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Solutions to America’s Local Journalism Crisis: Consolidated Literature Review

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By: Craig I. Forman, Schuster Media and Technology Fellow

The views expressed in Shorenstein Center Discussion Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Kennedy School or of Harvard University.

Discussion Papers have not undergone formal review and approval. Such papers are included in this series to elicit feedback and to encourage debate on important issues and challenges in media, politics and public policy. These papers are published under the Center’s Open Access Policy. Papers may be downloaded and shared for personal use.


This article is a project of the Local News Initiative at The Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nancy R. Gibbs, Principal Investigator. It was written by Craig I. Forman, Schuster Fellow in Technology and Media, with research assistance by Anisha Quadir and David Stansbury.


Introduction and Overview

Across America, the shuttering of local newspapers is contributing to a growing crisis in trusted local news and information, and an emerging challenge for America’s democracy.

Research shows that the disappearance of credible local news and information contributes to widening political polarization, increasing costs for local government and meaningfully suboptimal community outcomes as independent oversight decreases or, in the worst case, evaporates entirely.

Moreover, misinformation and disinformation, often from specifically partisan sources, are filling the vacuum. On social media and on digital entities, they masquerade as legitimately reported, locally sourced journalism.

There has been much scholarly research and investigation on the causes of the local news crisis. While such work has been invaluable in scoping the dimensions of the crisis – more than 2,000 newspapers closing, 50,000 jobs eliminated in local newsrooms,[1] and as much as $40 billion in annual newspaper revenue lost in recent years[2] – there has been far less focus on options for a sustainable, successful path forward at the scale of US demand.

In order to make significant progress towards restoring a healthy local news ecosystem, the discussion should be redirected towards multidisciplinary, varied and comprehensive solutions.

A first step is to establish a baseline perspective of the landmark literature published on this subject. This paper aims to consolidate and analyze a diverse array of published works to date.

This reader’s guide is the result not solely of our experience in operating, funding, and advising the local news ecosystem over the past years, but also the study and evaluation of more than 290 reports, articles, papers and other source material compiled in recent years.

We highlight here what we consider some key contributions, to save time and effort for the much larger group of stakeholders interested in solutions to the crisis in local news.

Indeed that growing group of concerned people is becoming ever-more alarmed as the scale of the local news crisis increases. It includes lawmakers in dozens of states and in Washington DC, where the 117th Congress is considering several bills to address the local news situation. It includes civic leaders in cities around the United States, some of whom have come together in recent years to acquire economically challenged titles or to support locally sourced efforts to convert local titles to not-for-profit civic ownership. And it includes millions of citizens, who are supporting local news providers through subscriptions, advertising, membership or other means.

Thanks to the generous support of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and particularly the Schuster family’s support of the Fellowship in Media and Technology, we have analyzed and reviewed these bibliographic items.

We recommend that those interested in a deeper understanding of the subject review all the items on the live bibliography.[3] This bibliography is in-progress, and will continue to be updated over time. While we of course aim at comprehensiveness, we appreciate that we may have missed or overlooked important contributions. Such omissions are solely our own.

Furthermore, the literature will continue to grow in the future and while we hope to add contemporaneous contributions, inevitably there will be works not yet created that contribute mightily to our understanding. We look forward to suggestions and additions from the greater community. The entire 290+ library of citations for the materials is available in an open-source digital dossier. We do this so that this archive can grow over time with what we hope will be increasingly robust solutions to the crisis about which we all care so deeply.

While we suggest some readings are vital to anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of the subject, we are not evaluating those readings, or by implication suggesting that other readings are less meritorious. We are simply trying to save interested stakeholders’ effort by providing this curated appraisal of work published on the subject to date.

For example, no serious study of the local news crisis and potential options for the future could ignore the comprehensive work the Knight Foundation created with its ‘Philanthropic Options’ Guide initially published in 2019.[4] This ‘Tour de l’Horizon’ is also a ‘Tour de Force,’ providing a comprehensive survey of efforts that are gathering pace to convert or reorganize hard-pressed local news organizations into locally supported not-for-profits that create a more favorable tax and investment environment, and as those businesses seek to accelerate their transition to a digital operating environment.

Moreover, the report is candid about what it does NOT provide: while a not-for-profit conversion in some cases reduces the absolute level of needed profitability by lessening the impact of tax and other costs, “a local news company is still obligated to find long-term sustainable revenue.’’

