Americans are more interested in local news than they are in international or national news, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in Denver, Sioux City, Iowa, and Macon, Ga.
Pew’s Amy Mitchell presented the findings of “Local News in a Digital Age” at Engage Local, the national conference of Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media, on Tuesday at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.
The survey found a connection between news consumption and civic engagement. The very engaged follow news more closely and are more likely to read a daily newspaper, Mitchell said. And local news consumption tracks along with higher city satisfaction. In addition to the Pew research, Philip Napoli of Rutgers University presented findings from a study they did of three towns in New Jersey. Based on their focus groups, Napoli reported that one recurring theme was that news sources located outside of a community are not trusted.
And yet local news has gotten lost in the shuffle as traditional media was disrupted by the growth of digital. International and national news sources have made the transition, with varying degrees of success, and new digital first sources have added to the landscape. But “local news is stuck,” as noted by Report for America author Steve Waldman. “Local media do not make enough money to support enough journalists.”
Another conference speaker, Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, talked about some of the things the Post has been able to do since being acquired by a billionaire. When asked about the paper’s local news coverage of the areas surrounding Washington he said it was “an issue we have to deal with.” Why? Because “hyperlocal is very expensive to do.”
The issue is that local news is labor intensive. Another of the presenters, Mary Barr Mann of Village Green, expressed it this way: “You can’t aggregate someone sitting at a planning board meeting for five hours to find out if they are going to build a post office.”
One of the most widely watched local news initiatives was Patch, a news platform which under the ownership of AOL at one time included some 900 staffed local news sites. AOL claimed, in 2010, that it intended to invest $50 million in Patch. Three years later they were laying off staff and reducing the number of sites and by 2014 they sold it off.
What Patch did accomplish was to focus a good number of journalists on local news and many of the folks that were discarded by Patch have been behind the creation of new hyperlocal news initiatives. For the most part they are one or two person operations. Some have to hold other jobs in order to keep going, while others are backed by spouses who pay the bills.
These local news entrepreneurs have found some creative ways to keep the lights on. BrooklynBased sponsors bar crawls in partnership with the Brooklyn Brewery. The Tuscon Sentinel has used Kickstarter to fund specific journalist projects like one to photograph every mile of the Arizona-Mexico border. The Village Green in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., sells email subscriptions for $5 a month.
Waldman’s Report for America (available on medium.com) suggests treating local news as a public service. He drew a comparison with the way museums or orchestras are funded and supported. His proposal is to create a philanthropically funded center of experienced journalists that local news outlets can access for staffing.
So the search for the successful local news business model for the digital age continues. What was clear at “Engage Local” is that the audience is there, and so are the people who want to produce the content. All that’s needed is how to figure out a way to toss some money into the mix.