Report: For local newspapers to survive, they need to stop telling everyone they're dying

A new study from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism looks in-depth at small newspapers, what's working, what's not and what needs to change. 

"Local News in a Digital World: Small-Market Newspapers in the Digital Age," was published Wednesday and it details ways small newspapers are making money, how journalism in those places is changing and how small local newsrooms need to do a better job of showing why they're vital. 

Times are tough for small-market newspapers, authors Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali write, "but they’re not dead yet. In fact, they continue to provide considerable value to communities and the wider news ecology. We need to do a better job of telling this story, so that the impact and successes of small-market newspapers is better understood and heard. If we want audiences and policymakers to realize this, and to invest in the sector’s future, then telling them the the industry is moribund will not help."

The report is the latest look at local news from Radcliffe and Ali, who previously found that despite tough times, local journalists are still optimistic. The two also looked at how we define local news and what small newspapers need to do to survive. (Disclosure: The report got funding from the Knight Foundation, which also funds my coverage of local news.) 

Today's report comes from in-depth interviews with 53 people, including editors, publishers, owners, executives, advertisers, and associations. Poynter's Rick Edmonds was among those interviewed. 

The report notes that it seeks to offer some nuance in looking at small-market local news, which is defined as newsrooms with a circulation of 50,000 or less. From the report:

"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."

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Those smaller outlets, while still dealing with tough times, have some key advantages over their bigger counterparts, the report notes. 

"Sizable audiences continue to buy and value local newspapers. As a result, it is incumbent that the sector begin to change its own narrative. 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."

How can they do that? The report includes several answers:

Don't just find problems, find solutions

In small markets, practicing solutions journalism can help set the newspaper apart and make it valuable for the community. Richland Source took this approach recently while reporting on infant mortality, as did Gannett's Wisconsin papers in covering teen suicide

Find new ways to make money

The report lists seven ways newsrooms are making money that aren't traditional advertising. Those include membership, digital subscriptions and events. Paywalls are another the report mentions, and small newspapers are trying a variety of approaches.

"Our research also found clear evidence that paywalls and digital subscription models are not set in stone. There are plenty of opportunities to experiment with them," the report notes. "The Dallas Morning News, for example, has deployed three different paywalls over the years, from a hard paywall, and later a mixed premium versus free site, to a metered model. The current paywall also distinguishes between in-market and out-of-market audiences."

Change the approach

Newspapers can't always wait to publish until the story is complete, a workflow shift we're exploring now in Poynter's newsletter on local transformation, Local Edition, which gets a mention in the report.  

"In many cases, (emeritus editor of The Columbian, Lou) Brancaccio argued, the paper does have the story, but the reporter is waiting until it is complete before publishing. 'That’s old-school thinking,' he said, leading him — and others — to encourage reporters to publish online when a story breaks, fleshing it out as further details emerge. For many journalists that’s a radically different approach from the way they have previously worked. But Brancaccio believes it’s necessary for many outlets in this day and age. 'The odds are somebody else has it,' he said, 'and if you don’t get it up first, somebody else will.'"

You can read the full report here

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