In many ways, the work led by Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media has contributed more than any other single measure to influence our knowledge of the size and scope of the declining number or US newspaper titles. In her News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?, Abernathy establishes her baseline estimates that since US newspaper revenues approached their zenith in 2006, over 2,000 newspapers have closed, and more than 50,000 jobs have been eliminated in local newsrooms.[5] A readable and colorful limning of the crisis is provided in the outstanding Margaret Sullivan’s (media writer at The Washington Post and veteran newsperson) first-hand account, Ghosting the News.[6]

To be sure, some dispute these numbers. No less an authority than Randall Rothenberg, longtime head and current Executive Chair of the Internet Advertising Bureau and prior chief media correspondent at The New York Times, points out in his ‘Big Tech Didn’t Kill the News and the News Isn’t Dead’ that the estimates of the diminishing of local newsrooms do not sufficiently distinguish among weeklies or shoppers, and metro dailies. Many more of the former have gone defunct with the rise of internet classifieds than the latter.[7] Nor does the cardinal number of total closed have sufficient ordinal specificity, e.g. many newspapers had been shuttered decades prior to the technology disruption of the past several decades.[8] Additionally, Rothenberg points out that any ‘collapse’ of local journalism has largely been centered on print newspapers, and thus the resulting impact on the overall level of local information, and on society more generally, has been limited.

Regardless, there is no question nowadays that few if any newspapers are able to achieve profitable growth for their legacy print daily news products. Thus, their strategic roadmap rests on a narrowing few potential options: accelerate the transformation to a digital present and future, harvest the current profitable but declining business until the terminal horizon for the print market arrives, or explore some combination of these and other sources of operating support. There is also the nascent, but not yet sustainably growing possibilities, of philanthropic and — or — not-for-profit ownership.

How to Build a Sustainable and Growing Local News Business

• Start with Essential: Provide News and Information Customers Cannot Live Without

• Focus on Fearless Journalism

• Pursue Relentless Customer Engagement and Satisfaction

• Provide Standout Digital Products and Experience

• Laser Focus on Sensible Operating Cash Flow and Sustainable Growth

The decline in print advertising revenue and simultaneous shift to highly targeted programmatic digital advertising has been well documented, especially by veteran analyst and investor Mary Meeker, whose annual Internet Trends Report has been a closely read document for roughly 20 years. A recent edition is available for download here. Among the most clear-sighted descriptions of what has happened to revenue for newspaper companies in the recent past is Benedict Evans’s ’75 Years of Advertising’.[9] In this document, he goes beyond the facile trope that newspaper revenue was undone simply because of the rise of internet use and points out that the change on both the revenue and cost side of traditional print newspapering has deeper structural roots than simply the rise of Google, Facebook, eBay and Craigslist among others.

Printed newspapers are a manufacturing business. For some, the non-newsgathering cost structure can be the majority of total operating expense. This means that in a world of declining demand for print editions of local newspapers, legacy costs become an increasing share of declining revenue. Much of the underlying reality of the current market failure for local news coverage can be traced to this simple fact. As a result, newsrooms, news coverage and news employment have all suffered as businesses have tried to align cost structure with this revenue reality.

Indeed, the multidisciplinary nature of the root causes of the local news crisis on its face would obviously require multidisciplinary approaches to redirect the discussion towards comprehensive and varied solutions, including, potentially, reexamining the very definition of community needs.

Our goal is to review, analyze and rigorously document the issues underlying the current crisis and to bring together stakeholders from the newsroom and beyond: the communities the newsroom serves — and may have traditionally under-served — the businesses and advertisers that help power the enterprise through their role in the community, the ownership interests and the public interests that all, together, make a local news provider a key element of the ‘immune system’ of our local civic health.

A brief aside based on my professional experience: I have sought to spotlight the dimensions of this multidisciplinary ‘Rubik’s Cube’ in my valedictory in The Miami Herald, when I stepped down in September 2020 as CEO and President of McClatchy Co., then America’s second-largest local news provider following its court-approved restructuring.

McClatchy’s restructuring was triggered by the 116th Congress’s partisan inability to pass newspaper pension relief that subsequently was enacted a few months later by the 117th Congress and which has provided substantial and crucial additional financial runway to many of America’s largest legacy local newsrooms to invest in transformation.[10] Lee Enterprises Inc., one of America’s largest local news organizations following its emergence from Chapter 11 some years ago, specifically cited such pension relief — which more than doubled the timeline to make employer contributions at a higher discount rate — as a contributor to its ‘strong’ operating results in its most recent quarterly financial statement.[11]

Although pension relief came too late for McClatchy, I sought in my paper to describe how to devise and then accelerate digital transformation that is crucial to any local-news business attempting to find a path to sustainable growth. The expansion of the digital transformation strategy formulated at McClatchy has contributed to a shift to 50% revenue from digital sources as well as 50% from subscriptions — a much healthier business from which to pursue sustainable growth.

This digital-transformation strategic formula can be deployed by any like-minded publisher armed with the right people and product, adequate resources and importantly: clear-eyed intent.

