As the ecosystem of news changes, will journalists adapt fast enough?

"As the ecosystem of news changes, will journalists adapt fast enough?" by Kenton Bird for High Country News, Dec. 24, 2018

"UNC’s Abernathy is encouraged by the digital startups providing local news, with more than 500 identified in her team’s report. Still, she notes that 90 percent of those are in metropolitan areas, where there are multiple news outlets to choose from — not in the rural areas, where local reporters are few and far between."

The Fresno Bee and the War on Local News

"The Fresno Bee and the War on Local News" by Zach Baron for GQ, Dec. 19, 2018

"In October, the University of North Carolina's School of Media and Journalism released a study that estimated that a full 20 percent of all local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004. Since then, an additional 1,300-plus communities in the United States have found themselves without any news source about their own city, town, or county. "Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished," the authors of the report wrote. "In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country—and of grassroots democracy itself—is linked to the vitality of local journalism."

TIME Person of the Year 2018: The Guardians and the War on Truth

"The Guardians and the War on Truth" by Karl Vick for TIME, Dec. 12, 2018

"In the U.S., local newsrooms are disappearing fastest. Since 2004, the U.S. lost nearly 1,800 newspapers, the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media found in an October report. Half of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. now have just one newspaper, usually a small weekly. Nearly 200 counties have no newspaper."

Byron, Dodge Center newspapers to cease publication

"Byron, Dodge Center newspapers to cease publication" by Jeff Kiger for Post Bulletin (Minnesota), Dec. 11, 2018

"A recent study of “news deserts” by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism found more than 3 million Americans in 171 counties in the U.S. have no newspaper at all. However, Minnesota’s 87 counties all have at least one newspaper and that remains true with the closure of the Byron Review and The Star Herald."

A Fourth Generation Journalist Continues the Family Tradition

Margaret High grew up in the newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina. She’s the fourth generation in a newspaper family. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all had a hand in leading the paper that has served the 50,000 residents of rural Columbus county in eastern North Carolina since 1896. High, a UNC journalism student, is determined to carry on her family’s legacy through innovation and reinvention when she graduates this spring.

There’s something entrancing about watching a 1974 Goss Community Press in action. The oatmeal-colored newsprint leaps from one roller to the next, adding to its bouquet of colors on the page with each turn. Pressmen in their blue-on-blue, ink-stained uniforms dart from unit to unit, delicately turning knobs to control speed, ink and alignment. It takes multiple stages of imprinting before the final paper spills out of the press, perfectly stacked and proudly bearing The News Reporter’s name.

The printing press is both my childhood and the embodiment of my family history. I’m the fourth edition pouring out of the press, the fourth generation of a newspaper family. My great-grandfather, Leslie Thompson, was first and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953. His son-in-law, Jim High, now 85, was next and still has an office complete with his Underwood typewriter standing at the ready. The third is my father, Leslie High, the paper’s editor who started working at 13 years old as a photographer.

I never thought I would get swept up in the fast-moving press, but years of exposure led me to the family tradition. When I was about a foot shorter, I would sit on the chipped, ink-stained concrete floors watching the whisking rolls before running to the pre-print room. There I would proudly stand beside 30- to- 40-year employees as we worked in silence, manually inserting colorful advertising circulars from Food Lion, CVS and Belk. At the end of the day, my dad would walk into the back and take photographs with me in the middle, surrounded by my newspaper family and the number of inserts I had completed, scribbled with 6-year-old penmanship on a sheet of paper.

One of those photos is permanently taped in my dad’s office.

Margaret, center, surrounded by 30- to 40-year employees. Many are still working at The News Reporter today.

It hangs near a framed black-and-white photograph of my father as a child, holding a shovel he had used to break ground in 1966 for the new office on Columbus Street as my great-grandfather and grandfather stood next to him, watching with amusement.

The pride on my grandfather’s face in the picture is as distinct as the smell of newsprint in The News Reporter. He risked everything he owned to break ground on a new office and purchase a printing press in our small town.

My father, Les High (center), breaks ground for The News Reporter where it currently resides on West Columbus Street. My grandfather, Jim High, watches directly behind my father.

My grandfather had seen firsthand how important good community journalism is. He knew and loved my late grandmother’s resolve to show no fear when the paper was under attack by Klansmen in the 1950s.

When Leslie Thompson decided to run reporter Willard Cole’s articles detailing Ku Klux Klan activity across Columbus County, he knew his family would be in danger. The Whiteville police chief was a Klansman. The police chief in another town in our county, Fair Bluff, was the Grand Dragon. The KKK was one of those small-town secrets, something Whiteville’s population of 4,500 kept under wraps. These men were cowards, though, thugs who threatened harm against anyone who opposed them while hidden behind a mask and robe.

