After Latest Woes, Can Community News Hit the ‘Re-imagine’ Button?

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Re-Imagining JournalismProposals for replacing the old and broken model of community news would, collectively, fill the proverbial telephone book (if there is one still around). But one “how-to” document that has stood out amid the pile of reports, studies, theories and just plain ranting is “Re-Imagining Journalism: Local News in a Networked World,” by Michael Fancher, a retired 30-year veteran of the Seattle Times who, as executive editor, was called “the Zen Master.” In the two years since “Re-Imagining Journalism” was published in June 2011, there have been a succession of upheavals in community news, almost all of them about sites closing or retrenching.

Can publishers of community news still manage to develop a model that works within the brutal economics of today’s digital space? I went to “re-imagineer” Fancher for answers.

In just the past seven months, EveryBlock closed; AOL’s Patch has announced it is shuttering hundreds of its sites to reach profitability by the end of the year; the regional network Daily Voice shut 11 of its sites to head off total extinction; Gannett eliminated hundreds of jobs in its locally focused print papers and digital operations; and Cablevision gave up on its digital venture in Westchester County, N.Y., after just one year. Is it time to hit the panic button?
I’d say it’s time to hit the “re-imagine” button.

The old paradigm of professional journalism was mostly limited to gathering, processing and distributing news. The essence of journalism for a networked world is experimentation, collaboration and public engagement. It involves:

•    Public, private and non-profit media networking together.
•    Established and emerging news organizations cooperating and co-creating content.
•    Journalism being done outside traditional places, including within civic organizations and institutions such as libraries and universities.
•    Partnerships between journalists and the people they are meant to serve.

I don’t see those actions happening nearly as fast as they need to.

You wrote “incremental change [in the local news industry] will not suffice.” What will make the difference?
Much of the change in journalism and journalism education is incremental, not transformative.

Change is incremental if it uses technology to improve the presentation of the information for existing customers, but doesn’t do anything to create a new sense of value for non-customers. Incremental change makes the product (journalism) better for people who are already using it; it doesn’t make the product relevant and helpful for people who don’t see themselves as consumers of journalism.

Incremental changes don’t tap into the power of interactivity in the digital information world. They are tactics for winning the old content war, not strategies for developing new markets and value networks.

You stressed the importance of collaboration to bring necessary big change. How’s that going?
While content partnerships have shown hope, revenue partnerships have proven harder, as has revenue experimentation in general.

Number four among your five strategic initiatives for local news is “greater urgency” on revenue. But to date there is no proven revenue model. Pew said in 2011 that 79% of consumers of local news websites don’t even look at ads. Is any site or publisher close to a breakthrough here?
The Pew Center issued a report by Tom Rostiel and Mark Jurkowitz last year that indicated mixed results, with some newspaper publishers finding success. But digital remains a challenge. It said, “One pervasive feeling is that 15 years into the digital transition, executives still feel they are in the early stages of figuring out a how to proceed.”

My sense is researchers in journalism education are learning a lot about how people consume and interact with online information, including advertising, but people in the profession aren’t utilizing that knowledge.

Businesses are making major progress in real-time capture of consumer behavior. That may send more targeted advertising toward the audiences of big commercial sites, like Groupon, but are the more fragmented community news sites at a disadvantage in being a beneficiary of this trend? Can networking help here?
I would like to say Yes, but advertising networks have been even harder to create and sustain than content networks. Individual owners can’t do this alone. This is a sector problem, but collaboration hasn’t been a strength among news media companies. Community news sites have no infrastructure to facilitate this kind of networking.

Michael Fancher
Michael Fancher

You and Knight both stress the need for more connectedness between community and journalism. But Knight’s Digital Citizenship summits focusing on how technology can promote engagement included barely a handful of representatives from news media. Are the media just too resistant or clueless?
There is frustration in many corners that community engagement is talked about but hasn’t emerged as a core value of legacy journalism. I think it must. It is at the heart of re-imaging journalism for a networked world.

The old mission paradigm of journalism was giving people the information they need. I think the new mission paradigm is about helping them have, use and act on the information that will enhance their personal and civic lives.

I’m on the board of Journalism That Matters, and we call this journalism of, by and for the people. “For” is still necessary and vital, but journalists can do a lot to support the “of” and “by,” as well. My own drive is, “If someone wants to create or contribute journalism, how can I help?”

I’m involved with and very excited about a new initiative in which the American Society of News Editors and Journalism That Matters are partnering to identify, promote and implement effective new strategies for meeting the news and information needs of communities, with an emphasis on connecting, convening, engaging and enabling people to participate as full partners in journalism.

The initiative combines ASNE’s convening power in local communities with JTM’s expertise in hosting creative conversations among diverse parties to generate innovative outcomes. The initiative will develop a “toolkit” of best practices to assist ASNE members in re-invigorating their commitment to inclusion and community connection in local news.

Finally, based on what you’ve seen since your report was published in June 2011, what’s happening (or not happening) that makes you more encouraged or more concerned about the future of local news and what it contributes to community and democracy?
I remain inspired by the people in journalism who are working harder than ever to do the best they can. Where some see the culture of journalism as resistant to change, I see it also as loyalty to a calling that remains essential to democracy. Re-imagining journalism involves shifting that loyalty so that it fully embraces the opportunities of interactive technologies and networking to create more journalism, with more people involved.

I’m also inspired by the many young people who want to be journalists and who accept the new realities as possibilities, not just problems. For them, re-imagining journalism is an opportunity. They are developing the skill set and the mindset for an interactive relationship with their communities.

If journalists, younger and older, help to formulate standards that work in this new news ecosystem, the results can be journalism that is more accurate, serves more people and is more trusted by those people. That journalism will contribute to community and democracy.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.