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Rural journalism the future of community journalism

In today’s media world, newspapers must fight local complacency by proving they are relevant — and needed

Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small weekly newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we have entered “the golden age of ignorance,” as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared?

Perhaps, if newspapers can’t convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.

Collins’ declaration came in a follow-up to MPR reporter John Engler’s report on the May 7 demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota’s northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: “He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn’t seem too broken up about it.”

Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: “I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next.”

Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: “Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment,” and cited one who “gets his news from Google, ‘just like everybody else.'”

That comment reflects “monumental ignorance,” said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson in central Minnesota. “There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available.”

Anfinson also said, “A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling.”

Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, “There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite.” Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, “I think Richard’s saying they’re just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should.”

That feeling, Colden said, helped her decide to close. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but “The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age.” The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.

And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota papers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and “They’re gonna miss all the information they didn’t know they needed.”

Colden said she could have borrowed more money and taken the risk of converting to free, total-market circulation, “but I need to know that there’s really community buy-in to do that, and . . . the community buy-in was really lacking.” She said that showed in school news, a local-paper staple: “Teachers and coaches just throw some things up on social media rather than send it to the paper.”

Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to “tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice.” If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate a sale or merger.

We don’t know the whole story. Colden said she couldn’t work out a deal with the paper’s former owners, Page1Publications, who have five nearby weeklies, including one in Roseau County. That was after she’d considered going to free distribution, and then tried to compete more directly with the county-seat paper, the Roseau Times-Region, 22 miles away. As often happens, local loyalties trumped other factors, she said: “Because of that community loyalty over there, we were never able to capture that advertising base.”

She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has “a new generation of workers” more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. “It doesn’t bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart,” she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad’s approximately 50 storefronts are empty. “We’re really a community in transition.”

But on the other side of Roseau County, in a similar small town, the Greenbush Tribune is thriving, owner and newspaper broker Julie Bergman of Page1Publications told me. Yes, having five papers in a cluster gives them economy of scale, but the Greenbush editor is a local man, Ryan Bergeron, who came back home to take the job. Bergman said he makes sure that the Tribune has content that is relevant to its readers.

“In order to survive, you have to have something in the paper that people want to pick up,” Bergman said. “They’re going to learn something.

Whatever the causes of the Pioneer’s death, it “is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper,” Anfinson told me. “I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing.”

Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, “Times get tougher for rural newspapers.” Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Newspapers must prove to their communities that they are relevant, and needed. As Bergman said, “There needs to be more education.”

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the future of community journalism

Community newspapers must change, adapt in new media era

That was a tough but mostly accurate headline The Associated Press put on the 2,344-word story it published at the start of Sunshine Week last month: “Decline in readers, ads leads hundreds of newspapers to fold.” But as usual, the headline didn’t tell the whole story.

The story had a strong central basis, the research of Penny Abernathy and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina. She reported in October that about 1,400 U.S. cities and towns lost newspapers from 2004 through 2015. Most of those were suburban weeklies, but Abernathy counted more than 500 closures or mergers among rural newspapers. Many of those have been in towns that don’t dominate their counties, especially in areas like the Great Plains that have been losing population.

Just over 1,800 papers were shuttered in those 15 years, and more than 1,700 of them were weeklies. But the object example of the AP’s story was a daily, in south-central Missouri’s Pulaski County, which closed in September.

The example may seem inapt, but is forward-looking, I wrote on The Rural Blog. That’s because the Waynesville Daily Guide was closed by GateHouse Media, one of the private-equity firms that have bought hundreds of American newspapers and have a bottom-line focus. GateHouse is now the nation’s largest newspaper owner, and it seems willing to close money-making papers because they’re not making enough money.

“GateHouse rejects the notion that their motivations are strictly financial,” AP’s David Bauder and David A. Lieb wrote. Near the top of the story, they wrote of the closures, “Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers, or reasons peculiar to given locales.”

My fear is that the Waynesville Daily Guide is the canary in the newspaper coal mine – a harbinger of more deaths to come. And I know some weekly newspaper editors and publishers who feel the same way. At least two Kentucky weeklies took the unusual step of running the Waynesville story, as a warning to their readers.

One was Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard, judged the state’s best small weekly in 12 of the last 13 years. “I ran it in hopes that the Standard’s readers could understand that the issue with newspapers isn’t just an issue with dailies,” he told me. “I firmly feel that small, rural weeklies were safe from the bloodletting larger papers were going through even up to a couple years ago, but the digital age and smartphones, along with the erosion of public notice advertising are really hurting the bottom line and we, as citizens, run the risk of gigantic swaths of rural readers with no local newspaper serving them.”