“By focusing on fearless journalism, relentless customer engagement, standout products and a sensible focus on sustainable operating cash flow,” I wrote then, and subsequent events are proving, “publishers can accelerate digital success and build a sustainable local news business.”[12]

Despite the progress and some optimism, others suggest it is already too late for such transformation of legacy entities and suggest that solely de novo digital newsrooms based on a not-for-profit or philanthropy-supported business model can succeed. University of Pennsylvania associate professor Victor Pickard in his Nieman Lab contribution ‘The Commercial Era for Local Journalism Is Over’ writes that ‘government intervention’ is required:

‘Ensuring that all Americans can access a baseline level of reliable news and information requires a federally guaranteed, public media center in every community. Guided by a universal service mission, these multi-media hubs will look like and be governed by the communities they serve.’[13]

Several additional works from the academy defy easy characterization, but are valuable for anyone interested in the evolving local-news landscape. First, City University of New York Professor Jeff Jarvis provides a comprehensive overview of the changing definitions of news in a world of platform-provided user generated content in his ‘Public Parts – How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live.’[14] Next, in her recent ‘News for the Rich, White and Blue — How Place and Power Distort American Journalism’ University of Illinois Associate Professor and media scholar Nikki Usher provides a sweeping look at the challenges facing local news both from an equity and a business-model perspective.[15] More recently, Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow mounts an impressive and impassioned case for significant additional government action to bolster the challenged news media model in her ‘Saving the News – Why The Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech.’[16] Also at Harvard, in the gray area between academic research and journalism, both Ken Doctor and Joshua Benton have made consistent contributions to the understanding of the changing business of local journalism in the contributions to the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Indeed, what began as an academically driven exploration of ‘public good’ analysis is now powerfully expanding into the policy arena. In Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions’ PEN America proposed ‘‘a major reimagining of the local news space, in which local reporting is re-conceptualized as a public good’’, calling on society and government to urgently address the alarming demise of local journalism.”

A survey of potential regulatory solutions came in a multi-story issue of Washington Monthly Magazine in Q4 2020, titled “Can Journalism Be Saved?’’ In it, a series of authors explored ownership conversion, philanthropic and fiscal policy changes that could help alter the trajectory of local news decline.[17] In the keystone contribution “The Coming Era of ‘Civic News'” Report for America cofounder Steven Waldman extolled the possibility for subscription tax credits to support local news subscriptions.[18]

Such policy recommendations, which as of this writing have yet to engender bipartisan support, are included in the more than half-dozen bills now under consideration in Congress.

 

Law and regulatory changes

The current “hands off” approach to regulating the role of big tech platforms and the broader economic changes brought about by the internet and its business model has clearly had a huge impact on the local news industry. But as of the current second half of 2021, more than half a dozen bills are under consideration in the 117th Congress to take federal action to help ameliorate the local-news sustainability crisis. Suggestions for policy intervention have centered on seven main areas:

  1. Reviving advertising as a revenue source;
  2. Forcing platforms to compensate news organizations when their content is used;
  3. Relaxing antitrust rules for news organizations to enable collective bargaining;
  4. Provision of direct government support to news outlets;
  5. Government subsidies or funding for news outlets including tax-code changes to create tax credits and other advantages, as well as possible deductibility for subscriptions;
  6. Easing rules around converting existing publications into non-profit or hybrid entities;
  7. Broadening the mediums used by publicly funded media.

Revive advertising models for news

The decline of local news has been driven substantially by plummeting advertising revenues, which have instead migrated to online platforms that offer better targeted, more efficient and often less expensive alternatives. This has led to calls for an outright ban on this behavioral advertising. Advocates point to the debate on user data privacy and online platforms’ role in the current disinformation crisis in the US and around the world.[19] They argue that if such a ban were to take place, the attractiveness of local news media as a host for locally relevant advertising would rise again.[20]

Compensation for publishers

At the time of writing (2021), the most widely discussed regulatory approach is that of obligating large platforms to pay for news providers’ content that appears on their platforms. This followed concerns that users were consuming the short summaries of news outlets’ coverage of stories that were provided on platforms, without ever clicking onto the pages of news providers themselves. In some research, as many as 47% of users reported consuming in this way.[21] In recent months, France installed legislation requiring Google to pay providers — and has recently imposed financial sanctions — for news snippets reused in its aggregation services.[22] Australia considered similar legislation, but backed down after Facebook entirely pulled news links from its news feed.[23] In the aftermath, Australia promulgated its ‘News Media Bargaining Code’ to ‘help support the sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia.’

The platforms argue that news providers get a net benefit from their being featured in their products, driving traffic to providers’ pages. When Google News pulled out of Spain completely in 2014, a 2017 study found that site visits to news outlets declined, as did advertising revenue and citizens’ overall consumption of news.[24]

Collective bargaining

In the US, proposals in this area have centered on the notion of “Safe Harbor.” News providers would be granted exceptional permission to coordinate their efforts to negotiate prices with the platforms, to enable a collectively better deal without triggering otherwise possibly applicable antitrust prohibitions.[25]

Safe Harbor proposals are occurring within a broader climate of increased regulatory scrutiny on alleged monopolistic behaviours by online platforms. The 2020 Congressional Judiciary Committee investigation of competition in digital markets made a series of recommendations designed to curb monopoly powers of big digital players, including Amazon and Apple in addition to the often mentioned Facebook and Google.[27] A shake up of antitrust and other legislation may soon occur.

