The Need for More Robust Local News Coverage: Questions with Clara Hendrickson

Clara Hendrickson

Clara Hendrickson

Alarmed by the shuttering of hundreds of local newspapers in the U.S.  as well as massive reporter layoffs in recent years, the Brookings Institution’s Clara Hendrickson undertook a study aimed at understanding what was at stake for American democracy and what could be done to reverse the trend. “Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms” concludes, “When important stories go uncovered, communities do not have the information they need to engage in the political process and hold government and powerful private actors accountable.”

The Brookings report includes a number of suggested remedies that are being considered or have already been enacted elsewhere, including a tax deduction for subscribers to local news organizations, tax relief for publishers that produce public service news and public funding of news organizations. In addition, the report notes, “New regulations and antitrust enforcement targeting large online platforms can play a role in sustaining local media.”

Author Clara Hendrickson is a Research Analyst in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Her research interests include rising regional inequality, the economic and political challenges posed by “big tech,” antitrust enforcement, and the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe.

"Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms"  -  Clara Hendrickson

Why did you decide to undertake this research?

After Donald Trump was elected President, many of us who study domestic politics and policy wondered how our understanding of fellow Americans’ sentiments could be so off base. I couldn’t stop thinking about the growing disconnect between the national coverage we relied on and the local communities that ultimately determine our national democratic experience. A dearth of local reporting has given way to news diets dominated by national coverage that often focuses on partisan conflict in Washington. It has also entailed a loss of readily available information about local communities that can feed into national coverage. In this way, each cut inflicted on a community that saw its newspaper disappear - or become a former shell of itself - has cumulatively resulted in a nationwide wound. From the opioid crisis to the loss of manufacturing jobs across the American heartland, I’ve often wondered what developments other than the election of President Trump would have been detected earlier had there been more robust local coverage.

What is causing the local journalism crisis?

The local journalism crisis is primarily fueled by the challenges confronting local newspapers. Between 2008 and 2018, America’s newspapers saw a 47% drop in newsroom employment. Newspapers laid off thousands of employees during the Great Recession, and newspaper publishing is the only sector of the journalism industry that has continued to shed jobs at an alarming rate during a period of economic recovery and expansion. The rise of digital media – which predates the recession – helps explain these troubling trends.  When readers moved online, so did advertising, resulting in a steep loss in print advertising revenue that has constrained publishers’ ability to invest in the production of local news at the level they have historically. While newspapers’ digital advertising revenue has grown in recent years, total advertising revenue has declined (between 2008 and 2018, newspapers experienced an astonishing 68% decline in advertising revenue). The twin problems of falling consumer demand and falling advertising revenue has led newsrooms to adopt cost-cutting measures that exacerbate the challenge. Efforts to ensure a newspaper’s short-term survival can threaten its long-term viability. A newspaper that is under-resourced and understaffed is unable to sustain and attract readers and advertisers willing to put their money into a product whose quality has diminished.

What role do large online platforms play in the local news crisis?

There is an international conversation underway about how large online platforms should be regulated and what antitrust enforcement in digital markets should look like. In the United States, the inaugural hearing held by the House Judiciary’s Antitrust Subcommittee as part of its investigation into digital markets examined the ways in which large online platforms have undercut news publishers’ business model. The digital advertising market, and Facebook and Google’s dominance in it, has presented the greatest challenge for news publishers. The two companies often know more about a news publishers’ readers than the publisher itself, making them the better option for advertisers who want to effectively target consumers. These two platforms may not spend money on the production of content but they reap tremendous profits off those who do make substantial investments in news production. The resulting imbalance of power means news publishers hold little power to extract fairer terms from large online platforms that have become indispensable business partners.

How do the solutions proposed by Local Journalism in Crisis provide a new perspective on this crisis?

While many continue to debate whether the market for local journalism can correct itself, the solutions I propose encourage government involvement to stave off further losses in local journalism. Efforts to sustain high-quality local reporting have generally taken the form of adopting the non-profit newsroom model. But so far, philanthropy has not come close to making up the revenue losses that have hit the industry in recent years. This portends a greater role for government both through providing public funding for local journalism and addressing the ways large online platforms have threatened the traditional business model for local news. The economic challenges confronting today’s local newsrooms are particularly troubling since the threats to the commercial viability of the local news industry greatly diminishes our ability to meet the demands of living in a democracy. Those who read, listen, and watch the news are not just consumers; they are also citizens. Public policymakers should ask themselves what kind of pressures the market for local journalism should be asked to withstand and what kinds of public support it merits.

Tracking the Changing Local News Landscape: Questions with Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe, Professor University of Oregon

Damian Radcliffe

Change is constant and often frenetic, especially when considering the local news landscape in the U.S. and abroad. As professor of the practice at the University of Oregon, Damian Radcliffe is a 2018-19 Faculty Fellow at the Agora Journalism Center at the School of Journalism and Communication, which serves as a “gathering place” – bringing together journalists and others in the Pacific Northwest to discuss how healthy journalism and healthy democracy are inextricably linked.

Radcliffe’s recent research has included tracking and analyzing how work habits and the attitudes of local journalists change over time in response to innovation. He also interested in how business models for local media have evolved in recent years. An active journalist, digital consultant and analyst, Radcliffe is also a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He values long-term, comparative studies (such as the annual Digital News Report, state of media findings from Pew and research produced by his former employer the UK communications regulator, Ofcom), and is the co-author of a 2017 study of U.S. local newspapers.