My friend Ryan says he sees fewer and fewer people “who appreciate the role a good rural paper plays as the watchdog and advocate for a small place that is often forgotten by larger places or in the state capital.”

I have similar concerns. Here’s what I wrote in a companion piece on The Rural Blog, at https://bit.ly/2Tng4vA, the day we excerpted the Waynesville story:

“For a decade now, I have said community journalism is the healthiest part of the traditional news business, primarily because most people will always be interested in news about their locality, and digital media have not invaded the local-news franchise of most rural newspapers.

“But now I wonder. Americans increasingly engage in online, virtual communities, many of which have little or nothing to do with a locality (West Highland White Terrier owners like me and my wife, for example). The flood-the-zone approach of President Trump and the dominance of social media have placed more emphasis on national news, and the shriveling of many local news outlets has only exacerbated that.

“There is less interest in local news, and certainly in local newspapers, most of which still emphasize the print product that provides most of their advertising revenue. That leaves them with a disproportionately older audience that is gradually dying off. And I can see a decline in many rural newspapers that I did not see five years ago.”

The headline on that opinion piece was: As digital challenge increases for journalism, paymasters must adapt, be reliable and relevant, and be true to values – meaning the values of journalism, not just the news business. They are not the same thing. One pays for the other.

Our Rural Blog headline on the news piece, available at https://bit.ly/2URGCGI, was: AP uses paper GateHouse closed as example of troubles of local journalism, but says ‘This isn’t a hopeless story.’

The AP story included a brief mention of The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, which thrives on “revenue raised by side businesses — lifestyle magazines, electronic newsletters, telephone directories, a video production company and a bookstore.”

We added that The Pilot’s publisher is David Woronoff, who is going into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame this month. The selection committee “felt he set a new standard for community newspapers and earned well-deserved national recognition for excellence,” member Merrill Rose told The Pilot. The committee is right when it comes to journalism, and they are right when it comes to the news business.

In his roundtable session on “The Entrepreneurial Spirit” at last year’s NNA convention, David talked about his paper’s new products, including The Sway. Named for the movement of southern pines in the wind. It’s an email newsletter and website for people in their 20s, written by one. “We kind of hide our newspaper lineage with The Sway,” he said, adding that most of its readers “probably don’t know we publish it.”

But the revenue from these and other products support The Pilot, helping make it a leader among community newspapers. No, they are not a hopeless story. But they must adapt.

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the future of community journalism

Looking at the future of community newspapers

Editor’s Note:  This blogpost was a speech given by Al Cross at a meeting of the Texas Press Association in January 2018 in Galveston.

. . . First time I’ve been to Galveston, but have been to Texas many times, and always feel at home here; maybe it’s because your state was settled mainly by people from Tennessee, my native state, and Kentucky, my home state.

Y’know, we share a lot of the same sayings: all hat and no cattle (my states are the biggest cattle states in the East), hot as a two-dollar pistol; old as dirt, rough as a cob, cold as a well-digger’s knee (or a certain larger body part). Close enough for government work; handy as a pocket on a shirt; I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; and he’s one brick shy of a load. Some of my favorites involve animals: rode hard and put up wet; like a duck on a June bug; that dog won’t hunt; fine as frog hair; as independent as a hog on ice; look what the cat drug in; crooked as a dog’s hind leg; if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then; and: there’s more than one way to break a dog from sucking eggs.

I have never figured out what that last one really means, except there’s more than one way to do some things, and different approaches may be needed. And that’s what I want to talk with you about tonight.

When Ed Sterling called to invite me to speak to you, he asked what I would like to talk about, and I immediately replied, “The future of community journalism” – I guess because I wonder about it a good bit, and I’ll bet many of you do, too. Not much is clear, the major exception being that different approaches are needed. Every market, every newspaper, is at least a little bit different, so you must write your own future.

You can’t talk about the future of community journalism without discussing the future of journalism. I think it’s important to remember that we will always have journalism, because we will always need storytellers.

So many times when people say they’re talking about journalism, what they’re really talking about is the news business, which pays for journalism. And the news business is in trouble, because its economic model – mass circulation that drew advertising, which paid 75 to 80 percent of the bills – has been crumbling for more than a decade. Perhaps the best example in the weekly newspaper trade is that if you see a grocery ad in a paper, it’s probably an insert, and those are becoming less common as grocers find other ways to reach customers.