Direct government funding

Some US proposals have centered on direct government support to news outlets, via grants. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed a $1 billion fund housed in the Federal Communications Commission, for direct grant making to local news outlets.[28] Others, such as the Rebuild Local News Coalition, have called for the government to run a “supersized” version of the privately funded annual Newsmatch campaign, where donations to news outlets would be matched many times over by the government.[29]

There have also been proposals at the state level. In New Jersey, the state government has made a $1 million contribution to the Civic Information Commission, which aims to strengthen local news coverage and boost civic engagement across the state.[30]

Government subsidies

Several consecutive Congresses have proposed subsidy-type support for news organizations. These included tax credits in order for citizens to purchase subscriptions to news organizations,[31] a policy that was enacted in Canada and France in 2020 and early 2021 respectively.[32] [33] Other subsidy proposals have included providing subsidies on advertisements taken out with local news outlets and altering payroll taxes,[34] and obliging government agencies to use a fixed portion of their advertising budget with local media organizations.[35]

Other less direct-subsidy options have also been proposed. These include modifying bankruptcy and pension laws to give local news organizations greater flexibility in their financial obligations; providing funding for local journalists to engage as fact checkers in local affairs-focused groups on social media platforms; and to make journalism a profession that is eligible for loan forgiveness on student debt.[36] Similar proposals have been made internationally, such as ideas in the UK to designate journalism an “essential service”, providing access to government supports.[37]

Conversion to non-profit models

Slumping profits have driven increased interest in converting existing publications into not for profits and public benefit corporations. This has prompted calls to streamline the process, and even the setting up of a dedicated online way of doing so with the IRS.[38] These changes would include setting up journalism itself as being eligible for tax free status, rather than the status quo of outlets qualifying under provisions for “education” efforts, as well as covering a broader range of outlets’ activities that would be eligible for tax breaks,[39] including advertising.[40]

Simultaneously, amendments to tax and antitrust laws are proposed that will reduce incentives for hedge funds and other organizations to own chains of newspapers. Advocates hope this will increase instances of more outlets having greater share of local ownership and thus motivation for providing meaningful local coverage.[41]

Increase public funding for print outlets

Investigations into the health of local news around the US have noted the limitations on local news offered through local public broadcasting. The majority of meaningful coverage is provided by local radio stations. Very little public media funding currently makes it to print outlets. Proposals have called for altering the rules surrounding how the Corporation can use its funding, allowing it to fund print and digital outlets, as well as setting up dedicated broadcasting of local government proceedings to increase coverage.[42]

Next Steps

 

As the current 117th Congress nears its midpoint, stakeholder attention is primarily focused in two key legislative workstreams. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, cited above, provides the antitrust insulation and collective-bargaining advantages towards digital platform distribution providers and is supported by many legacy local news providers including the large national local newspaper chains. The other, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act has been gaining increasing public attention and support from Democrats and some key Republicans with the support of both smaller local publishers, digital-only startups and organized Labor.

While it is impossible to accurately forecast the legislative outcomes, it is a fair statement to say that legislative support for measures to use federal fiscal and regulatory policy in efforts to bolster local news are stronger than they have been in several prior Congresses.

Essential readings

Steve Waldman’s “Local News Rescue Plan”,[43] Rebuild Local News’s “Rebuilding Local News[44] and Rick Edmonds’s “How many plans to save local journalism are too many?[45] provide comprehensive overviews of the legislative and other government support options available to support news.

 

Evolving business models

The challenges facing the media industry are well documented in the literature. Advertising revenues have been declining for news outlets for two decades, driven by digital platforms and social media companies capturing increasing market share, as well as an increasingly direct connection between brands and their customers, facilitated by technology. But, despite this decline, advertising still makes up the majority of the news industry’s revenues, as outlets have struggled to adapt to a digital-first world and to persuade news consumers to pay for their digital products like they used to for hard copy print papers. This has been compounded by growing vilification of the press that has reduced public trust and increased political polarization. The options for news organizations to adapt to these challenges have centered on:

  1. Creating more compelling digital offerings.
  2. Financing from new owners.
  3. Changing the shape and type of the corporate structures.
  4. “Hub and spoke” models of journalism and news organizations.

