I started working at WLRN Public Media in 2014. The station had a relationship with the Miami Herald, and thus we had desks and a couple of studios in their offices in Doral, Florida. I loved working in the Herald newsroom because it still had that newspaper newsroom vibe.
WLRN had a little more than a dozen reporters for the station, but they were scattered between two newsrooms, and most of them were always in the field working. The Herald newsroom always had its editors and a couple dozen reporters working frantically day in and day out on assignments.
There was a joy watching the editors meet a couple of times a day to discuss the big stories and top assignments. There was poetry to the banter between editors and reporters over the tiniest details in their reports. The energy of the room always filled me with joy.
Those days are gone, long gone. Covid-19 ended it all.
The Miami Herald no longer lives in Doral. One of the former most prominent papers in the country no longer has a home. Reporters and editors now work from home, and the paper isn’t even printed in the press room that existed across the parking lot. What’s happening? Was this inevitable?
As I watched the paper shrink even more over the past eight years, I’ve seen the newsroom at our station grow – though slowly. We can talk for days about the shifting sands under the feet of the news media industry these past twenty years, but instead, let’s focus on the future.
Local news is not disappearing just yet. Local is still the most important news we have. In some places, it’s having a sort of renaissance.
I spoke with Kristen Hare from the Poynter Institute about the importance of local news and to get a better picture of what’s happening in the local news biz.
TRS: Today, you have so many sources and information coming at us from everywhere. How do you help people understand the difference between national, international, and local news?
Kristin: In each instance, the media are responsible to a different set of people, and local journalists report to people who live in a particular community. People whose tax dollars are spent in a particular community. And that means we’re at school board meetings. That means we’re covering elections. That means we’re at the high school basketball games to report on who won. There is a deeper involvement and day to day life. It’s also really easy to take that for granted because so much feels national because we have social media platforms that have a tendency to discount the local and sort of wipe out that voice. And because we have had now more than a decade of struggles with a business model based on people buying advertising in a print paper or supporting television through advertisements, legacy media, through a model that doesn’t work anymore. The best distinction for me is who do you answer to? And in the local press, you answer to the people in the community you live in.
TRS: Most of my 25-year career has been in radio. I’ve watched friends in newspapers, and television struggle as their industries shift. I’ve seen local newspapers that keep disappearing, but I’ve also heard that local news is having a renaissance in some places. What’s happening to local news in general?
Kristin: Yeah, both things have been happening for a while. I would say that to me, from my perspective and my own experience since the Great Recession, local news and newspapers, legacy publications have been struggling. There have been rounds of layoffs. At the same time, we had the recession; we also had the advent of cell phones and the advent of the internet, and free information. And at the same time that the business model changed, and we had the economy crash, we also had user habits changing. And many newsrooms that before then were the only source didn’t adjust very well. They failed to imagine that they could ever be replaced.
I counted more than 100 newsrooms that closed during the pandemic. There are growing news deserts, places where people have no or few options for information, and news donut holes, where you might live outside in a suburban community; the city has coverage, but you don’t. You have ghost newspapers, which used to be a 40, 50, 100 person newsroom, maybe now have three people. Corporate owners are making decisions other than for your own community, and they’re mostly reprinting Associated Press or wire copy. What’s mainly happened is that there are fewer local media sources than when you began your career 25 years ago and, indeed, when I started my career 18 years ago. And at the same time, mainly through the pandemic, we’ve seen some really great innovation that has recognized that media. I could list up a lot, but Outlier in Detroit is an excellent example. They use text messaging primarily to answer people’s questions. El Timpano takes the same approach in California. I’m excited about BerkeleySide in Berkeley, California. The Richland Source in Mansfield, Ohio, a for-profit newsroom, is thriving and has found some smart ways through advertising, membership, community support, and merchandise. It depends on your community and where you live, what sort of media will fit, and that’s different from what we’ve had for generations, which is this is the newspaper. This is your public radio station. Here’s the broadcast news. Maybe here’s an alt-weekly. What we’re seeing now, I think, is a renaissance, and I’m excited about it because the journalists who are building it, unlike, maybe post the Great Recession, have come to the understanding that what they’re building primarily is a business, and if you’re going to build a business, you have to have a business plan, you have to make money.
TRS: You talk about a business model. And so I wondered what you’ve seen change? Public radio obviously depends on some public dollars, but also donor dollars and underwriting as well. I know that everything else on television is still advertising. Newspapers have really been hit hard, as you said, because that was such a big part of their business model, and that’s long gone. But what have you seen in innovations in business models?
Kristin: So there are several, and I would say that none of them, I think, work on their own. I think you have to have a portfolio of approaches that you’re going to take. Sorry to sound like a business person. The more I report on this, the more I feel like I should have gone to business school. So they include membership-like programs, right? So the membership programs are different than what you have in public media. Public media is, we’ll have a drive. I’m a member of my local public media station in Tampa. They take money out of my bank account every month, and I support their work. That’s almost more of a subscription model where it’s a transaction membership idea, and this work was sort of best documented by a group called Membership Puzzle Project. Membership is we’re going to have a relationship. What are the skills you can bring to us? What do you want to know about it? What do you like to learn about? We’re going to be in communication with you. We’re going to find out what our community wants, and they’re going to support us in a variety of ways, including through their time, talents, and money if that’s how they choose to do it. So membership is an exciting one, and member-supported newsrooms, mainly when you think about digital for-profit and nonprofit, there are some exciting possibilities there because people are involved and want to be involved in what happens. Often membership is what one pundit calls, ‘lets you have an open garden.’ Whereas you think subscriptions are a walled garden, right? And so you have to pay to get in is what membership is – I want to support this because I want everyone to have it. I think that that’s important. We have also seen an exciting trend of for-profit newsrooms, so newspapers included working with local philanthropy. The good news is that there is a lot of money in many communities. Often it’s in community foundations. There are community organizations that care about the financial health of that community. And so Richland Source in Mansfield, Ohio, is an excellent example of this. They have had several projects funded by community organizations with obvious explanations that we’re independent. They don’t have anything to do with what we’re covering. They don’t get to look at that ahead of time. Here’s the coverage that we’re going to focus on. That’s an exciting turn. Merchandise, I think, is a place that could go even more. We all live in a place there is an identity, right? There’s an identity residing in Tampa Bay, where I live. And if the Tampa Bay Times decided to sell Tampa Bay merchandise with our zip codes or mugs or T-shirts, I would definitely buy that. That would be something that would be important. And I think, a revenue stream. Before the pandemic, live events were really popular. The Texas Tribune has had a tremendous amount of success having live events where people want to pay and come and hear journalists talk to the public, storytellers nights, or basically live storytelling events from the USA Today Network, which has also been very successful.
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