From what I can tell n my own research and discussions around the country, weekly newspapers’ circulation and household penetration, generally speaking, are declining 2 to 5 percent a year, and that trend is not sustainable.

Increasingly, the response to these existential threats has been to live with less revenue but get a bigger share of it from the audience. That’s why paywalls have become common, as newspapers finally discovered that enough people were willing to pay for access. Some community newspaper companies say they want to get 50 percent of their revenue from the audience. They think it can work because there are enough people willing to pay for unlimited access and special benefits for subscribers. It might work in some markets, but I have my doubts when it comes to the smaller, less-well-off markets that community newspapers typically serve.

he idea of getting more revenue from the audience has come more slowly to community journalism, which has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business because it usually doesn’t have competition. You are probably the only reliable, consistent, professional, comprehensive source of news and information for your locality. You probably don’t compete with a television station, and radio news in most places is a ghost of what it once was.

But you are still in competition, with every other source of news and information, for people’s time and attention. There is only so much time the audience can spend with media. It’s more time than it once was, because of smartphones, but those devices are used mainly for social media, not news media.

So you are, for the first time, in a battle with competitors you don’t know or see. And some you may not have even imagined, because local news is becoming less important to some people.

That’s partly because people are paying more attention to national news than they once did, thanks to last year’s unusual presidential election and our very unusual president. One community newspaper chain even put a President Trump button on all its home pages to drive traffic.

A bigger factor, I think, is that people now spend time online, in virtual communities, that they once spent engaging with their geographic communities, like those you serve. That probably makes them less interested in local news.

And another factor, in rural areas, is that your readers – or your former readers – increasingly commute to jobs in more urbanized places. We’ve some research in rural Kentucky and found that the longer someone’s commute to work, the less likely they are to subscribe to, or regularly buy, their local paper.

And these folks are commuting because of a lack of jobs, or good jobs, in the communities where they live. One big reason Donald Trump won the election was a sense in many rural communities they are being left behind. And in many places, they are. They see the shuttered factories, the vacant storefronts and the high-school commencement exercises that amount to a mass farewell to what could have been a big part of a community’s future. That is not good for local businesses, including the newspaper.

So, if we were doing a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, those would be among the weaknesses and threats. We would also have to include the growing impact of social media, which usually give people notice of a news event but not a real news story, unless the post includes a link to one and they click on it.

I think one of our weaknesses is that we have not done a very good job of helping our readers understand better what real journalism is, and the difference in the three types of media: Strategic media, which could also be called message media: essentially, public relations, advertising and marketing; News media: that’s us, who practice journalism, the essence of which is a discipline of verification; we’re mainly about facts; and social media, which have little of any discipline, and certainly no discipline of verification.

Too often, we just say “media” when we mean “news media.” We need to use the phrase, not the word, to remind people that journalism is different – we have a discipline and a mission: searching for truth to serve the public.

Beyond that broad mission, every news outlet has its own priorities, but they are rarely shared with the audience. I wish every newspaper regularly published a statement of principles – what it stands for – and asked readers to hold it to account if they think it hasn’t lived up to them.

We need to explain these things to our readers, and to former readers and prospective readers, using social media and other platforms. We need to explain how we go about our work, and invite readers’ involvement and feedback. Ask them what they want to read about, and what they think of your work.

Here’s an example, from the Sunbury Daily Item in central Pennsylvania. The editor is Dennis Lyons, who took a buyout as managing editor of USA Today but came out of retirement to edit this small daily. He has a Community Advisory Board that generates good story ideas and sources, and he holds roundtable discussions with community stakeholders before starting to report major enterprise stories, to point the projects in the right direction and identify sources. These things are not wastes of time; they save time, because they are in effect the beginning of the reporting process.

Dennis Lyons talked about his work on a trip he and I made to China a few months ago, to talk about community journalism. That country has a very different political system, but its newspapers have many of the same concerns we have here – an audience that is going elsewhere for information. That shows the depth and breadth of the changes in the news and information business. It’s one of the greatest changes in the history of the world, not too far behind the invention of the printing press.

At the same time the world has changed, and journalism is under attack, most notably by the president of the United States. You might think that has nothing to do with your journalism, but I have heard editors all over the country say it is casting a shadow on their work.           They have begun to feel the sting of the anti-journalism message – yes, it really is a message against journalism as it should be practiced – and they have begun to realize that in a larger sense, we are all in the same boat; that they have an important role to play in restoring, building and maintaining the reputation of, and belief in, journalism.

