Keystroke by keystroke, local news is reinventing itself to find the path to digital success. It’s not happening consistently or everywhere, but the spirit of innovation, with validating rewards in audience and revenue, can be found at sites in communities across America. (See links in the note at end of this column.)
A real test of this new spirit, I decided, would be to examine how local sites responded with their reporting on presidential election results in the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where, in perhaps the most shocking presidential vote in U.S. history, Donald Trump captured enough electoral votes to gain the White House.
What I found offers encouraging clues to how good journalism can have a positive impact on the business models for local news.
My look at coverage of the election also led me to this optimistic thought: that the coming Trump era is very likely to accelerate the transformation of local news, an industry which — let’s face it — is overdue for a big shakeup if it’s going to avoid losing to Facebook and other social media platforms.
Let’s begin with two venturesome Gannett-owned sites in two capitals of the Rust Belt – Milwaukee and Detroit:
Gannett’s recently acquired Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel and its long-owned Detroit Free Press teamed up to produce a devastating dissection of how and why Republican nominee Donald Trump bulldozed his way through the center of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s vaunted “Blue Wall.”
On Thursday morning, Nov. 10, the two papers published “How Clinton lost the Blue-Walled states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” Even if you are a political junkie, this article told you just about everything you needed to know, and did it in the crispest language (albeit without maps and other text-supportive visualizations).
Three veterans of political reporting at the two papers produced the joint article, which also ran nationally in Gannett’s USA Today. One of the co-authors, Todd Spangler, Washington correspondent for the Detroit Free Press and former metro editor at the Freep, told me: “I certainly expect such collaboration to continue when it makes sense.”
Our next stop is Philadelphia at the rejuvenated Philadelphia Media Network, which includes the city’s two daily print and digital newspapers, the Inquirer and the tabloid Daily News, and their pooled site philly.com. The Inquirer published solid articles on Nov. 10 – here and here – that told the story of the Trump-quake in Pennsylvania. The PMN newsroom’s recent “Call to Arms” was definitely heard the morning after the election.
The Inquirer coverage included eye-opening data visualizations showing that while Clinton did credibly in greater Philadelphia — actually better than Barack Obama in 2012 — Trump crushed her in most of the rest of the state, where Obama had done well.
I asked Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Institute for Journalism in New Media, which oversees PMN, whether first-rate journalism can make for a better business model: “It is increasingly clear that the business of great journalism depends upon creating deeply engaging content in which readers invest their time and ultimately their money. Election coverage of the type we saw in the Philadelphia Inquirer is a case in point. Depth trumps fluff, pun intended.”
The year-old entrepreneurial Billy Penn founded by digital news pioneer Jim Brady was not to be outdone by its long-established media rivals in Philadelphia. It published an impressive morning-after package on how Trump tore through the Eastern flank of Clinton’s Blue Wall in Pennsylvania — here and here.
I asked Brady, whose Spirited Media recently launched a second site in Pittsburgh, The Incline, the same question I put to PMN’s Friedlich. His answer: “Two election stories by themselves probably don’t help the business model. But this level of coverage helps longer term because it shows you’re serious about doing serious stories, and that’s obviously meaningful to your readers, and also to potential advertisers.
“We met with a potential advertiser in Pittsburgh on Tuesday who wanted to meet with us because of how quickly we made a mark in Philadelphia with Billy Penn, and he said: ‘You’ve made a name for yourself by doing good stories and being incredibly consistent in terms of quality.’ And that’s refreshing because he wasn’t basing it on page views; he was basing it on wanting to be associated with quality.”
My hunch is that the presidential election coverage detailed here is just a foretaste of what’s likely to come in local news — not just in the Rust Belt but at digital sites everywhere. Here’s why: The downstream impact of a change-driven Trump government in Washington, D.C., will create many opportunities (and responsibilities) for local sites from coast to coast, in cities, suburbs and rural areas collectively. The pledged deportation of “criminal” undocumented immigrants, a $1 trillion plan for transportation and other infrastructure improvements, new job creation strategies, a repealed-and-replaced Obamacare — all these Trump initiatives would have a resounding impact on the neighborhoods, cities and regions that local news sites claim to serve.
Is this a realistic assessment? I asked Brady. His answer: “Absolutely. I think the election revealed the disconnect between the media and much of the country, and one way to make sure that doesn’t happen again is to find ways to increase the number of local voices doing original reporting.”
Covering how controversial and multi-layered issues play out among hundreds of millions of Americans right where they live and work will require much more original reporting and data visualization than curation/aggregation. News sites will need more resources at both the front and back end of digital platforms, especially mobile ones. The sites that do all this mostly right, including with apps to encourage readers to chat among their friends, will position themselves to attract strong, connected audiences and make a compelling case to advertisers and content sponsors — and maybe even prospective digital subscribers.
Making sense of local issues generated by the new administration in Washington will be a special challenge for smaller, entrepreneurial operations, but Billy Penn, with its compact editorial staff — eight people counting editors, reporters and developers — demonstrated, with its outstanding presidential election coverage, it can be done. Corporate newspaper groups have the capacity, if not always the will, to make the right moves. Even papers that have gone through difficult Chapter 11 bankruptcy organization can rise to the occasion, as shown by the Philadelphia Inquirer under PMN, its post-bankruptcy owner since 2014.
To capitalize on new opportunities, corporate and independent operations alike should explore on-the-fly, story-by-story partnerships like the one between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Detroit Free Press on presidential election coverage in their crucial Rust Belt region. News media associations like the Local Media Consortium should push the envelope on what they can do collectively, especially in making a seamless, front-to-back-end whole of editorial, product and engineering functions.
Synergistic mergers like the one recently put together by the independent Home Page Media and Source Local Media in Nashville are another way to go. Still another path is franchising, which has propelled TAPinto into a network of 57 sites in the suburbs of North Jersey and Westchester County in New York.
Whatever happens, I think we’re looking at a “Trump-quake” in local news.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.
NOTE: Here are cities and other communities where local news sites (in the URLs) have been breaking out from tradition and are poised to keep innovating, as chronicled in Street Fight: Milwaukee, Philadelphia — here and here — the Santa Rosa beach communities along the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast, Dallas, Nashville, the New York and North Jersey suburbs (here and here), Denver and Charlotte.