Filling the Local News Void

A 2011 Federal Communications Commission Report issued a clarion call for other media, both legacy and start-up, to fill the void in local news left when newspapers either closed or severely cut back their coverage of an area. 1 Many in the industry today are experimenting with new business models and new ways of covering local news. They range from journalists laid off by newspapers who have started digital sites to program directors at regional television stations and public access cable channels. However, most of these experiments are centered in and around our largest cities and metro areas. This means many areas of the country still are at risk of becoming news deserts.

Both legacy and start-up news outlets face unique, as well as shared, challenges in reaching residents in a community who are disenfranchised when a newspaper is closed. Legacy media must retrain journalists to engage viewers and convey news and information on a variety of platforms. Start-ups, which typically operate with lean business and editorial staffs, must work extra hard to become the go-to source for news and information. Both legacy and start-up franchises must develop new business models to pay for their new journalistic endeavors.

As of 2017, local and regional television newsrooms employ more journalists than do newspapers, according to a broadcast industry survey. However, television still employs half the number of journalists who worked for newspapers a decade ago. This puts a premium on rethinking the production and dissemination of local television news. As viewership of the evening newscast declines, the most innovative stations are stepping up their digital efforts and experimenting with ways to revamp the delivery of on-air newscasts.

Support for the nation’s 3,000 or more public access cable channels is uneven. Some states have many such channels; other states have very few. Some channels are well-funded, others struggle to provide any programming. A handful of channels are moving beyond their original charter – that of providing residents in a community with a “video soapbox” for expressing diverse opinions and views – and beginning to offer news programming. This includes hosting interviews and roundtable discussions with candidates for local office, as well producing and airing documentaries on issues gripping the community, such as drug abuse.

The most aggressive response to the loss of local newspapers has come from the more than 500 digital news outlets that span the country, covering everything from the environment to entertainment. Most have very lean staffs but attempt to provide coverage of important issues in a community. However, both the for-profit and nonprofit sites face significant funding challenges. Therefore, the vast majority of the online-only news sites are located in the larger, more affluent markets, where they are most likely to attract paying subscribers, advertisers or philanthropic support.


The Legacy Broadcasters: Reaching Out to New Markets and Audiences


In many ways, the nation’s 1,700 licensed regional and local television stations seem the most obvious medium to fill the local news void. As of 2017, local and regional television newsrooms employ more journalists (27,100) than newspapers (25,000), according to a broadcast industry survey. 2 More people in the U.S. say they get their local news from television than from any other medium. 3 Also, unlike newspapers, which are facing declining profitability, local TV stations still operate with double-digit profit margins; half of the revenue for television stations with local news operations comes from the profitable evening newscasts. 4

Once you delve into numbers, however, the challenges become apparent. Although television newsrooms employ more journalists than newspapers do, the total number of TV journalists is still half the number of newspaper journalists (52,000) employed in 2008. 5

In fact, the number of television journalists in 2017 actually declined by almost a thousand from the previous year. Similarly, while between a third and a half of people say they “often” get local news from television, viewership of the evening newscasts is declining and aging rapidly. According to the 2018 Pew Report, between 2016 and 2017 “the number of people who say they rely on television for their local news fell 9 percentage points, from 46 to 37 percent.” Younger adults, under age 50, are much less likely to get their news from television than older adults. Yet because the local newscast remains so profitable for local television stations, many stations have been reluctant to commit significant resources to online efforts to attract younger viewers. Only about 10 percent of most television station’s revenue comes from digital, less than the newspaper industry average of 20 to 30 percent. 6

In many ways, television stations have been a victim of their own success. As one general manager told the Knight Foundation, as long as profit margins remain high, there is less incentive to change. Even though TV stations have expanded the time allotted to news in many markets, various studies have found that the vast majority of those newscasts – often as much as 90 percent — revolve around “soft features,” crime, weather, and sports.” Additionally, the preponderance of stories covered by regional television stations are about issues and events that concern residents in the major metro market where they are located. When reporters do venture outside the metro area, they are most likely covering either weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, or doing feature stories on people and activities, such as county fairs. 7

A 2018 report by the Knight Foundation came back with four suggestions as to how television stations can step up their game and fill the news gap in many communities: 8

  • Focus on digital delivery of content, even though the return on investment isn’t always there – yet.
  • Innovate, not just on the digital side but with on-air programming as well. Every TV newscast looks like all the other TV newscasts, but executives seem reluctant to try something new.
  • Drop the obsession with crime, carnage and mayhem. Focus on ways to connect with local communities through issues such as education, the economy and transportation.
  • Increase enterprise and investigative reporting. That requires hiring more experienced journalists and/or providing more newsroom training.

