Have we hit rock bottom with local news yet?

By Steve Outing

While I’m usually on top of news-industry news, I confess to not spotting this until today (thanks to Journalism That Matters‘ latest newsletter): an indicator of the plummeting quality of some (maybe many) newspapers after years of cost-cutting.

Can it get much worse than this?…

On November 6, 2013, the day after Election Day, the Flint (Michigan) Journal ran this headline: “Flint voters elect two convicted felons, two others with bankruptcies to city council.”

The headline alone is enough to state the obvious: Flint Journal editors and reporters didn’t even do background checks on city council candidates. That would include one election winner who spent 19 years in prison for second-degree murder. (Coverage of that conviction was in the paper’s archives, but wasn’t published by the Journal prior to the 2013 election.)

Ouch! That’s going to hurt your newsroom’s credibility.

But there’s more! On November 7, Flint Journal editor Marjorie Raymer wrote a mea culpa column, “We Should Have Done Better.” Here are Raymer’s first two paragraphs:

“Here at The Flint Journal, it’s our job to hold people accountable — to talk about when things are good and when they aren’t good enough.

And, today we need to talk about ourselves: We didn’t do good enough.”

Ouch, again! Raymer and her editing staff appear to need remedial grammar training. As you learn in elementary school, the correct form would be: “We didn’t do well enough.”

The grammar thing is minor compared to the larger problem: that this newspaper, owned by Advance Publications, appears to be so leanly staffed and funded that journalists there don’t have time to do the most basic of community-watchdog duties and vet candidates for local office and report the results — before the election.

Raymer and the Flint Journal have been criticized roundly and strongly by others, so it’s not my intent to just pile on. Rather, there’s a larger point: that this episode from earlier this month is indicative that the newspaper industry may have hit bottom. Newspaper companies have been cutting editorial positions and raising the workload of those journalists left behind in recent years. As others have reported, that seems to be the case at the Flint Journal. (Indeed, it is newspapers in mid-sized cities like Flint that have fared worst during the “digital disruption” of media in the last couple decades.)

Lest you think that the Flint incident is isolated, let me remind you of Bell, California, the city where municipal leaders ran amok with city money and it was years before news organizations noticed and covered the debacle. It’s long been a worry that decimated local-newspaper staffing can lead to openings for corruption to thrive.

Plenty of other examples exist. There was the Chicago Sun-Times laying off its entire photo staff. … Copy editors have been among the group hit hardest by layoffs across the newspaper industry. (Hence the frequency of “We didn’t do good enough” mistakes, and worse.)

Since this blog focuses on the future of news and media, I’m most interested in how, now that we’ve hit bottom (probably, but I can still be proven wrong), local news climbs out of this situation. Notice that I did not say “local newspapers,” because I doubt that all newspapers will bounce back to being capable community watchdogs and making enough money to pay an adequately sized and competent news staff. Some newspapers have cut so deep that many of their community members have lost respect for and trust in the ability to serve the community. (Wouldn’t you feel that way about the Journal if you were a Flint resident?)

Here’s a scenario of how local news could evolve and recover from the dire situation it’s now in. If you have other ideas, or disagree with my forecast, please use the comment section at the bottom of this article.

  • We should see more digital-news start-ups appearing, which will do a better job of covering segments of local news than legacy local newspapers. The newcomers won’t copy the practices and models of legacy news organizations, but rather rely on small teams of talented journalists who focus on important areas of news, and they’ll follow the lead of digital-only media like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post’s local news sites in using aggregation heavily and presenting stories geared toward younger audiences in “fashionable” ways that have proven to be attractive to online and mobile users. This probably means more local-news entities that aren’t “serious” full-on, but rather that work to entertain digital audiences and also include important, serious, in-depth news coverage.
  • New digital local-news entities will emphasize personalities; “star” local journalists will become stronger brands than the news brand. Want to really stay on top of city-government news and gossip? Follow the local-government journalist, who relies on curation and aggregation for minor stuff, and has time to cover the big city-government stories and has a strong network of contacts around his or her beat.
  • A model for this type of news media is emerging at the national (U.S.) level. eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar has partnered with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist now famous for reporting on and publishing leaked NSA-surveillance documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden, and is founding a new kind of for-profit, public-interest news organization. Omidyar has committed to investing up to $250 million in the project. While we don’t know a lot about Omidyar’s plans for his NewCo (temporary name) news project, it is known that NewCo will employ a number of prominent, talented, highly visible journalists and provide them with a substantial support structure. They’ll cover important areas like national security, likely politics, as well as other areas that long have been standard newspaper fare, like Sports and Entertainment. But the key is the star journalist as The Brand and the “NewCo” brand in a supporting (but likely very visible) role. I can envision this model migrating to local news in years ahead.
  • Finally, I think that we’ll see the growth and improvement of public-broadcasting newsrooms. This is something that we’re starting to see already. In my own area, both Colorado Public Radio (CPR) and Rocky Mountain PBS are hiring and expanding their news divisions, which have been modest before, and offering better digital news services. In Denver’s case, this is in reaction to the loss of a major daily, the Rocky Mountain News, in 2009, and financial weaknesses of the surviving Denver Post.

I also expect that the growing trend toward newspapers instituting digital “paywalls” will have an impact on how local news climbs out of its hole. But that’s a topic for another MediaDisruptus article, coming here soon.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!