The Klan burned crosses in my great-grandfather’s front yard and they threw bricks through the window of the newspaper office. My grandmother, Carolyn Thompson, needed a police escort to school during the tense times. This was odd, because even though the Whiteville police chief was a Klansman, he was also my great-grandfather’s secret protector. The Whiteville police chief would notify my great-grandfather of planned attacks on the paper. When robberies were discussed, my family would get extra protection for the office. If brick throwing was going to happen, the police chief gave us warnings.

Despite the threats of violence, the advertising boycotts and the subscription cancellations, my great-grandfather ran the damning stories anyway. The articles resulted in an FBI investigation and the subsequent arrest of many Klansmen. It was the apex of exceptional journalism: the truth at all costs. The Pulitzer committee agreed.

These stories filled my childhood but I never gave any weight to them. They were simply fun tales that I thought about while waxing newspaper copy and sticking the long tiles onto the layout sheets. Or little tidbits my dad would tell me when we developed film in the dark room. The ink slowly seeped into my veins over time.

My great-grandfather’s stubbornness has survived four generations, and as a proud descendant, I wanted to rebel. My classmates knew of my family and always told me I would be a journalist, too. Their cajoling drove me crazy; no one tells me what to do. Besides, my family survived the Great Recession, but I knew print was crumbling. We were in dangerous waters because of Whiteville’s aging population.

Print was dying and the legacy of my family with it. I planned on adapting by entering a different profession: maybe global studies or psychology? A liberal arts education was supposed to decide for me. The University of North Carolina did. It was journalism. With chagrin, I took introduction to news writing and fell in love. I was given the opportunity to write creative stories but used the truth instead of my imagination. Turns out the ink from the printing press actually stuck.

But newspapers didn’t magically stop disappearing, and news deserts didn’t stop their consuming creep across the nation. My father knows this, and so does the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. As I learned writing tools, three floors above me in in the journalism school sat my father and other members of The News Reporter staff: my mother, my aunt and a member from the advertising team. They took part in Knight-Lenfest conferences with UNC that took comprehensive approaches to saving journalism.

Despite a Pulitzer Prize and being a major employer in our community, The News Reporter hasn’t turned a profit in two years. It will lose money again this year. Our rural community is shrinking, life-long subscribers are dying, and young people aren’t filling the void.

But our four generations know how important a paper is for a rural community. Last year, we published an eight-part series investigating the opioid crisis in our county, which led to a better understanding and action against a plague that is killing both young and old. This fall, as Hurricane Florence flooded the swamplands and left a town in our county irreparable, our reporters posted urgent Facebook Live reports from the only place in the county that had power and the internet – the lobby of the local hospital.

With no electricity at The News Reporter for a week, my family drove through floodwaters to print the paper at The Fayetteville Observer an hour away. When the power finally came back on the night before the next press day, the staff cranked up the press at 12:45 in the morning, continuing a proud tradition of The News Reporter never missing an issue.

The stubborn gene in my father refuses to let our paper fail. Our community has benefitted from more than 120 years of The News Reporter. Journalism is the backbone of democracy, even in out-of-the-way places like Whiteville. The condition of the newspaper business dictates the conversations I have with my father. Every day we end up talking about strategies to diversify income, drive subscriptions and find ways to retain loyal, life-long employees.

Yet, alongside four generations of stubbornness are four generations of innovation. The fear is tinged with excitement. There’s a challenge we face in order to survive and the solution is unprecedented. I imagine that’s how my great-grandfather felt. The fear of printing a community-altering story tinged with excitement about shaking the fabric. Money didn’t matter when a great good was at stake.

Take away the office and chairs, the constantly ringing telephones and light hum of the press running. Take away the entire building. The News Reporter has pursued accountability and compelling storytelling for three generations. I intend to carry them for the fourth.

It’s an Invictus spirit that runs from Leslie Thompson to me. We’re rebellious, we’re independent, we’re unshaken. The future might not have the Goss Community Press. It might be a legal pad and internet access, but my family will continue our public service of truthtelling.

My family’s association with the press is immutable. It’s a lineage that runs like the whirling of print through the press and hits hard like the aluminum plates imprinting pictures, and it commands attention like bold headlines.

Margaret High grew up in the newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina. She’s the fourth generation in a newspaper family. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all had a hand in leading the paper that has served the 50,000 residents of rural Columbus county in eastern... -->

More Loss of Local News: Questions with April Lindgren

April Lindgren, Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project.

The widespread loss of local news isn’t just a U.S. problem. It’s an international one, affecting our neighbors to the north at nearly the same rapid rate. In Canada, 260 news outlets – including more than 200 newspapers, two dozen broadcast outlets and a dozen online news sites – have closed or merged within the past 10 years. And much like the United States, the closure of local news outlets is rapidly outpacing the launch of digital news sites to fill the void. More than one-fifth (225) of Canadian newspapers have closed since 2008. This includes the closure of 189 community weeklies and 36 daily papers. April Lindgren, the Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, quantifies this disappearance as the head of the Local News Research Project.

