The News Landscape of the Future: Transformed. . . and Renewed?
An ecosystem is often very fragile. The slightest disruption can lead to adaptive evolution and renewal, or diminishment and demise. It is too early to know which local news organizations will have the fortitude and good fortune to emerge from the economic collapse of 2020 in a position to thrive in the years ahead. But it is not difficult to discern the underlying challenges and opportunities local news organizations will face in this decade and the next. If we are to thwart the continued rise of news deserts across this country, we need to reimagine the journalistic mission and business model for local news, use technology to develop new capabilities and craft new policies that address disparities that have given rise to news deserts.
We know the demographics of this nation are changing. Sometime in the fourth decade of this century, minority populations – African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans – will surpass the number of whites of European heritage living in the United States. Intentionally and unintentionally, traditional local news organizations – local newspapers, as well as television and radio stations and start-up digital outlets – have often overlooked and disenfranchised minority populations, who have turned instead to their own minority-owned media. How does the journalistic mission of both mainstream news outlets and ethnic media – often considered “niche” – change, and potentially converge, when the minorities become a majority?
We know the business model that historically sustained local news organizations is broken and must be rebuilt. More than $37 billion in annual print revenue alone has disappeared over the past 15 years, as advertisers followed consumers and moved online. During that same time, the nation has lost a fourth of its local newspapers and more than half of the journalists employed by newspapers, leaving residents in entire communities without access to credible and comprehensive news coverage of their everyday lives, as well as historic events. Despite the efforts of entrepreneurs to close the gap, news deserts are spreading inexorably across the continent. Invariably the communities most at risk are those that are economically struggling and bypassed by the digital age. Leaving these communities isolated and cut off risks further polarization of this country. Reversing the trend will require deployment of a variety of business models. To reinvigorate the local news ecosystem, there will need to be a dramatic increase in funding for local news from corporations and businesses, news consumers, financiers, philanthropists and taxpayers.
Digital technology has revolutionized the way we think about producing, consuming and delivering news, yet news organizations have only begun to explore the potential and come face-to-face with the unintended consequences. Technology can connect news organizations with disenfranchised communities, but the content on its platforms can also divide a nation. It can be used by journalists to sift and sort complicated databases and enlighten the public about issues bubbling just below the surface. Alternatively, the information mined can also obfuscate the obvious. Most media companies are organized around “content as king.” Most tech companies are organized around the aggregation and distribution of content created by someone else. Utilizing artificial intelligence to reach new audiences and enhance journalism will require a collaboration between the major tech companies and news organizations that does not yet exist.
Finally, all of this requires a rethinking of policies and regulations at the national, state and local levels. It is about more than antitrust legislation or cross-ownership rules, the big issues in the 20th century. It is about tackling questions such as: How big is too big – for both start-up tech companies and legacy media enterprises? How do you encourage local ownership of news organizations? Is there a societal benefit, as well an economic benefit, to revisiting cross-ownership rules? Do local newspapers deserve special protection, since they are still a vital source of local news for most communities? How do you combat misinformation? How do you deliver the news to communities that are on the margins? How do you encourage diversity of voices and perspectives? What is the responsibility of tech companies in curating and delivering the news? How do you pay for journalism in the digital age? And who should pay more – taxpayers, giant tech companies, media corporations, subscribers or deep-pocketed individual donors, philanthropic organizations, or all of the above?
This is a pivotal moment – for thousands of local news organizations struggling to adapt to new economic and digital realities, as well as dealing with the unforeseen consequences of a technological revolution that has exacerbated political, social and economic divisions among citizens of this country. This section anticipates the future by exploring what we know today about the challenges and opportunities we’re confronting:
Journalistic Mission:For decades, ethnic and minority media have focused on providing their audiences with critical information that was not provided by more mainstream outlets. In our 2020 report, UNC has begun compiling a list of more than 950 minority and ethnic media outlets, separate from the list of print, broadcasting and digital news organizations. What lessons do ethnic media offer in terms of engaging and covering disenfranchised communities and marginalized populations? What issues will they confront in the near future as the country’s minority populations become the majority?
Business Model: In contrast to many European countries, the United States allocates only a fraction of taxpayer money to support news programming on its 1,300 public radio and television stations. Given the financial challenges confronting local news organizations, does our nation need to consider significantly increasing public funding for them? What topics and communities do PBS and NPR cover now? What is missing? Where could additional public funding make the biggest difference?
Technological Capabilities: Facebook has unveiled several initiatives and products over the past two years designed to combat the rise of news deserts. A product called Today In … (followed by the name of the city, such as Today in Raleigh) is available in thousands of communities in 2020. UNC researchers explored the type and timeliness of local news the Today In algorithm chose for North Carolina residents over the past year. Algorithms are already being used by some news organizations to compose simple news stories. What happens when algorithms alone are curators and editors of our local news?
Policies and Regulations: Over the past decade, various policies and regulations that were designed to support local news encountered either opposition or apathy. One benefit of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has focused attention on the vital importance of accurate and timely local news and information while also exposing the fragility of the news ecosystem. As a result, for the first time, there is bipartisan support in Congress for addressing at least some of the most pressing issues. This section explores current legislation and policies being considered at both the national and state levels.
This report concludes with a simple exercise, Rate Your Local News, that allows you to judge the quantity and quality of news in your own community. What outlets are providing you with news you can actually use? How much of it is locally produced? What is missing from your daily diet? Understanding the current state of local news in your own community is vital in charting a path forward.