Local Edition: Here’s what we've figured out about the future of local news (so far)

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

I love planning trips. The research and anticipation always make the trip itself better for me.  

But I have learned to leave time and space for the unexpected, too. A few years ago, that led to a long drive to a cave at the tip of Barbados with “animal flowers.” This year, it resulted in an early morning hike to a giant badass lady statue in Kiev. The unexpected often turns out to be the best part of the trip.

So maybe it’s not totally surprising to look back on the last nine months we’ve spent trying to figure out the future of local news and see that some of the best places we visited weren’t on the map.

When Local Edition started in February, I had a sense of where we might be headed. I figured we’d need to talk about culture, skills, money, what it’s time to stop doing and what it’s time to begin. And we did talk about those things, among many others.

But some themes are pretty clear from our discussions, and many of them weren’t on the original agenda.

So this week, let’s look back at some snapshots of the off-the-map places we’ve been so far. It’s cool to see how these ideas, shared in different editions and from different people, all work together.

Community, community, community

We spent several weeks talking about audience, but community, what it means, how we think of them, how we listen to and work with them, came up month after month, too. And it started in the very beginning.

“Without our news organization, our community's elected officials would be able to make decisions with very little input from residents,” Sara Baranowski, editor, Times Citizen, Iowa Falls, Iowa, wrote in response to our first question in February: Why are you still a journalist? “I am often the only member of the public at a meeting. I've seen the impact my work can have. Not just on shaping public policy, but on individuals who've trusted me to tell their deeply personal stories. I see a newspaper (or other news outlet) as the web that ties a community together. We have the power (and the platform) to tell the stories that show our neighbors how interconnected we all are.”

For a lot of us, the idea of why we’re doing what we’re doing hasn’t changed. But how we think about communities has. In April, Lauren Bracey Scheidt, marketing technologist at NPR in Tucson, put it like this:

“Unlearn thinking of 'everyone' as the audience. Our audiences are much more specific, and there are many of them. Also unlearn putting the story at the center of the process, and instead put the reader/listener/viewer at the center of the process. What are they going to learn? What do they need to know? Where are they starting, and where will they be when the story is over?”

In May, Mónica Guzmán, director and co-founder of Seattle’s The Evergrey, brought both ideas together:

“It would be great if more journalism organizations stepped back from the conventional way of thinking about what the beats are and what the issues are and tried to make really lasting, strong, incredible connections with their community so they are always in the know and never out of touch.”

In June, KPCC’s Ashley Alvarado and al.com’s Challen Stephens showed us what this kind of work looks like and how they make it happen.

“... It begins with setting aside assumptions, assumptions that all the best ideas originate inside the newsroom, which was an old viewpoint,” Challen said. “You begin listening to the audience, you begin letting them guide you in terms of what they find interesting. Sometimes they surprise you ...”

In July, Local Edition readers shared great projects that put communities in the center of the process. And what impact does that kind of work have? In July, we spoke with Alhambra Source’s Phoenix Tso, who told us the story of how listening to local lawn bowlers helped save a city park. The city underestimated them, Phoenix said, but Alhambra Source did not.

What can we learn from all this?

I got an email from Taylor Shaw, now at The News and Observer in North Carolina, with such solid suggestions on how to build around community that she took over Local Edition at the end of July. But the short answer is communities should be at the beginning, middle and end of everything we do. 

Some other themes that have bubbled up over and over:

Failure: For a lot of journalists, failure means corrections or getting scooped. But we have to think about it differently and be willing to try things that may not work. How?

“I like the terminology that some people use about doing tiny experiments and looking for small wins, so, again, it's not like everything is on the line every time you're trying to do something,” API’s Amy Kovac-Ashley told us in August.

Process: How we work has changed. In May, Anna Orso (then at Billy Penn, now at the Philadelphia Inquirer) said this: “There’s no longer this sense of, I’m filing my story, and I’m done with it, I may never have to think about it again.”

In May, Philadelphia Media Network’s editor, Gabriel Escobar, shared how they’re changing their language to change their thinking.

And in November, Jeff Kleinman, day editor at the Miami Herald, shared two great lists on how to do things differently in digital times.

Basics still matter: “I think we need to be better at getting out of the newsroom,” reporter Jerry Mitchell of the (Jackson, Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger said in March. “I view that as a problem sometimes. We can get so locked into being in the newsroom, we’re so busy, everything’s on fire. We’re just constantly putting out fires. We need to be able to get out more.”

Also, writing, writing, writing

OK, so here's all of the above in one sentence. Does this sound right? 

The future of local news depends on strong foundations, experimentation and new ways of working that are centered outside of the newsroom, not in it. (It also depends on figuring out the money stuff, but we knew that.)

We’ve learned a lot from each other so far. Next week, we’re going to take a look back at what we’ve learned from people who aren’t in newsrooms. They include a teacher, a librarian, a medical student, an entrepreneur and a pretty amazing 11-year-old.

In the meantime, read LION Publishers on why net neutrality matters for independent local news. Hooray for Giving News Day! This is a great read on meeting your commenters in real life. And check out this upcoming Webinar from Poynter’s News U on creating content for different platforms.

See you next week!

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