Radcliffe recently convened a gathering of journalists and academics from the region at the Agora Center to update and revisit a 2016-17 study on local journalism in the Pacific Northwest. “If a week is a long time in politics . . . then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business,” he said. Several themes emerged from the Agora gathering: maximizing limited resources, providing news and information to under-served communities, building trust and credibility, and doing things differently. He recently authored the first of three reports on that gathering.

“If a week is a long time in politics . . . then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business.”  Damien Radcliffe

Click here to read Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I moved to the Pacific Northwest (from across the pond) in September 2015. As a newcomer, I wanted to get the lie of the land in my new home, and a key part of that involved understanding the local media landscape. I have been writing about local journalism for some time, including authoring the first comprehensive report about the UK’s hyperlocal industry. Also, many of our students at the University of Oregon work for local news outlets when they graduate. So, understanding the local landscape matters, as these insights can be used to inform the teaching and advising that we do.

Alongside, at a national level, I was especially keen to learn about the experience of local journalists working at the coalface, as I felt that this was a perspective I seldom saw on a national scale in most journalism research. A much more common approach is in-depth interview and qualitative research with industry leaders. (Although I’ve done that too!)

To remedy this, in partnership with Dr. Christopher Ali at the University of Virginia, we designed an online survey allowing journalists to anonymously share their experiences, and from this we were able to find out how workloads were changing, what emerging media local journalists were interested in learning about, and their attitudes towards topics like engaged journalism. Anonymity resulted in very honest responses and hearing directly from journalists – and not their bosses – meant that respondents were free to break from the party line. Given how quickly the media landscape continues to evolve, I am currently revisiting previous projects to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I think there’s a huge value in longitudinal, comparative research, even though the temptation (for researchers and journalists alike) is always to move on to something different.

Why did you decide to revisit the topic of shifting journalistic practices?

My background encompasses radio, TV, online and print, and all sectors – commercial, public and community media, as well as two media and telecoms regulators and now working for a University. Local journalism, and the wider potential and impact of new digital tools and technologies on journalistic practice, are clear threads that run through almost everything that I have done. I also have a long-standing interest in the business of media. Where possible, I try to combine these elements into practical, actionable, insights that can be used by industry.

As we know, the pace of change – in terms of the tools we use as journalists, the way media is consumed, the business models which underpin it – is relentless. Because of this, I wanted to see what had changed in the Pacific Northwest since our study in 2016-17; and I’m also looking into that nationally. However, I also wanted to find a more time-efficient way to gather intelligence than a series of in-depth interviews. And I also wanted to avoid publishing one big long report. There’s a risk that great ideas will be lost, and buried, if you take that approach.

With that in mind, I organized a roundtable in Portland (OR) last March, attended by 28 news outlets in the region. We split people up into three groups looking at business and revenue models, changing journalistic practice, and engagement. Each conversation was moderate by faculty from the J-School at the University of Oregon. The report on shifting journalistic practices is the first to be published. Lessons from the other two sessions will come out later this year. There were so many great ideas shared during the day we hosted; I’m determined that these examples are (shared widely) beyond the people that were in the room.

What did you learn, and how had this changed from 2017?

In 2017 much of the conversation focused on emerging storytelling formats and the philosophy of journalism (objectivity, distance, solutions journalism etc.). This time around, the focus was much more practical. We discussed issues of diversity in newsrooms, reaching non-English language audiences, the increasing importance of partnerships and the value of ceding control to your audience – getting them to suggest the stories we should be covering.

We also talked about local journalism’s secret sauce: its proximity to its audience, that local journalists live in the communities they’re reporting on, the value of longitudinal reporting, and the ability to reflect a community back to itself in a way that national media cannot. There’s a strong sense – and I think that’s even greater now - of us all being in this together.

What will you focus on next?

I have four main research projects on the go right now. I’ve just published my latest annual report on the state of Social Media in the Middle East. I’ve been producing these since 2012, the year after the Arab Spring, highlighting key changes in social media usage, and other developments such as the use of social networks as platforms for freedom of expression. This report – my eighth - was co-authored with Hadil Abuhmaid. I’m in promotion – and distribution - mode for this research now!

In terms of media business models, at the end of October, I published a study - The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce – which offered ten strategic lessons for media companies looking to move into this space. I am currently working on a follow-up, which will be published in March, which will feature deeper-dives into specific players (such as BuzzFeed, POPSUGAR and Marie Claire UK) and the factors (like the power of platforms and the emergence of shoppable content) which will shape this domain.

In the local space, I’m working with two University students on a report looking at revenue and business in the Pacific Northwest. As with the report on Changing Journalistic Practice, the paper will focus on transferable lessons from this conversation.

Lastly, I am also working with a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, Ryan Wallace on a new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. This will be an update of the local journalism survey from 2016/17. I’m keen to understand the issues being faced on the shop floor in local newsrooms in 2020. and to see how this differs – or not, as the case may be – from our original survey four years ago. If a week is a long time in politics, to use a very British idiom, then four years is potentially a lifetime in the media business.