The Knight Foundation found a number of local and regional television stations pushing forward, both innovating with the evening newscast and experimenting with digital platforms.

At KGMB-TV in Honolulu, newsroom leaders have given on-air reporters more time to dig deeper into nondeadline endeavors— rather than having to get stories done every day. KTVB in Boise, Idaho, is posting 360 videos on YouTube.

Roughly 20 percent of the television journalists hired in recent years have been digital-focused, as television stations attempt to beef up their websites, electronic newsletters and social media. “Right now, there might be too much emphasis on being quick and first, and that gets in the way of a lot of quality digital storytelling,” Autumn Hand, digital video and syndication manager at The E.W. Scripps Co., told Knight. However, Ellen Crooke, vice president of news at Tegna Media, said, “Some of our most innovative projects have involved digital episodic content that is digital first. . .. With digital first, we reach more people than just running a piece on Thursday night. We’ll have millions of page views. We’ve changed lives and changed laws; we’ve reached a younger audience.” Tegna’s efforts include projects exploring suicides among military veterans, heroin addiction and sex trafficking. 9

In Raleigh, North Carolina, WRAL, the state’s oldest licensed station, has stressed beat reporting and specialized expertise. News Director Rick Gall said WRAL is attempting to take on more of the role local papers once played in informing communities throughout the state. It is investing “in specialty reporting, especially on the web . . . in education, business, high school sports, government coverage. We produce web-only or primarily web content on all these areas.” 10 The education reporter, for example, recently partnered with a reporter at a nonprofit startup that covers educational issues to produce a series on a new program designed to give poor-performing schools more latitude in designing curriculum. A newsletter features a roundup of editorials published in newspapers throughout the state and country on issues and topics of concern to North Carolinians. WRAL also publishes its own editorials on the website.

WRAL’s website has almost 50 percent more daily visitors than the Raleigh News & Observer’s and almost three times the number of page views, according to recent tracking. 11 The Knight Foundation report found that while newspaper sites in the very largest markets attract the most viewers, TV websites in most markets outside the top 25 markets attract the most viewers. As several news directors pointed out, television stations should hold an edge over newspapers on the web since they know how to produce compelling video of breaking news events. But if television stations are going to meaningfully fill the news gap, broadcast journalists need to learn how to use that video experience and knowledge to engage a younger audience, as well as residents in rural areas without dependable internet.


The Public Access Channels: Providing News or Diversity of Views


The 1984 Cable Act 12 gave communities throughout the country the ability to require cable operators to set aside funds for public access channels known as “PEGs,” or “public, educational, and governmental access channels.” These channels were originally envisioned as “the video equivalent of the speaker’s soapbox” that would provide all residents in a community the chance to have their voices heard. In recent years, as more and more newspapers have closed, community activists, as well as industry leaders, have begun to re-evaluate and debate the mission of the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 public access channels in the country. 13 Is their core purpose still free and diverse expression from community members? Or are these channels capable of filling the news and information gap left when a local newspaper dies?

Almost 35 years after the Cable Act was passed by Congress, local support for the public access channels is uneven. Depending on the community, the local government, the state or even the local cable company can oversee a public access channel and determine both its funding and programming. “In some places, the [public access channels] are pretty well-situated to be able to respond to the local needs,” says Mike Wassenaar, CEO of the Alliance for Community Media (ACM [/note] , which lobbies on behalf of PEGS. 14

“In other cases, they need a lot of help.” There are 363 public access channels in 42 states that are members of the ACM. These channels offer a variety of programming. Some record local governmental meetings, others attempt to capture the personal video histories of local residents, and still others offer educational programming. 15

Some states have dozens of PEGs; other states have only a handful. Massachusetts has about 230 outlets serving the state’s 16 million residents; half these outlets belong to ACM. On the other hand, Georgia, which has a population of 10 million and 28 counties without a local newspaper, has only two public access channels that belong to ACM. Many PEGs are in very small communities, but Wassenaar points out that with funding, as well as commitment by the local franchising authority, there is the potential for these channels to provide news coverage of communities that may not have any other local news outlet. “Depending on the state you’re in, you either have a lot of resources, or you have no resources,” Wassenaar said. In general, the New England states have more active public access channels. Vermont, which has only 600,000 residents, has 25 such channels; 16 belong to ACM.

