subscriptions and paid classified ads have nearly disappeared with the advent of Craigslist and other free online listing sites. A 2014 study showed that local newspapers have lost more than $40 billion in advertising revenues, and the economics have only deteriorated since. Local radio and TV stations have faced similar challenges from new outlets like news websites and podcasts.

Strategies to replace this revenue have seen mixed results. Paywalls, which can charge readers by the article, day or month, have worked for some publications but not others. And windfalls from online advertising has been elusive for organizations not named Facebook or Google.

While this is clearly bad news for local outlets and journalists, it’s also a problem for the nation: the growing number of so-called “news deserts” – areas with little to no local news coverage – has put our democracy at risk. An October 2018 study from the University of North Carolina showed that “171 U.S. counties do not have a local newspaper, and nearly half all counties – 1,449 – have only one newspaper, usually a weekly.”

The absence of an independent media means a less-informed citizenry and allows powerful interests in government and business to go unchecked. In 2018, a group of economists found a direct connection between the loss of local newspapers and an increase in public borrowing costs due to lax municipal oversight. Once the muckraking reporters are gone, there is nothing holding municipal leaders accountable. More concerningly, public health experts worry that more news deserts will lead to larger outbreaks of infectious diseases as important health information goes unreported.

The good news is that people still want to keep up on local happenings. In Altman Vilandrie & Company’s 2018 annual consumer video survey viewers ranked their “local news show of choice” second among a pool of 235 popular shows on pay TV and online video services.

What can local newspapers, TV channels, radio stations and other outlets do about it? Altman Vilandrie & Company has explored this issue and found some strategies that could stop the spread of local news deserts. Below are a few select examples:

Don’t be all things to all people – Back when newspapers and TV stations had abundant resources, they were able to cover pretty much everything. With consolidation and shrinking newsrooms, too many outlets are using the cover-everything model without the ability to deliver. While news outlets shouldn’t ignore important stories, they should have a clear sense of what type of consumer they are trying to reach. Viewers can have various objectives when they tune in to consume local political news, from the casual viewer seeking out human interest stories to a super-consumer who wants to get deep into a political issue before translating that knowledge into political action.

Embrace alternative revenue models – If you can’t make a profit, maybe become a non-profit. Some news non-profits, including CALmatters in California and VTDigger in Vermont, provide vibrant coverage of local issues, often filling the gaps left by closings or newsroom cuts in underserved areas. The non-profit model, which taps into grants and reader contributions, could help reduce the number of news deserts in the U.S. The Dutch-based news website The Correspondent recently closed a crowdfunding campaign for its advertisement-free English-language platform, raising more than $2.6 million from 45,000 members in just 30 days. There is potential on the local level for small-dollar crowd-funding campaigns.

High tech and high touch – Technology-based initiatives such as Facebook’s recent local news push are attractive options for news outlets but still must be balanced by human support and oversight. While AI shows a lot of promise in curating news content to meet reader interests, the most informative news content is often developed by a trained journalist with an understanding of the local community. Similarly, experienced editors are often needed to review crowdsourced information to ensure relevant, accurate stories.