Making digital offerings more compelling

In an effort to compete for advertising revenue, some news organizations prioritized keeping their digital products free to users, driving as much traffic as possible to their pages via “clickbait”: eye-catching, sometimes sensationalist, headlines.[46] But, as revenues per advertising impression continued to decline, news organizations found they could not sustain themselves.[47]

Now, many organizations are trying to create or revive a journalistic formula centered on exclusive content that speaks to a real information need of the consumer, and is protected by a digital paywall.[48] But, there are difficult tradeoffs: as fewer people can access a provider’s coverage, this also means fewer ad impressions, decreasing the value of news organizations to advertisers.[49] The profit margins available in this digital first industry are significantly lower than in journalism’s print advertising-driven past, forcing many newsrooms into a considerable rethink of their physical footprint and staffing headcount.[50]

Financing from new owners

Today, hedge funds control more than 1/3rd of US newspapers.[51] In many cases this has led to pared back newsrooms as costs are sharply cut in search of the short-term profits that hedge fund governance and ownership structures demand. This has hindered digital transformation due to a focus on lowering costs rather than investing in the businesses in search of future, sustainable profits.[52] There are notable exceptions, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post, who has invested heavily in boosting the organization’s software engineering credentials and its conversion into a digital-first business.[53]

Changing corporate structures

Increased pressure on for-profit news organizations, and the increased availability of philanthropic grants has pushed some like the Salt Lake City Tribune to amend their corporate status and convert to a non-profit.[54] Variations on the theme are also being trialled. Examples include non-profit entities taking ownership of for-profit core news businesses, like at the Tampa Bay Times. More recently, the board of Chicago’s Public Media approved a non-binding letter of intent to combine its flagship WBEZ radio unit with the Chicago Sun-Times daily newspaper. Others like the Lenfest Institute’s ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer provide non-profit funding for potentially risky innovations in the Inquirer’s core news products. Communities are also being brought into management of their local outlets, either through taking direct ownership or through community foundation partnerships with the for-profit news entity, as at The Seattle Times.[55]

Hub and spoke models

New multipliers of news organizations are trying to create ways to share some of the cost burdens that outlets find themselves facing in an uncertain new digital world. Report for America’s new talent pipelines for getting high quality, enthusiastic young journalists into local news outlets with tight budgets.[56] The American Journalism Project and ProPublica’s Local News Project provide external support and additional staffing to multiply the impact of local outlets.[57] [58]

Borrowing from the start-up world, accelerators have emerged to help incubate the next generation of digital-first news outlets. These include The Texas Tribune Revenue Lab and the Google News Initiative.[59] Other research and excellence centers like The Membership Puzzle and The Lenfest Institute are building common knowledge bases from which local organizations draw to improve membership conversions and other business critical knowledge.[60] The Lenfest Institute has also launched a News Philanthropy Network, with nearly 1,000 members, while the Local Media Association has undertaken a similar initiative with its Journalism Funding Lab.

Essential readings

The essential piece in this area is the paper, “Philanthropic Options for Local Media Owners” for the Knight Foundation.[61] It outlines in detail the options available and gives extensive examples of organizations that have pursued each. Strong deeper dives on the particular commercial challenges facing local news organizations include Meredith Kopit Levien’s “It is possible to compete with The New York Times. Here is how.[62]

 

Distribution channels

Other major mediums like television and radio have not seen as sharp a decline as the newspaper industry in the internet era, sometimes even strengthening their positions as streaming of content has brought it to new audiences. New mediums such as podcasting and direct-to-consumer newsletters have also seen a surge in growth.

Television

In stark contrast with newspapers, many television news providers have seen their advertising revenues climb in the last decade. This includes both the national major cable providers and local networks. While coronavirus negatively impacted these revenues across the board, local stations have seen retransmission revenues more than replace the loss. The Fox network is the major outlier, seeing a 41% rise in its 2020 Q2 ad revenue, versus 2019.[63]

The discussion of local television as a supplement and alternate source of extensive local reporting as traditionally larger newspaper-centric newsrooms shed reporting jobs is under-researched and a fertile ground for further study. While there have been collaborations among local network news broadcasters and local newspapers in a handful of important US cities, in general these collaborations have been driven by ‘bottoms-up’ partnership among business and journalism leaders in specific markets as opposed to ‘top-down’ strategic collaborations. This reflects a tradition of market-concentration regulation limiting sole ownership of the leading newspaper and news broadcast license in specific markets as well as a tradition of competition among those newsrooms.

But there are signs this may be changing. In April 2021, a unanimous US Supreme Court decision upheld a 2017 Federal Communications Commission decision that eased sole-ownership limits over radio, television and print publications in a single market.[64] The FCC decision reflected the growing footprint of digital in those markets and promises to potentially lead to changed market dynamics in local newsrooms in US communities in coming years.

