Leader of Reuters Institute’s Bleak News Report: ‘We Can Do It’

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I was slammed by five words in the recent “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016”: “Local journalism continues to decline.” But then, in a later section of the report, I discovered that both men and women in the U.S. and internationally rank local as their number one category of news. So which is it — should  the publishers of community news despair or at least see the promise of sunlight behind the lowering clouds?

For answers, I went to the lead author of the report, Nic Newman, digital strategist at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Newman does not inhabit an ivory tower — he held top positions at the BBC earlier in his career, including as World Editor of the the global news service’s online platform, which he built up from its launch, and then as head of Product Development and Technology at BBC News Interactive. His work today includes helping businesses develop their digital strategies in an increasingly active social world.

Here are Newman’s revealing answers to my questions:

If men and women everywhere rank local as their number one category of news, why is it so troubled — whether it’s published by daily newspapers or corporate or entrepreneurial “pure-plays,” as well as nonprofits?
The biggest problem is not interest in local news but the business models, which have been hardest hit by the move to mobile and digital — for a number of reasons. Classified advertising migrated to scale-driven businesses like Craig’s List, and more recently Facebook with its wealth of demographic and location data is mopping up the rest. The internet seems to demand some kind of scale (in user experience, editorial, technology, data or sales) to make business models work and thousands of small titles and community news operations simply can’t deal with the speed of change and the complexity of the modern media landscape.

Communities of all sizes, older and newer ones alike, are busily drawing up plans for what they want to be a generation or more forward. But this civic hustle and bustle that often seeks to mobilize diversity as a way to recharge neighborhoods, cities, suburbs and regions doesn’t turn up that often in the news report of local and community sites. Why is that?
It’s probably very different in the U,S. and the .UK., so I am not sure how to respond to this issue. What I see here in the U.K. is local sites and papers taking a very traditional view of what news is about  (local politics, accidents, crime, etc.), and not using the digital tools that can bring together communities in new ways (online and in real life). The other aspect of this is the way local journalists still define news in terms of things that are unexpected or immediate. The internet has increased the trend to real-time news, often at the expense of campaigns and movements that are less “dramatic” or may take many years to come to fruition

Local and community publishers have access to treasure troves of data that was unavailable not that long ago. But they seem not to know how to exploit it in their news coverage — for example, by doing things like presenting this cultural map of Baltimore by digital guru Dave Troy that’s revealed by black and white tweets. Why is that?
I think this relates to the fragmentation and lack of scale I mentioned at the beginning. Using data to find and tell stories in new ways, visualizing it beautifully often requires a combination of skills that are hard to find in one person. Traditional publishing house often don’t have these skills and don’t necessarily see acquiring them as a priority when there are so many stories to cover and when costs need to be cut in all directions to keep the publication alive.

This is another area where, local publishers need some wider network or platform to provide scale and make this whole process easier. if there were standard free data sources that could be pulled together (traffic, crime, weather), shared templates and processes, common visualization frameworks, it would make things much easier. But even then, we’d need training and evangelism to make this real.

Can the broken advertising model be fixed, or do local and community publishers have to develop more non-ad sources of revenue?
I’m not a fan of digital advertising as currently practiced, which is generally intrusive and interruptive. We need to find something better, more engaging and more valuable to communities. In that sense I think the rise of ad-blockers is a good thing and will speed up the move to new business models and distribution models such as those practiced by 30A. So, yes, local community publishers should embrace the new opportunities around sponsorship, commerce, events and other ways that will fully engage local people and create value for local businesses at the same time.

Are you sanguine that local and community publishers will prove to be up to their editorial, business and civic challenges — or will their sites be increasingly marginalized and/or taken over by disruptors who may not be constrained by civic missions?
We’re in a state of enormous flux which both deeply worrying and exciting because of the  opportunity to create something better. We need to hold on to what we value but also be prepared to rethink what we mean by civic mission. To embrace new opportunities, we will need to let go of things that “we’ve always done.” We’ll need to take more risks, to create new partnerships, make more of the creativity of our communities in terms of sourcing content, and use the new (free) distribution channels and tools to make it widely available.

It’s a big leap, but we can do it.

You say, if news sites make necessary changes, “we can do it.” But will community sites — which seem to be the most challenged — learn, as you put it, to “deal with the speed of change and the complexity of the modern media landscape”?
Some sites, run by tech savvy multi-skilled  journalists and entrepreneurs, will be able to make a success of it,  but it will be a tough path which requires superhuman dedication to build the community and maintain quality day after day. To square the circle, we need better ways of working together on the platforms and sharing of best practice including practical ideas that work. I’m optimistic in the long term because I think community sites are valuable and wanted but pessimistic in the short term because the big distribution platforms are taking most of the value and we are still struggling to find commercial models that work.

Tom GrubisichTom 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.