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Innovation in local news: A “survival guide”

The International Press Institute explores innovation and looks for practical measures to help local media

Case studies from across Asia, Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe

Local news has been among the hardest hit of all the media segments. A new report by International Press Institute media strategist Jacqui Park looks into ways innovation can make local news more sustainable, better able to serve local communities and fight against misinformation.

The report — or “survival guide” as it calls itself — compiles success stories involving local news media in more than 35 countries, journalists, editors, media leaders, and entrepreneurs. These people are upgrading legacy media, creating new local-media voices in the emerging and developing regions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Cover of Local Media Survival Guide report by IPI. Available at ipi.media

Key to success: Know your audience

The key points apply to almost any news organisations in those parts of the world. To be successful, media organisations need the key that opens the door to their audience. 

The basic formula –  know your audience, bring value, find a unique perspective, engage them and ask for support –  is there in every case study.

El Pitazo in Venezuela is an example of how local news has to innovate when in constraints.

The outlet engages disconnected communities outside big cities through flip charts pasted on walls, two-minute news briefs before movie showings, and live chat forums through WhatsApp. They also use performative journalism to produce dramatized investigative stories that can reach a broader audience.

Successful local outlets are also innovating the structure, readability and presentation of journalism to make it accessible to, and readily usable by, their audiences.

The survival guide reiterates that local journalism has toembed itself in the community and rebuild trust by listening to the target audience. In short, journalism that reports for, rather than about, the community.

Red/Acción in Argentina found the innovation sweet spot at the intersection of solutions and participatory journalism. They were after stories underrepresented by other outlets and focused on six issues: the climate crisis, gender equality, social inclusion, health, education, and technology for the common good.

263Chat in Zimbabwe realised that the rural audience was becoming mobile, but that data was expensive, so they generated an e-paper, essentially a PDF version of a morning newspaper distributed via WhatsApp groups.

There is no single model that works for all local news media, the guide notes. It is true.

The report’s underlying idea is that successful local news outlets are keenly aware of their audiences and serve the community.

In some cases, this is achieved by filling the gaps in national news and bringing local perspective. Also, by becoming an independent and trustworthy news source, as opposed to the rest of the media ecosystem that might be corrupt or state-controlled.

Key insights from innovative local media in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe

According to the report, local news media is a sector most open to experimentation and innovation and with the greatest potential to form the bedrock of a new, stronger media ecosystem.

The main idea behind this reasoning is that local news media has suffered the worst from digital transformation. Also, authoritarian regimes target local media in the first place.

The above are just some of the reasons why this sector lends itself to be experimented on, and poses a challenge for, media-builders.

Local context is of the essence.  To be successful, local news media have to reflect on and create their communities with a clear sense of their mission. They must have editorial vision and keep a sensitive finger on the intricacies of local culture and diversity by embedding themselves in the community.

Funding is another challenge. This is especially true of poor communities or regions where most media are controlled by the state, with independent outlets having to make do with reader revenue or grants from abroad.

In Hungary, most media are either owned or involved in or with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party. Therefore, independent outlets like Nyugat are unable to attract private advertisers. Nyugat relies on grants from abroad and holds fundraising campaigns a couple of times a year. 

Speaking of authoritarianism, the IPI report advises to generate trust and build an emotional attachment of being “on the same side” with their community, which, in return, acts as a shield against the bad guys.

Digital native media have an easier starting position without “the dead weight of the past, including restraints of legacy organizational culture” the report says.

Also, of note is the recently published report from Euromonitor listed “digital seniors” as a top-10 global consumer trend for 2022.

According to Euromonitor, 82% of consumers aged 60+ owned each a smartphone in 2021, and their top three online activities were browsing the Internet, reading news, and visiting social media. Usually, digital seniors are not the first thing that comes to mind when drawing up a plan for a new upgraded media.

Steps for action

One of the main aims of the report, besides serving as an inspiration for other local outlets, is to identify practical measures that the global media community or its supporters could take.

Thus, five important measures need to be taken to build a thriving local news environment:

  1. Embed a vision and sense of the mission that meets the audience/community’s needs with an appropriate journalism focus;
  2. Level up access to information, training, network support, and funding essential to the construction of sustainable local media.
  3. Generate a global network to prepare local media to take on the challenges. This will allow them to share, understand, and learn from one another’s steps and stumbles. This will give them access to expertise, mentoring, and community support.
  4. Ensure that donors and the media support community (particularly in developing countries and regions) understand that the future is local.
  5. Leverage the relationship of local trust to rebuild confidence in news media and lead the fight against misinformation and disinformation.

To clarify what has to be done, the report suggests a couple of practical steps.

First, there is a lack of knowledge and opportunities for learning and developing new skills for the construction of new sustainable media. This problem could be solved by boot camps and virtual training with a focus on revenue strategies, product design and audience engagement.

Second, helping local outlets to understand their audiences, particularly by using that knowledge in designing news products for them.

Third, helping donor organisations and philanthropic networks to realise that some communities cannot sustain a local organisation and need long-term funding commitments.

Finding or building a global network of local news media supporters would provide splendid networking and sharing opportunities. The IPI is ideally placed to act as such a connector, the report notes. It could build a mentor network and a regular local news summit for exchanging experiences and know-how.

A decisive struggle against misinformation and disinformation is another good point. A team of fact-checking experts would stand a better chance than a one-man outlet.

A similar initiative was announced recently. The Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO) brings together partners in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, including the AFP news agency, to create an anti-misinformation hub.

The project, co-ordinated by Charles University (Prague), also aims to boost public media literacy in the region and develop artificial intelligence tools to detect disinformation.

To sum up, the Local media survival guide 2022 is a must-read for all who work in local news or are interested in this space.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.