Radio

Similarly, radio has seen its revenues remain relatively insulated from the tumult of print newspapers in recent years,[65] driven in part by massive increases in the revenues derived from advertising on its digital offerings.[66]

But, the massive reduction in commuting to places of work brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a deep impact on listener numbers and, in some markets, corporate sponsorship revenue for prominent providers such as NPR.[67] Thanks to taking a multimedia approach to their offerings, launching websites, livestreams and offering services through smart speakers, this has not proved fatal. But the notion of the radio broadcast as the central product may never return, especially if work from home patterns remain as the pandemic eases.[68] Interested observers will want to pay close attention to coming research in this area, including a survey of public radio and its role in local news.

New Mediums

By some estimates, the volume of available podcast content has quadrupled between 2018 and 2021, while US listenership has grown 30%.[69] 15% of listeners regularly consume news via the medium,[70] and 60% consider podcasts more trustworthy than traditional media.[71] Business models rely largely on advertising, but unlike the decline in print this is a growth area: by the end of 2021 podcasts are forecast to generate over $1 billion in ad revenues annually, doubling since 2018. Positively for news organizations, news is the biggest and fastest-growing area of podcast ad spending.[72]

Newsletters have similarly grown in prominence as traditional print has declined, powered by providers like Substack, Ghost and MailChimp, as well as nascent attempts by such larger platform providers as Facebook and Twitter. They have become a vital part of the subscriber acquisition funnel for established outlets,[73] as well as providing ways for individual journalists and writers to connect to, and get paid by, their personal audience.[74] For some writers, this is proving a lucrative way for journalism to survive in a post-advertising world: Substack’s top 10 writers reportedly collectively bring in around $7 million annually.[75] Others have raised concerns that this trend may harm accountability journalism. By being bundled into one broader publication, events-driven news reporting could support more labor intensive and less regularly published investigative pieces.[76]

Essential reading

Changing mediums in journalism have been extensively covered. Some of the top overviews that touch on the major topics include Anna Wiener’s “Is Substack the Media Future we want?[77] and Grace Gedye’s “Spotify, Podcasts and the War for your Ears.[78]

 

News ‘Deserts’ and ‘Green’ shoots

Over the last 15 years, 2,100 newspapers have closed in the USA, leaving 1,800 communities without any local news outlets.

The growth of so-called “News Deserts” has been well covered thanks to the hard work of researchers at the Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina. The headlines are stark. Over the last 15 years, 2,100 newspapers have closed in the USA, leaving 1,800 communities without any local news outlets.[79]

Less well covered has been the sprouting of hopeful “green shoots”: new media ventures aiming to set themselves up for and compete in the digital-first era. Project Oasis – a joint initiative between the University of North Carolina, the Google News Initiative, LION publishers and Douglas K. Smith, led by Chloe Kizer – identified 704 of these digital-native news organizations. This represents a six-fold increase on these types of outlets since 2010. There is still significant work to do: only one in five of these organizations feel that their business is on a stable footing, and only one in seven of them is operating in a news desert. But, challenges acknowledged, there is much cause for optimism in these emerging operations.[80]

Essential readings

Penelope Muse Abernathy’s “News Deserts” and Chloe Kizer’s “Project Oasis” studies from UNC are the seminal works in this space. No other studies examine the issue with the same rigor and depth.  

 

Role of Digital Platforms

Digital platforms like Facebook and Google have touched almost every aspect of the changes in news over the last two decades. They have driven changes in the advertising ecosystem that print news organizations have found so challenging,[81] replacing them as the location of choice for marketers looking to reach consumers.[82] They have driven valuable traffic to news organizations’ digital pages, and subsequently reduced that flow with changes to algorithms and design decisions about how and where to show news content.[83] They have also provided significant philanthropic injections of cash and social impact investments to news initiatives (see below).

Other social media sites are playing an increasingly important role as a location to share news and to discuss it, with 59% of Twitter users and 42% of Reddit-users reporting finding their news through these platforms

Beyond the largest platforms, other tech start-ups are having a significant impact on the news industry. Local community-driven Nextdoor has increasingly become the place for local communities to share news, events and discussions, as well as acting as a localized bulletin board: all roles historically filled by local newspapers.[84] Other social media sites are playing an increasingly important role as a location to share news and to discuss it, with 59% of Twitter users and 42% of Reddit-users reporting finding their news through these platforms, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitch also play important roles in this space.[85] Some platforms like WeChat, a Chinese firm with over a million US users, have spawned news organizations that exist solely within the platform, relying on it for all of their digital real estate and distribution.[86]

Essential readings

How big internet platforms have upended older approaches to advertising and brands’ knowledge about consumers is well documented in a series of in-depth works including Julia Angwin’s “Dragnet Nation”,[87] Rana Faroohar’s “Don’t be Evil[88] and Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”[89] Froomkin’s “Is Facebook buying off the New York Times?[90] and Usher’s “How Facebook and Google buy off the Press[91] provide strong overviews of some of the grantmaking and commercial relationships that platforms have entered with news organizations.  