In New York City’s outer boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, two public access channels are demonstrating how to fill the local news gap. In late June, New Yorkers were preparing to vote on the two Democratic candidates for the state’s 14th Congressional District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. Newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was challenging longtime incumbent representative Joe Crowley. At Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system, BronxNet did its best to hold the candidates accountable. About a week before the election, the PEG channel held 10-minute “In the District Vote 2018” interviews with Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley. The clips were aired on BronxNet, posted on the PEG’s website and uploaded to YouTube. Phil Lane, director of finance and business affairs, sees public affairs content as an important component of BronxNet’s mission. “We do local debates,” Lane said. “We do local city council, local Congress, local state assembly, everything across the board. . .. So there’s definitely an opportunity to fill [information] voids.” The channel also collaborates with community newspapers such as the Riverdale Press and the Norwood News to host “Meet The Press”-style roundtables. 16

In Brooklyn, Executive Producer Aziz Isham of BRIC-TV, a “nonprofit community channel and digital network,” attempts to fulfill two goals – providing local news while also giving local residents a chance to make their voices and positions known. Initiatives range from a hard-hitting documentary on how the opioid crisis is affecting the borough’s Hasidic community to Brooklyn Free Speech, a “public access initiative” that provides education to New Yorkers on how to use their technology to make their voices heard. “There’s something valuable about having news directors, or the equivalent, on staff [to] provide some sort of editorial guidance and training,” Isham said. “But I also think it’s really valuable and really important that we’re engaging passionate amateurs and people from the community who want to tell stories.” 17


Digital Start-ups: The New Kids on the Block


The most aggressive response to the loss of local newspapers has come from the several hundred digital news outlets that span the country, most of them started in the past decade by journalists. The Local Independent Online News (LION) association counts 525 “local” digital outlets, a collection of both for-profit and nonprofit sites. About two-thirds provide residents in their communities a mix of coverage on government, politics, business, sports and lifestyle features – similar to the range of topics in community newspapers. The others either provide coverage of state and regional issues, such as health care and the environment, or focus on niche topics, ranging from tourism to parenting and entertainment. 18

Despite the enthusiasm with which digital sites have been established, a 2015 survey by the Los Angeles Times found that one in four failed. A 2016 analysis of 153 online news sites in 56 markets, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, concluded that only one in five of these news sites attracted enough visitors and funding to be self-sufficient. A quarter of the “self-sufficient” sites were nonprofit, and two-thirds were located in the seven largest metro areas in the country. 19

UNC analysis of the local news sites identified by LION revealed a similar pattern. Ninety percent are clustered around metro areas, in cities or adjacent suburbs, which offer more funding possibilities for start-ups. Most are located in affluent communities, where residents have multiple media options and tend to vote Democratic. This is in contrast to the rural, fly-over counties that have lost newspapers, which tend to be poorer, have very few media options and vote Republican.

Roughly 400 local news sites have been started in communities that lost a newspaper over the past decade and a half. However, only two of the outlets are in the 171 counties in the U.S. that have no newspaper.

One is a for-a profit endeavor, the Orleans Hub, in Orleans County, New York, which borders Lake Ontario and has 43,000 residents. The county’s last surviving paper, The Medina Journal, closed in 2014. The Hub, which covers typical community news, ranging from high school sports to local crime, was started by the owner of the nearby Lake County Pennysaver. She paid the editor with profits from the Pennysaver until there was enough revenue from online advertising to make the Hub site self-sufficient. The Hub currently has 100 digital advertisers. 20

The other site, KY Forward, founded in 2018, is nonprofit and covers the region including Kenton County, Kentucky, which is a suburb of Cincinnati and has 165,000 residents. In 2008, E. W. Scripps shuttered both the Cincinnati Post in Ohio and its sister paper, the Kentucky Post, located in the county seat of Covington. KY Forward is part of the outreach of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, which produces in-depth stories on education, government and health, and covers state news, including business and sports. It contracts with professional journalists and collaborates with journalism classes and students. The Center is funded by grants from individuals, foundations and organizations, including Toyota and Northern Kentucky University. 21

For-profit and nonprofit sites face many of the same funding challenges. Both must seek diverse sources of funding right out of the gate.

For-profit entities must find advertisers, sponsors, subscribers and others who will either pay to access their content or underwrite the cost of producing the stories on their sites. For that reason, they tend to offer a diverse menu of news – including entertainment, business and sports coverage that tends to attract both readers, sponsors and advertisers. Andaiye Taylor, founder of Brick City Live in Newark, discovered through trial and error that the site’s calendar of events offered the key to financial success. Organizers of events pay extra in order for their ads to stand out on the calendar. Additionally, Brick City Live Tickets offers promoters of events the opportunity to sell tickets to users of the news site at a reduced fee.
In contrast, Honolulu Civil Beat in Hawaii, which focuses on producing enterprise and investigative journalism, launched as a for-profit subscription site in 2010 with startup support from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. In June 2016, it converted to a nonprofit. “People who were reluctant to buy a subscription [to a for-profit site] were happy to donate [to a nonprofit],” said editor and general manager Patti Epler. “Many saw their donations as sending a signal to policymakers that we were doing important work and they wanted it to continue.”

