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Three lessons the Pacific Northwest can teach local media everywhere

October 2, 2017 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

The transformation of the media business shows no signs of slowing. While all areas have been disrupted, local news has been among the hardest hit. These neighborhood news providers have seen steady cuts and closures. This has left “news deserts” in which wide swaths of America have a troubling shortage of local news coverage. Undoubtedly, local news remains important to the communities it serves and its survival essential.

The report, Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest, explores the experience of 10 local media outlets in the Pacific Northwest. Through expert interviews and analysis, the report offers insights into a microcosm of how digital disruption is impacting local journalism more widely across the United States.

Like all media, local journalism faces enormous economic pressures and continues to evolve to address these issues. The report finds that continued experimentation is essential to success. However, some of the older digital formats — newsletters and podcasts — are experiencing a resurgence both in popularity and revenue generation. The upheaval in local journalism has also produced new possibilities for journalists and storytellers.

Here are three key takeaways from Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest:

1. The practice of local journalism is evolving.

The report finds that role of local journalists is changing. Even the notion of objectivity is being reexamined as journalists seek to authentically engage audiences and reestablish trust. This includes elements of engaged journalism, with an emphasis on listening to communities, as well as harnessing digital platforms to tell stories in new and interesting ways.

Video and social media are already well-established means to engage audiences and share the news. Local journalists are also increasingly enthusiastic about exploring different approaches to their work. This includes solutions journalism and a recognition that you can maintain journalistic independence and integrity while still being active— and visible—in the community. We can expect to see a greater emphasis on the role of analytics to shape content and inform the beats that newsrooms focus on, as well as an increased importance attached to journalists with data and visual—particularly video—skills.

2. Local media needs to be more diverse in staffing and content.

While the report unsurprisingly finds that local newsrooms will continue to shrink in terms of staffing, it emphasizes that newsrooms must become increasingly diverse. Efforts to this end are essential so that these publications better reflect and engage the communities they serve. As those interviewed point out, many communities have seen a significant change in the racial and economic profile of their readers since the bulk of staff were hired. Thus, they need to improve their understanding of their audiences, as well as the priorities and expectations of these audiences. And, in addition to staffing up newsrooms that look more like the communities they represent, the skill-set of these journalists needs to address emerging digital formats and analytic tools. Engaging local journalism must reflect its community and their information needs while leveraging multimedia storytelling.

3. Outlets are experimenting with multiple ways to increase revenue.

The report outlines the significant pressures on the local ad-based business model. These include the fact that many advertisers are focused on ad targeting at scale and only willing to pay “digital dimes” rather than “print dollars.” It also looks at offline pressures on local advertising such as like shift of Main Street businesses from local shops to national chains.

Thus, local media providers are exploring with a range of ways to expand their revenue base. These include paywalls, subscriptions (including special offers and sales through third parties, such as Groupon), events, income from foundations, sponsorship, and membership models. These efforts are part of a wider move to diversify revenue and reduce reliance on print advertising and subscriptions—which are declining overall. Finding the right revenue mix to support local journalism is a strategic priority and, typically, a combination of methods is required for success.

The report explores several more significant takeaways based upon the research. They cover issues that include metrics, on and offline engagement, the rise of visual content, and the need to create unique content. As the report states, “We can see the positive impact local journalism can make on communities and the wider news/information ecosystem on a daily basis. It supports community, democratic, and civic needs and remains valuable to audiences and communities alike.”

Local journalism bears a great responsibility and must evolve to reflect the diverse communities it serves. At the same time, it most continuously experiment with engagement and delivery tools, as well as monetization models in order to remain relevant and economically viable.

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