 

Philanthropy and Social Impact Investments

Philanthropy

As awareness of the dire straits facing journalism has spread, large foundations and grantmaking bodies have made funds available to support news organizations. These have included The Knight Foundation’s 2019 pledge of $300 million over five years,[92] and The American Journalism Project’s $42m for local news rooms.[93] Some of these grants have gone to large, established for profit brands like the New York Times, which successfully raised $4m over three years for its Headway initiative to produce in-depth reporting on issues of “global and national importance.”[94]

Other large grants have come in from digital platforms, putting them amongst the largest supporters of journalism worldwide. Facebook has pledged $400 million,[95] and Google $1 billion over three years,[96] with recipients including news organizations themselves and other institutions working parallel to news organizations, like the Center for Investigative Reporting.[97]

Social Impact investments

The relative lack of investments is explained by the absence of well-known success stories for investments and profitable exits from media investments. There are also skills and knowledge gaps on both the media entrepreneur and investor sides. Media entrepreneurs have historically lacked the necessary finance and business expertise to run a profitable business, and have been under-resourced in core business functions.

Since approximately 2010, investment into media enterprises has become more limited. Notable exceptions include sports outlets The Athletic and Minute Media raising $50m and $40m in 2020 respectively,[98] [99] and politics-focused Axios that successfully raised $20m in 2017.[100] This slow down in funding has opened the door to some of the hedge fund activity set out earlier (see Evolving Business Models).

The relative lack of investments is explained by the absence of well known success stories for investments and profitable exits from media investments. There are also skills and knowledge gaps on both the media entrepreneur and investor sides. Media entrepreneurs have historically lacked the necessary finance and business expertise to run a profitable business, and have been under-resourced in core business functions.[101]  On the investor side, those focused primarily on impact have found the results of media and journalism work too indirect to meet social impact metrics,[102] or have found journalism to be low down in a growing list of causes requiring social impact investment.[103]

Essential readings

A key overview of the issues is Armeni and Negrón’s work for the Ford Foundation, “Investing in Equitable News and Media Projects.[104] It provides an in-depth look at the issues facing the space both from the investor and news organization sides.

 

Media in local communities

The literature points out several ways that community media organizations play a vital role, especially during times of crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 2020, local media organizations showed their unique ability to support local businesses via localized advertising, provision of gift vouchers, advice on how local businesses were adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, and creating local online spaces for artists to showcase their work.[105]  They were also vital sources of local knowledge on COVID-19 and localized initiatives to get support to community members, like stimulus payments.[106]

But, community media outlets face an environment that is often even more challenging than the general media landscape. They are often smaller than other news organizations, with less capacity in the organization to secure funding from philanthropists and foundations. Some community media outlets are mistakenly labelled “advocacy” houses, rather than media organizations, and have often been overlooked or belittled by mainstream media setups that have not shown a helpful attitude to collaboration opportunities.[107]

Communities that may wish to reinvigorate their local media scene face obstacles if they want to bring outlets under community ownership. Poynter has found that hedge fund owners are often unwilling to sell their news assets. They report that even when sales are possible, the challenges of unwinding operations that have become consolidated within a broader media umbrella group, like printing, are very difficult to overcome. This makes founding new, digital-first community outlets a simpler and lower cost proposition.[108]

Among the most important areas for future scholarship that remains under-studied in our view by academia and business alike is the rising importance of local-news initiatives focused specifically on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Among the most important areas for future scholarship that remains under-studied in our view by academia and business alike is the rising importance of local-news initiatives focused specifically on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Among the key thinkers/practitioners in the changing local news landscape is radio’s Farai Chideya, whose articulate and thoughtful commentary can be found at public radio’s @OurBodyPolitic and elsewhere online. In particular, a recent commentary found here[109] points trenchantly to the emerging gaps between public radio’s audience and the more diverse community of listeners who could be reached with a wider, more inclusive approach to the community. Interesting work from the City University of New York’s Newmark Center is establishing atlases of both Latino and Black news media in the US and there are additional reports to come.

Just recently, a major new report added significantly to scholarship in this area. The Black Media Initiative at the CUNY Newmark School of Journalism issued its new report: ‘‘Pleading Our Cause and Leading the Way: Why Black Media Matters Now.’’[110] Researchers found that Black media ‘covered issues of importance to African-American communities more’ and provided a vehicle that ‘centered the conversations on the disproportionate racial impact of COVID and police brutality.’ We look to this area for continuing development in the near future.

Essential readings

Key items in this space are the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program’s “Collaboration in California’s diverse journalism ecosystem”,[111] which examines a specific market and draws lessons that are more broadly applicable. Lyz Lenz offers a unique exploration of some of the management issues facing small local outlets in “The real reason local newspapers are dying.[112] 

 

User Experience and New Operating Models

Alongside new focus on the overall business model of news outlets, there has been a renewed drive to connect organizations’ to their communities, and prioritizing their output more closely to the needs and wants of their communities as judged by data.

