Initiatives for strengthening local news systems to be discussed at June conference
This is a sneak peek at research to be presented June 3-4, 2017 during “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future,” a conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Click here to learn more and register.
By ALLISON RIDGWAY
Experiments in the United States show that there are ways to foster healthier local news systems through innovative financial models, community engagement and collaboration between
newsrooms, says a leading authority on local news “fixes.”
Josh Stearns, associate director of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, said he saw first-hand the positive impact these types of initiatives can have while working with six local news organizations in New Jersey. Stearns will outline some of the local news-saving strategies discovered during the New Jersey experiments and other initiatives in a June 3 luncheon address at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future.
“We really had a situation in New Jersey where the news ecosystem was incredibly fractured and struggling,” says Stearns, who is also co-curator of The Local Fix, a newsletter about key debates in local journalism sustainability and community engagement. “But in the midst of that there was enormous creativity and civic entrepreneurship with local journalists and folks who cared about their communities.”
Stearns and Molly de Augiar, both working for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation at the time, created the Local News Lab in 2014. After one year, all six New Jersey newsrooms involved with the Local News Lab saw increases in traffic and engagement and the addition of at least one new revenue stream. Moreover, says Stearns, the overall health of the local news ecosystems improved, with newly launched news sites offering residents a wider range of coverage.
The initiatives involved experimenting with new revenue models, such as the local news app and loyalty card program created by Brick City Live, one of the six newsrooms Stearns worked with. More than 500 people signed up to for the loyalty card’s pilot program, and the Newark-based news blog used that initial revenue to create an app-based version of the program.
Stearns said collaboration among news organizations and community engagement are also key strategies to building healthy news environments.
“We need to build solidarity across the news ecosystem so that people feel like they have a stake in the success of their overall news community,” he said.
“Right now the incentives to do community engagement work are up against the incentives for getting as many stories and bylines on a page as possible at any given time. But some news organizations are realizing that deep engagement with communities is fundamental to the sustainability of local news.”
Such engagement is particularly important, he said, given the growing political polarization in the United States and the high level of distrust people across ideological lines are showing towards the media: “Newsrooms are realizing that part of their role needs to be opening up to their communities and facilitating the kinds of difficult civil discussions that we need to have as a nation.”
Stearns is now taking what he learned from the New Jersey venture to the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program. The program has deployed journalist consultants across the U.S. to learn what communities want from their local news and what is needed to save struggling news environments across the country. In about a year, the program will create projects similar to New Jersey’s Local News Lab in two or three new regions, he says.
“The goal of the Public Square Program as we move forward is to ensure that the information and news ecosystems that we all rely on are places that are trustworthy, engaged and responsive to communities,” says Stearns.
“We really envision the public square as a place where democracy can thrive at the intersection of communities, conversations and news.”