Three Candles to Light in Dark Times for Local News and Journalists

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The news about local news hasn’t been good lately. But here are three recent positive signals helping to balance the scales:

Story Tip for Newsroom: Get People Involved in Beginning

Jennifer Brandel, CEO of the digital audience-engagement tool Hearken, expressed her frustrations about her industry this way:

“I spend the bulk of my waking life thinking about the news industry and audience engagement. And there’s a particularly knotty issue I’ve been trying to unravel, put into words and expose.

“The core of this issue is how newsrooms make decisions about what stories to supply their communities. In short, they’re still using processes and mental models designed for the pre-internet era and its former dynamics.

“To put it frankly: those old processes aren’t working well in an age where individuals are empowered with access to seemingly-infinite content. And poorly-designed processes create inaccurate information and lead to misguided decisions which ultimately breaks the system.”

Hearken goes to the very beginning of when a local news story takes shape – when the reporter, sitting at her computer in the newsroom, takes her notebook and pen out of her bag. In the conventional newsroom cycle (first chart in diagram below), the reporter begins working on a story she successfully pitched or was assigned. If it was a story about stagnating scores of academic performance in mostly poor and minority public schools, despite recent reforms, she calls a few principals and the experts in the system. In the Hearken “public-powered cycle” (second chart in diagram below). the story begins with people in the community, very likely with the parents of minority students.

The reporter asks questions, like, “Is your boy getting what he needs at school?” and “Do you need any support from the system you’re not getting?” And keeps listening to pick up whatever clues she can about the increased pressure on “learning beyond the classroom” (i.e. the home).

Sometimes with Hearken as a newsroom tool, the story begins with a question from the community, as Brandel recounts on the Hearken website:

WYSO is a tiny but mighty public radio station in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They’ve been using the Hearken model since before it was officially called Hearken. And their series WYSO Curious shows that oftentimes news organizations miss great questions hidden in plain sight. Former managing editor Lewis Wallace answered a question (submitted by multiple listeners) about the origin of a bright blue lake off a highway in town. He said that just about everyone in town had wondered about that lake but no news outlet had covered the story. Lewis’ answer was the most popular story ever posted on the WYSO site, by a wide margin.”

What’s crucial about the new way of story reporting is that the community gets involved, as Brandel stresses, in the beginning. Printing comments after a story is published is too late.

For more about what Hearken can do to transform newsrooms, go here.

With local newsrooms everywhere seeking, sometimes desperately, to engage the readers, Hearken is getting traction with new sites big and small internationally as an audience tool that goes beyond the gimmickry that too often is part of the new, tech-enhanced newsroom.  This week, the Lenfest Journalism Institute and its funding partners announced a $650,000 Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF) to help local news sites acquire services from Hearken and a similar company, GroundSource.

Local publishers can apply here to CLEF.

This isn’t about Journalism 101. There’s a very big bottom line here: Local news sites that connect more closely with their community – beginning with listening – are going to send more of their readers from the top of the marketing funnel to the bottom. That reader journey, all the research agrees, will produce more conversions to subscriptions. Research also says more engaged readers will produce more click-throughs to ads.


Bulletin! Journalists Win More Trust

You don’t want to click to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer when you reach for your smartphone upon waking up in the morning. If you do, you may decide to crawl under the bed.

Here’s just one bleak conclusion from Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the global communications marketing firm that produces the annual report:

“As we begin 2018, we find the world in a new phase in the loss of trust: the unwillingness to believe information, even from those closest to us. The loss of confidence in information channels and sources is the fourth wave of the trust tsunami.”

But, somehow, journalism has escaped this tsunami. Trust in the craft has reached a new recent high, according to the report, while trust in social and search platforms has continued to decline.


A News Site Survives in Brooklyn

Early last month, Liena Zagare, publisher of Bklyner, announced to her readers that she would close down her site unless 3,000 readers of the free publication would become voluntary subscribers at $5 a month. She didn’t hit her target by the Dec. 31 deadline, but she got close enough – almost 2,000 signups – to convince her to decide to keep going.

At that dark moment, she said:

“Local newspapers are dying, and local news sites are shuttering every week. Just last month, Gothamist and DNAinfo called it quits. I must be frank in telling you that BKLYNER may not be far behind. We cannot make ends meet under our current advertising-based business model. Like hundreds of other news outlets around the country, we’ve found it impossible to sustain a robust news organization on local ad sales alone…

“We’re closing at the end of the month unless our readers decide to support us and become paying subscribers. We need 3,000 subscribers – less than 1% of our readers.”

Yesterday, she said:

“The subscriber-member drive was incredibly heartening for a number of reasons. It was powerful to see that we mattered to so many people, and that they were willing to pay for a product that has been provided for free for the last decade in this city – local, community news.

“This is good news not just for us, but for any local news outlet in the country. We are still working towards our goal of 3,000, but we are on a much more solid footing, and if we can succeed at keeping our subscriber growth rates steady, we should be able to start adding more news reporters soon. I’m optimistic.”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.