To the judges:
Every year around this time America’s news people start journalism contest season, putting together entries of our best work and writing letters to judges explaining the impact and effort that went into these stories. We know these letters help judges understand the why and how behind our work and it occurred to us, maybe a bit belatedly, that it might be a good idea to address a similar message to you, our audiences and communities.
We need from you not a single prize but a more profound honor: your trust and direct financial support. We’ve been offering more and more pitches asking you to subscribe, donate or become members of our organizations. Dear judges, you should know that this recognition of our value is not just coveted but is becoming central to our survival, especially for local news.
Humility hasn’t been our strong suit and we admit that we have long been out of touch and taken you for granted. You don’t trust us generally, though you trust some of us specifically. In seeking this honor, we openly seek your support for improving journalism as a service, not just the TV, print and radio newsrooms of the past but the startups, nonprofits and specialized journalism helping mark out the future.
As we often do in contest letters, we also invite you to consider the adversity that surrounds our work, from physical danger to the precarious state of local news in particular. Our numbers are far lower than in decades past and we endure near-constant financial uncertainty and even hostility from the highest offices. Yet local newsrooms notch wins for our communities week in and week out: revealing abuses, providing information lifelines in disasters and capturing the joys and milestones of daily life as shared experiences in the life of our towns, cities and rural home places.
We’re trying mightily to find our way, though many of us are weary of the word reinvention. We write this letter knowing that journalism’s best hope for winning back your trust — and finding a money model that works — is for you, and not just us, to see what we do as essential and indispensable.
In that way we know that this contest is open year-round and every day and that each broadcast or edition is another pitch to prove our value. Carolina Public Press does a great job keeping its special projects in front of readers, following up on them and tracking impact, and ProPublica’s Impact section is an idea we can all adopt right away. Too many of us let our most ambitious work drop off or far down our sites after a day or a week: We can track impact as the Asbury Park Press did with its investigation on renters. We can create longer shelf life and value by communicating, adding to and talking to you about specific stories and questions in our subscription and member pitches. Mother Jones, Voice of San Diego and others demonstrate that when we tell you more about what we are trying to do, you respond.
We’re learning a lot too about how to tap your knowledge and ideas; we’ve seen that listening improves journalistic quality and can deepen your willingness to support newsrooms. Andrew DeVigal of the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center describes community engagement as a continuum and not a transaction. Hearken has shown how audience engagement can create new revenue streams. The News Integrity Initiative calls 2018 the “Year of Listening,” connecting engagement not only with trust but also with financial well-being for news. Just lately we’ve gained from American Press Institute’s research on types of subscribers and how to convert them and the Membership Puzzle Project’s deep and comprehensive Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement.
Local news has never been the highest-paying and certainly isn’t the most glamorous work, but we are reminded of its public value every year when journalism prize-winners are announced. As the Local Matters newsletter shows us week after week, local reporting consistently keeps watch for citizens. We think such work is at the core of our hopes for being here in the long run: If we can win this contest for your trust and support.
Come to think of it, maybe we can even publish a version of these contest letters on our sites, with links for you to see stories you might have missed, and ask you to help us produce more great work.
In the meantime, thanks for your consideration.
Sincerely, the people who produce local news
And PS: Sorry for taking so long to write.