Nonprofits rely disproportionately on donations from individuals or grants from philanthropic organizations. The average nonprofit receives only 20 percent of its funds from individuals and about 60 percent from foundation grants made by a small pool of philanthropic foundations. 22

Even worse, the foundation grants often are made for a specific period (three to five years), and distributed across hundreds of organizations, in an attempt to seed innovation. Only two-thirds of the $1.8 billion in grants made to support journalism between 2010 and 2015 went to nonprofit news-gathering organizations, with a third of that amount given to just 25 public media stations in 10 states. The rest went toward research and technology development, and to programs at universities in some of the nation’s largest cities. Local and state news nonprofits received only 5 percent of the total pool. 23

There are 179 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. A survey in 2012 found that two-thirds of its members – such as ProPublica, the Marshall Project and the Texas Tribune – focused on international, national and state news. All but two of the hyperlocal sites were in large cities. VTDigger in Vermont and Flint Beat in Michigan, both founded by veteran journalists, are a study in contrasts and illustrate the challenges and possibilities confronting nonprofit startups.

VTDigger launched in 2009 with a single employee, who had been laid off from the Rutland Herald, and $12,500 in startup funds from three Vermont foundations. 24 It has grown to be a 19-employee operation, including 15 journalists, with an annual budget of $1.2 million. 25 The key to the organization’s success has been the significant funding it received from wealthy donors as well as regional businesses and foundations, such as Ben and Jerry’s, the Vermont Country Store and the Vermont Community Foundation (a group of more than a hundred funds and foundations created by Vermonters to “serve their charitable goals”). 26 The site in 2018 has nearly 245,000 unique visitors monthly who look to VTDigger to produce regional stories on everything from state legislative issues to a series on alleged fraud at Vermont’s Jay Peak ski resort. Half of the VTDigger readers live outside Vermont; 57 percent don’t subscribe to a print newspaper. Eighty-six percent of the site’s readers have a college degree, and another 69 percent have household earnings above $60,000. By 2022, VTDigger expects to have a $3 million budget and double the number of current readers. 27

In Flint, Michigan, where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty, 28 Flint Beat faces a different prospect. In the wake of the city’s contaminated water crisis, journalist and Flint-area native Jiquanda Johnson left the newsroom at MLive Media Group, which produces the daily 41,000-circulation Flint Journal, to start the site in 2017. “I stepped out on journalistic faith to give the Flint community the news and coverage they deserve,” Johnson says on the site. 29

“We have a community journalism approach where we cover all things Flint. The website features news from city hall, neighborhoods and local news, as well as information on the Flint water crisis.” In 2017, Flint Beat brought in less than $5,000 in advertising. A crowdfunding initiative launched before the site went live raised just $1,235 of its $25,000 goal. 30 In 2018, the site received $5,000 from the Solutions Journalism Network and another $7,500 from a LION local advertising mentorship program. Johnson has had to take a marketing position to keep Flint Beat afloat. 31 She also faces the challenge of engaging community residents. More than 40 percent of households in Flint don’t have an internet subscription, compared with 17 percent nationally. 32

Johnson has sought to improve news literacy in Flint by working with local agencies to open a community media center that will train high school students as journalists. “You have to, in some cases, develop the habit of local news. If local news coverage doesn’t exist, people don’t know that they need it or want it,” said Matt DeRienzo, executive director of LION.
33 “If you haven’t seen an article about a school board’s deliberation over a bond issue, ever, why do you need to know that’s something worth reading or even caring about? And that’s really bedrock democracy stuff, too.” The people of Flint “are not voiceless; they just don’t have a platform,” Johnson said. “Flint Beat is that platform.” Now Flint Beat just needs to find the funding to amplify that voice. 34

Because of the variety of issues confronting start-up news sites, a 2018 study by the Knight Foundation concluded, “The bottom line is that the primary suppliers of local news online remain newspapers (primarily core city dailies) and television stations (primarily the big four network affiliates) . . .. The few successful exceptions in smaller markets prove that stand-alone online news sites are possible, but the numbers strongly suggest that we’re a long way from stand-alone news websites as a major factor in local news.” 35


Next: The Challenges and Opportunities That Remain