The Local News Research Project’s investigation into the loss of local news includes the creation of the Local News Map, which tracks changes to news outlets across Canada. The crowd-sourced map, created by Lindgren and collaborator Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia, documents the launch of new local news outlets, the closing of local news operations and service increases/decreases dating back to 2008. As of Oct. 1, 2018, there were more than 350 markers on the map indicating a loss or diminishment in news—such as closures, mergers, dailies shifting to weekly publication and decreases in TV stations and radio service. In contrast, there are only 93 markers on the map indicating new media outlets that have been created.

Lindgren coined the phrase “local news poverty” to describe the condition when the critical information needs of residents in a community are not being met. These critical information needs are related to issues traditionally covered by local newspapers, from health and transportation to education. Lindgren has also documented how local news is available unevenly across the country. Along with Jaigris Hodson from Royal Roads University, she analyzed how local news media in Canadian municipalities covered local races during Canada’s 2015 federal election. The results showed that the amount of news coverage and access to diverse sources of news varied significantly according to where people lived.

Read about the local news map’s strengths and weaknesses as a research tool here. A summary of the election study results is available here.

How did you become interested in this topic and research?

I was fascinated by the fact that Brampton, a large suburban municipality near Toronto with nearly 700,000 people, until recently had no local radio station, no local television station, no daily newspaper and no serious online news outlets. A new investigative online site launched recently, but until it came along, the city’s residents had only one local news source, a community newspaper that publishes once per week and its companion website. The extent to which this suburban center and others are underserved in terms of local news, combined with a steady stream of headlines about newsroom shutdowns and cutbacks across the country, raised a whole bunch of questions. Are local online sites springing up to replace the loss of traditional news sources? To what extent are the critical local information needs of citizens being met? It turned out there were no good answers to these questions in Canada, so I decided to try to fill in some of these gaps.

What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your findings?

As I began investigating the availability of local news in different communities, it became obvious that some were better served than others. I thought the idea of local news poverty would be a useful concept because it allows for comparisons – some places will suffer more from local news poverty than others. The work of Lewis Friedland, Philip Napoli, Katherine Ognyanova, Carola Weil and Ernest J. Wilson III identifying the critical information needs of communities provided a framework for measuring local news poverty. Relative levels of news poverty are determined based on the extent to which these information needs are being met. For the election study, we borrowed heavily from the methodology Philip Napoli developed for his comparison of local news ecosystems.

What did you learn?

Local News Map has become a go-to source in Canada for up-to-date data on what is happening to local news in large, small, urban and rural communities.  No comprehensive data were available on the disruption underway in local journalism and the map has helped address that need. Visually, and in terms of the data we can download, the map tells a powerful story of news outlet losses that are outpacing the launch of new ventures by a ratio of three to one. We’ve also noticed that only a limited number of online news operations are emerging to replace traditional news sources such as newspapers.

The election study examined eight municipalities—a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities—to determine how much coverage local media produced about their area’s race for members of Parliament during the 2015 federal election. We found major differences in the number of news outlets, the number of stories they produced and how active they were in making their content more widely available via Facebook. Federal election coverage was selected for the study because it was a natural experiment that allowed for direct comparisons, that is, the election happened everywhere at the same time. That meant we didn’t have to control for major local events (a massive fire or city hall political scandal) that would have caused a surge of local coverage in any one community.

What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

The map and the election study point to local news that is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The loss of local news operations highlighted by the map has attracted the attention of politicians debating a potential public policy response. The differences in the availability of local news revealed by the election study raises concerns about whether citizens have access to the information they need to cast an informed vote. To the extent that the election coverage can be considered a proxy or indicator of the overall vibrancy of a local news ecosystem, the study results also suggest that some communities are better off overall than others when it comes to the availability of local news.

Detailed content analyses like the one we did for the election study are expensive and time-consuming, so we’re exploring the idea of creating a diagnostic checklist that can be used to identify whether communities are at risk of news poverty. If the CBC, the public broadcaster, has a newsroom in the community, does that mitigate against news poverty? Does proximity to a major media hub like Toronto make it more challenging for local news operations to survive? If we can answer these sorts of questions and identify what makes some communities more vulnerable than others to local news poverty, then we can create a checklist that citizens and others can use to assess whether or not they are at risk. It may be that our eight-municipality election study isn’t large enough for us to draw any conclusions, but I think we will gain some insights.

Focus Carolina: Penny Abernathy

"Focus Carolina: Penny Abernathy" by Dakota Moyer for 97.9 The Hill WCHL, Nov. 26, 2018

In an interview with WCHL, Penny Abernathy discusses her research and insights after nearly a decade of exploring the decline of local newspapers. Abernathy says it is critical for newspapers to adapt to the changing media landscape and details ways that newspapers can continue to succeed in her book, “Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability.”