Journalism has struggled for years in the face of industry consolidation, new technologies and declining revenues that decimated newsrooms. The hometown daily has all but vanished. Electronic media remain, though their immediate nature limits the broader, thoughtful analysis, the public forum and the community record that were once the hallmarks of local journalism.
For consumers, there’s a nagging sense that we’ve lost something precious, and we aren’t sure what will take its place. That’s the starting point for a conversation.
“Breaking The News” attempted just that.
The event drew about 60 people—journalists, communicators, marketers and other interested folks—to hear from a panel of media experts about the state of local journalism. Held May 19 at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center, the gathering was sponsored by InterCom, an association of communication professionals.
The panelists were Sarah Hulett, assistant news director Michigan Radio (NPR); Michael McCullough, executive editor and content strategist, Battle Creek Enquirer; Andy Robins, news director, WMUK (NPR); Paul Schutt, co-founder, Issue Media Group; and David Zeman, senior editor, Bridge Magazine. The panel was moderated by Anna Clark, Midwest correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review.
“Breaking The News” sparked a robust discussion. I can’t do justice to the many insights shared, but here are a few takeaways:
Print can’t be the primary source for news anymore. It’s too expensive, less efficient, and it rarely has the staff and budget to do it well. “Those days are gone, and they’re never coming back,” said Robins. He added that his radio station is trying to fill the gap by investing in its news department. Still, Robins admitted that radio and TV can’t cover the news as deeply as a well-staffed, resource-rich newspaper could.
Local news gets covered, but it’s harder to find. Where once you could pick up your hometown daily and get all the local, state, national and world news you wanted, as well as analysis and community perspective, now you must look to multiple vehicles—broadcast outlets, online tools, magazines, forums, and yes, the local newspaper. Schutt pointed out that the relationship between media and consumer has become transactional. That said, McCullough welcomes the competition. “When you talk about the impact of new technology, it’s introducing competition to journalism that used to be the norm,” he said.
No money, no news. Like it or not, local journalism depends on a steady stream of revenue. It might be nice to click on a link and read a story for free, but newsrooms can’t run forever on an empty stomach. That reality is prompting much more interaction between the news and business sides of media. What was once a wall between them has become, by necessity, “more like a four-foot fence where the neighbors can talk,” said Clark. The two sides are searching for ways to monetize their work—a solution that the industry as a whole hasn’t yet fully developed.
Competition and funding challenges can create ethical conflicts. Choosing what and how to cover news is dictated by more than just its perceived newsworthiness. Michigan Radio’s Hulett warned that outside funding sources bring agendas that require a careful journalistic balance. In a previous blog, I shared my own conflicted feelings about sponsored content in news media. And there’s the simple fact that few media have the resources to cover everything worth covering. The future will continue to put news outlets in an ethical and business balance that’s constantly wobbling.
The biggest risk to local journalism is the loss of its community connection. That’s already happened in some places. Schutt noted the emergence of “news deserts” in communities across the country—a trend that’s on the rise, prompting some governments and groups to take advantage of the lack of news oversight, said Clark. Added McCullough, “That connection to your community is the strongest, most important thing you have. I guard it jealously.”
The future remains a question mark. What didn’t get addressed at “Breaking The News” was where this is headed. There were hopeful signs—increased resources for some outlets, innovative approaches to connecting with community and providing thoughtful analysis. But uncertainties remain—the struggle to generate revenue, the continued contraction of newsroom staff, the focus on clicks over meaningful news. I’m hoping this will be part of the next panel discussion, slated for Aug. 25.
Perhaps the most promising part of the event was the shared desire by so many for a strong Fourth Estate, and a heartfelt commitment to seeing that happen.