Connection to communities

McClatchy has pioneered a new initiative of community advisory boards for opinion teams. Using lessons from an initial pilot at The Miami Herald, it has expanded the practice across a number of their brands. These boards have the aim of ensuring that coverage reflects the issues that local communities want covered, and will help guide any political endorsements that the organization makes.[113] Some digital-first outlets like The Markup have hired full time audience and community engagement leads into their business teams, alongside digital product managers, to hasten the feedback loop between published content and community response.

Prioritizing output

Other organizations have made tough decisions about what work to stop doing. The Milwaukee Journal’s “Stop Doing” list led them to find internal efficiencies like improved social media account management, but also tough decisions on content to stop producing. Some segments of their audience were attached to these removed items, like the local community blotter. But, the additional resources led to 100 fewer stories being produced, but 19% higher monthly traffic.[114]

Essential readings

Steve Waldman’s “A Replanting Strategy[115] is a top exposition of how communities can be brought into newspaper ownership and management. Elizabeth Hansen and Marc Hand provide a unique proposal for creating a national level trust that would support this local engagement in “The National Trust for Local News.”[116]  

 

Conclusion and Next Steps

The crisis in local news will solely be behind us when a new model of consistent and sustainable growth by news and information providers has been achieved. These new services cannot simply reach a chosen few elite populations on the coasts and interior city centers. They must reach the total addressable market of US consumers, with products that are essential and engaging to the current and future generations of Americans.

The stakes are enormous. In many respects, local news and information contributes to the immune system of our local democracy. Without access to credible and verified local news and information, the costs to our civic health is incalculable.

From observing the market failures of the local news and information industry that has attended the rise of the internet and the eclipsing of local advertising revenues, we can see how channels that have been crucial for American local news in prior centuries are now shifting.  We could simply assign the current predicament, of local ‘news deserts’ dotting the landscape and proliferating local ‘pink-slime’ websites disguised as independent news sources offering partisan political propaganda to generations of strategic failures by mostly backward-looking, and largely Caucasian, male newspaper executives.

However, we obviously cannot change the past. Assigning blame for past sins — perceived, accurate or otherwise — takes us no closer to a sustainable future.

Instead, we must focus on what we can change: what is to come and what we can create.

But as with every journey, the voyage begins with the first step. It is our hope that this ‘Review of the Literature’ will help contribute to the sophistication and understanding of interested stakeholders and thus accelerate the consideration of viable and sensible steps to a healthier future for local news in America.  

 

References

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[34] Edmonds, Rick. “How Many Plans to Save Local Journalism Are Too Many?” Poynter (blog), October 27, 2020. https://www.poynter.org/locally/2020/how-many-plans-to-save-local-journalism-are-too-many/.

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[64] Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project, 939 F. 3d 567, (2021). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/19-1231_i425.pdf

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[70] Reuters Institute Digital News Report. “News Podcasts and the Opportunities for Publishers,” December 3, 2019. https://www.digitalnewsreport.org/publications/2019/news-podcasts-opportunities-publishers/.

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[72] Reuters Institute Digital News Report. “News Podcasts and the Opportunities for Publishers,” December 3, 2019. https://www.digitalnewsreport.org/publications/2019/news-podcasts-opportunities-publishers/.

[73] McMullan, Dawn. “How Newsletters Are Redefining Media Subscriptions,” June 2018. https://www.brightwave.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/How-Newsletters-Are-Redefining-Media-Subscriptions.pdf.

[74] NPR.org. “Tired Of The Social Media Rat Race, Journalists Move To Writing Substack Newsletters.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/02/941020719/tired-of-the-social-media-rat-race-journalists-move-to-writing-substack-newslett.

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[77] ibid.

[78] Cooper, Matthew, and Grace Gedye. “Spotify, Podcasts, and The War for Your Ears.” Washington Monthly – Political Animal (blog), November 15, 2020. https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/11/15/spotify-podcasts-and-the-war-for-your-ears/.

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[91] Longman, Martin, and Nikki Usher. “How Facebook and Google Buy Off the Press.” Washington Monthly, October 26, 2020. https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/november-december-2020/how-facebook-and-google-buy-off-the-press/.

[92] Knight Foundation. “Knight Foundation Focuses on Building the Future of Local News in $300 Million, Five-Year Commitment.” Accessed July 11, 2021. https://knightfoundation.org/press/releases/knight-foundation-focuses-on-building-the-future-of-local-news-in-300-million-five-year-commitment/.

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[94] NYTCo. “The New York Times Announces Philanthropic Support for the Headway Initiative.” The New York Times Company, December 1, 2020. https://www.nytco.com/press/the-new-york-times-announces-philanthropic-support-for-the-headway-initiative/.

[95] Grants for News Organizations – Facebook Journalism Project. “Grants for News Organizations – Facebook Journalism Project.” Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.facebook.com/journalismproject/programs/grants.

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