Building a sustainable model of audience-supported, public-interest journalism is not easy.
The story of declining advertising revenues, strained relationships with platforms, and shrinking newsrooms is well known. Addressing this new reality may feel daunting, not least because it will involve changing journalistic approaches and traditional work practices, but it can’t be avoided.
In a bid to explore these challenges, senior editors and journalists from 28 local news organizations in the Pacific Northwest convened on March 1, 2019, hosted by the Agora Journalism Center in Portland, Oregon, to discuss the challenges — and opportunities — for their industry.
Here are seven practical takeaways for local newsrooms, based on a roundtable conversation focused on changing journalistic practice:
1. Content doesn’t need to be perfect to be valuable
A key theme for this group focused on how to best serve groups that have too often been left out of the news. For far too long communities, ranging from indigenous groups to Latino communities, as well as African-Americans, women and LGBTQ, have been absent from both our newsrooms and our reporting.
Serious efforts need to be made to hire reporters – be they staffers and/or freelancers – that truly represent these communities in the newsroom and to tell their stories. However, our group felt, too often newsrooms wait for the perfect hire, or the right resources, to address this issue. Sometimes this means waiting a long time, perhaps too long, to make a move.
John Schrag, the executive editor of the 24-newspaper chain Pamplin Media Group, said doing something is better than doing nothing. One option Pamplin is exploring — in the absence of a Spanish-speaking reporter or budget for translation services — is using Google Translate for some of their stories. “We have really good content,” he said, “and we can’t share it with those people that can’t understand [English].”
The software isn’t perfect, Schrag acknowledged, but Schrag said the Latinx communities Pamplin has approached with the content recognized and appreciated the sentiment behind these efforts.
2. Share resources within a city not just a company
Across the Pacific Northwest, some local newsrooms have joined forces to report within their communities, sharing bylines and workloads instead of competing for the scoop.
Rattled: Oregon’s Concussion Discussion, a joint project of InvestigateWest, Pamplin Media Group, and the Agora Journalism Center, is a good example of this.
The initiative – supported in part by grants from Meyer Memorial Trust and the Center for Cooperative Media – partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network and others to tell the story about the impact of concussion on Oregon teens. The series conducted the first-ever analysis of high school sports concussions in Oregon, a condition which across the U.S. affects one in five American teens.
Many newsrooms increasingly recognize the importance of collaboration. Morgan Holm, SVP and chief content officer at OPB, discussed sharing their drone with other news organizations, a practical example of resource sharing which goes beyond human capital, allowing other newsrooms to access this technology and its visual storytelling potential.
3. Proximity Matters
Local journalists can quite easily bump into the people they are reporting on. Sources and subjects of stories may be a journalist’s neighbors, their children’s teachers, or the people standing in line behind them at the grocery store.
Because of this, local journalists enjoy a unique vantage point for understanding the communities that they report on and leveraging this to help engender trust in the wider profession.
This is an asset that local newsrooms need to emphasize more, employing the tools of engaged journalism to unlock benefits that can help both the business model and content creation.
“We want a reporter from that community,” said Carl Segerstrom, an assistant editor at High Country News. That means “putting the affected voices at the center of the story rather than reporting from outside the community.” It’s an approach others, such as the Seattle Globalist, have also sought to deploy, working wherever possible with people directly from the communities they are reporting on.
4. Ask your audience what they want to know
Engagement with audiences, both in real life and online, has taken some reporters to unexpected places and helped increase traction for publishers on digital platforms.
There are a variety of ways to reach audiences for content input, including events, comments pages (still very popular and a source of discussion at our conference), Facebook Live, and Reddit-style AMAs.
In Seattle, KUOW Public Radio asked its audience to propose potential questions that reporters would answer and then ran a poll on social media to determine the winner. The results took them to the bottom of Lake Washington and went viral.
It was a story, Deborah Wang, a reporter and host at KUOW Public Radio, said, the newsroom would never have typically considered covering. Yet, their audience loved it.
“When you start having fun with your reporting, your reporting sounds better on the air,” she said. Engaging with your audience in this way is just one way to inject new life — and different ideas — into your newsroom.
5. Pull back the curtain
Rebuilding trust with audiences is a necessity for many newsrooms. Without it, building (paying) audiences and turning the tide against “fake news” narratives will be extremely difficult.
This matters not just for the financial health of the journalism industry, but in ensuring a healthy democracy where a vibrant, free press helps to ensure that the information needs of communities are met.
“We have to stop assuming people know how we do our jobs,” Trusting News says on its website. “Instead, we need to actively work to earn trust from our communities by telling them why we’re worthy of their time, trust and support.”
Activities that can help address this goal include, but are not limited to, sharing the story behind the story, helping audiences get to know reporters, and using events, social media, and podcasts to share insights into editorial processes and decisions.
6. Understand the value of longitudinal reporting
Cable news, push notifications, news apps and social media mean that the news is always at our fingertips. These technologies have also pushed newsrooms to break the news as early as possible. After all, no one wants to be out-scooped.
But some news organizations and audiences are recognizing that this isn’t always the right approach. The emergence of the Slow News movement, coupled with the growth of solutions journalism, as well as key tenets of engaged journalism such as listening, inclusivity, and relationship building, are just some of the reporting approaches which newsrooms are using to do things differently.
Alongside these changing practices, long-form and longitudinal reporting — offering deep-dives into issues that matter to your community — are also part of the secret sauce of delivering journalism that matters.
Lynn Jacobson, the deputy managing editor of the Seattle Times, referred to “taming the beast” by recalibrating the story mix to more effectively blend breaking news stories with longer, richer, pieces of reporting.
This type of in-depth content is a key plank in the Times’ move toward a subscription-based business model. Jacobson cited Education Lab, an ongoing project looking at local education issues and solutions, as just one example of how the Seattle Times is putting this principle into action.
7. Embrace partnerships
When local newsrooms are looking for partners, they often think of funders and other newsrooms. Higher education providers may be an underutilized resource. Some have access to assets (including equipment, as well as a body of young, motivated journalists) that smaller organizations may not have access to.
In Oregon, the Snowden Internship Program partners with news organizations across the state, partially funding the salary of young journalists for the summer.
Elsewhere, news outlets in the region have found success working with ProPublica, Report for America, Hearken, the Solutions Journalism Network, and other organizations. Through these partnerships, they have been able to access funding, journalists, and insights into new ways of doing things.
Newsrooms have a choice, Malheur Enterprise’s Les Zaitz said. “Create change or have change be put against you.”
What our conversation showed is that through partnerships and changing approaches to reporting, as well as being prepared to experiment, newsrooms in the Pacific Northwest are actively seeking to change what they do and how they do it.
The lessons from their journey are potentially valuable to journalists across the country and beyond. It’s going to be fascinating to see where this evolution takes them next.
Extracted from Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. It is republished here with permission.