And this has serious implications beyond our business; this week the RAND Corporation issued a 324-page report about the decay of truth in our society, the lack of agreement on basic facts – partly because people don’t understand what sources are valid, but also because news media have blurred the lines between fact and opinion. Strategic media, or message media, are using social media to trump (no pun intended) the news media.

As you defend journalism, you don’t have to defend the networks or the big papers; you can use some of their failings to explain what journalism is supposed to be. But you are journalists, or employers of journalists, so I think it is in your interest to defend journalism – and to help people understand that it has standards and principles, and that it is to be held accountable, just as it holds others accountable.

But the most important thing you can do for journalism, and the news business that pays for it, is to show its value to your community. That means you must produce journalism that helps set the public agenda for your community; that holds public officials and institutions accountable; that provides a fair forum for debate; and that acts as a leader in the community.

These are not easy things. And, I’m sad to say, a lot of community newspapers fall short. Editorial timidity is a common characteristic in community journalism, and it’s understandable. I teach my students that the fundamental conflict in community journalism is between the personal and the professional – the desire to fit comfortably into a community, and the responsibility to sometimes make others uncomfortable.

One way to successfully manage this conflict is to have a set of clear principles that not only guide your work but let the public know how you think you are supposed to do that work, and invite them into the discussion.

So, in our SWOT analysis, those are some opportunities – most of which, as they often do, are responses to threats. What about the strengths of community newspapers?

The biggest is that in most markets, you have a local-news franchise that no one has really invaded. Now, don’t take it for granted; a newspaper I once helped edit got bought by a chain, its staff gradually lost the local people, and a former editor started an online site that wasn’t really about hard news, but mainly local features and sports. But those are things people wanted to read about, and they had a personal acquaintance with the publisher, so his site took off – and the local paper, once one of the best in the state, now has one of the lowest household penetrations in the state, about 30 percent.

In that story, of course, there’s a reference to another strength of most community newspapers: community connections. They help you understand your community, its needs, its wants, and its preferences. But they may also restrain your journalism, and you have to be careful about that. Always remember you are a public servant.

And in the age of social media, where many community conversations occur, you need to be part of those conversations, and your paper needs to have a presence. You must be where your audience is. They can provide story ideas and sources. And if they are participating in the news, that can make them advocates for your paper.

This doesn’t have to be all that complicated, especially at small newspapers, where many of you are surely doing these things already. But I think it needs to be part of your fundamental approach to our journalism.

And more than ever, that journalism needs to be good.

Just about every manager in journalism or the news business realizes the importance of unique local content. That is nothing new to this crowd; unique local content is the main reason community journalism has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business. But now that you are in competition with every other information source, that content has to be quality content.

Newspapers need to step up their game and prove their value to their communities. That means fresh and helpful enterprise stories, with good storytelling that gives readers information an perspectives new to them. It means real watchdog journalism, which send the message: “We’re important to you because we’re looking out for your interests.”

You’ve got to take on the local bullies. Here’s just one example, from Texas: The Weatherford Democrat found that the county judge had hired his mistress, first as an office manager and assistant, though she was unqualified (no high-school diploma, and lied about it on the application), then gave her a raise and made her head of the emergency medical service.

Bill Ketter, the news vice president for CNHI, which owns the paper, shared with me a note from editor James Walker, who told him, “Circulation folks just told me that we had a guy renew his subscription this morning and urged us to “please, please keep covering our crooked judge.”

Quality journalism also means being careful, ethical, fair and respectful, especially on social media. You may not have any substantial competition for local news, but increasingly there are blogs and sites, groups and individuals, who have it in for you, or at least want to hold YOU accountable.

So, back to that old saying: There’s more than one way to do things. Each market is at least a little but different, but I think I’ve laid out a few principles, strategies and tactics to follow to make sure your community journalism has a bright future: Keep public service at the top of your mind, engage with your audience, defend journalism, prove your value by giving your neighbors coverage they can get nowhere else, and make sure that is quality coverage.

It’s a pleasure to be with you this evening. If I can help you, let me know. My short job description is “extension agent for rural journalists.” Good luck in your work!

 

 

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the future of community journalism

New research study on issues facing community newspapers is worth reading

This column is usually about issues that rural newspapers can and should cover, but if you’re a rural editor or publisher, you have an issue of your own: adapting to the digital age.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism is exploring how technology is changing journalism and the news business, and recently interviewed more than 50 “experts from across the publishing industry, academia, and foundations” (I was one) to answer the question: How are small-market newspapers responding to digital disruption?

The first step in answering that query should be understanding that the conventional industry definition of “small market” – circulation under 50,000 – is a blunt instrument that avoids the distinctions among dailies, many of which have circulations under 10,000; weeklies, some of which exceed 10,000; and the diversity of rural America. To their credit, that is essentially the first finding listed by researchers Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe in their Nov. 15 report.

“We need to talk about the experience of local newspapers in a more nuanced manner,” they write. “There is a plurality of experience across the newspaper industry, not to mention across small-market newspapers operating in different towns across the United States. Overgeneralization about the newspaper sector loses important perspectives from smaller outlets.”

One pitfall of that overgeneralization is the widespread notion that newspapers are dying, and the researchers say “The newspaper industry needs to change the ‘doom and gloom’ narrative that surrounds it. . . . Outlets need to be honest with their audiences about the challenges they face, but they can also do more to highlight their unique successes, continued community impact, and important news value.”

I think community newspapers can reasonably assert that they are essential to local democracy and fostering a sense of community, and are the strongest part of the traditional news business, retaining a much larger share of their audience than metropolitan papers have in the last decade. The researchers don’t go that far, writing, “Local newspapers may be in a stronger position than their metro cousins.” (Emphasis added.)

The distinction may lie in the differences among communities, and between dailies and weeklies. Small dailies seem to have had a tougher time competing lately for several reasons; for example, many are close to larger dailies and serve communities that are covered by television stations, and many are owned by publicly held corporations or venture-capital firms that are more likely to put shareholders ahead of community service than local, independent owners.

Such ownership is less common among weeklies, few of which have TV competition and enjoy a local-news franchise that digital operations have not greatly invaded (though I do cite one example in the article, at http://bit.ly/2jteYSq). As the researchers note, community newspapers “experienced notable resilience thanks in part to exclusive content not offered elsewhere, the dynamics of ultra-local advertising markets, and an ability to leverage a physical closeness to their audience.”

But the health of a newspaper also depends on the health of its community, and almost half of America’s rural counties are losing population, as we reported on The Rural Blog at http://bit.ly/2AZ5KB3. That phenomenon is undermining many rural papers, and even in places where population is holding steady or growing, papers face challenges of change in local advertising markets.

The researchers write: “Although local businesses may be more likely to retain traditional analog advertising habits, the increasing homogeneity of our consumer experience (manifest, for example, in the rise of Amazon and Walmart) is reshaping local advertising markets. As local businesses are replaced by larger national chains with national advertising budgets, this reduces local newspapers’ advertising pools.” Walmart is infamous among newspapers for spending very little of its ad budget with them.

One point Ali and Radcliffe don’t mention is that many rural counties are becoming bedroom communities, which undermines commuters’ local connections. My research has found that the longer the commute, the less likely rural Kentucky residents are to subscribe to the newspaper where they live.

Like their metropolitan counterparts, “Small-market newspapers are experimenting with multiple means for generating revenue, including paywalls, increasing the cost of print subscriptions, the creation of spin-off media service companies, sponsored content, membership programs, and live events,” the researchers write. And they report that more papers are charging for obituaries.

Many such experiments are driven by corporate owners, but “There is no cookie-cutter model for success in local journalism,” the researchers write. “Each outlet needs to define the right financial and content mix for itself. This may seem obvious, but during our interviews some editors whose papers are part of larger groups were critical of corporate attempts to create templates—and standardize approaches—that remove opportunities for local flexibility.”

The report notes my concern that too many rural newspapers depend on single-copy sales rather than subscriptions, which may lead to sensationalizing front pages to generate sales and leave the papers more vulnerable to upstart competition, perhaps making them more editorially timid when it comes to local issues.

The comprehensive report deals with social media and other digital details, the changing nature of journalists’ jobs and their craft, and how small-market newspapers can prepare for the future. It’s a highly valuable report that should be read not only by publishers and editors, but by their staffs.

Any good piece of research recommends further research. Ali and Radcliffe note the lack of “a regular detailed census of local newspapers, split into different sub-markets, to understand and map a more holistic picture of the U.S. newspaper industry. Unfortunately, many existing surveys are being rolled back, meaning that our knowledge of this space will diminish unless others step in.”

Our Rural Blog item on the study, with links to it and a sidebar study, is at http://bit.ly/2AiSnQ0. If you do or see stories that belong on The Rural Blog, email me at al.c[email protected].