Local news will adapt to low demand » Nieman Journalism Lab – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard

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Predictions for
Journalism
, 2024.
 
In 2023, many public discussions about the future of American democracy centered on increasing the supply of local news. The situation is certainly dire: By the end of 2024, Northwestern’s Local News Initiative predicts that the United States will have lost one-third of its newspapers since 2005.
Press Forward — a collaborative of philanthropists including the MacArthur Foundation and journalism advocacy organizations such as the Lenfest Institute and Knight Foundation — announced a $500 million investment in bolstering local news infrastructure around the country. A thought-provoking report called the Roadmap for Local News changed the conversation with a focus on civic information initiatives that could change the way news is supplied by involving community members in the collection and creation of news.
This supply-minded focus risks overlooking a key problem, however: The demand for traditional local news is weak and getting weaker.
In 2024, I predict that new models of local journalism will continue to emerge that go beyond readership numbers alone to measure their success.
Abandoning readership metrics may seem absurd: How can local news strengthen democracy if people don’t want to read it? This year, however, two separate studies settled on a difficult truth: In today’s marketplace of news, you literally cannot give local newspapers away.
Daniel Hopkins and Tori Gorton of the University of Pennsylvania offered free digital subscriptions to local newspapers to 2,529 people and found that only 44 (1.7%) actually subscribed. Among those people, they found little evidence of political effects. The audience for local newspapers has largely moved on to national, partisan, polarizing alternatives.
In a similar study, Andrew Trexler of Duke University offered free digital subscriptions to a local newspaper and found similarly low uptake (3.8%). He also sent residents daily newsletters and found low news recall with few political effects on engagement, trust, or support for democratic norms.
These are carefully conducted, large-sample, causally valid studies with troubling findings. We cannot ignore their conclusions when addressing the current local news crisis.
Efforts to reinvest in local news, either by supporting existing outlets or starting new ones with different models of journalism, have a choice: they can try to increase demand and “win back” the readers of the past, or explore models of local journalism that do not need broad-based readership to have positive civic effects.
The studies above suggest that the deck is stacked against the former strategy. The most politically engaged audiences have too many other options for instant, quality news about national partisan politics. A bundle of non-local stories by non-local reporters, as many local newspapers have become, is simply not an attractive option or viable product in today’s marketplace. Those audiences of the past were also unrepresentative: local newspapers have long catered to wealthy, white, highly educated suburban voters, and efforts to chase those readers could be detrimental.
The Roadmap for Local News provides a more promising approach. By involving non-journalists in the newsgathering process, helping community members navigate the policy environment, and reorienting coverage around the questions and concerns of regular people, “civic media” could improve representation by reminding city government officials that they are being watched by a diverse array of constituents. This civic media model of journalism does not require broad-based readership to have positive political effects.
It would be counterproductive if the momentum towards saving local news only chased the restoration of readership numbers from the financial heyday of local newspapers. Hopefully, these new investments will define civic impact more broadly and target their interventions toward models focused on improving their communities and their politics — and we can all reap the benefits.

Joshua P. Darr is an associate professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and a senior researcher in the Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship at Syracuse University.

Joshua P. Darr is an associate professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and a senior researcher in the Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship at Syracuse University.
In 2023, many public discussions about the future of American democracy centered on increasing the supply of local news. The situation is certainly dire: By the end of 2024, Northwestern’s Local News Initiative predicts that the United States will have lost one-third of its newspapers since 2005.
Press Forward — a collaborative of philanthropists including the MacArthur Foundation and journalism advocacy organizations such as the Lenfest Institute and Knight Foundation — announced a $500 million investment in bolstering local news infrastructure around the country. A thought-provoking report called the Roadmap for Local News changed the conversation with a focus on civic information initiatives that could change the way news is supplied by involving community members in the collection and creation of news.
This supply-minded focus risks overlooking a key problem, however: The demand for traditional local news is weak and getting weaker.
In 2024, I predict that new models of local journalism will continue to emerge that go beyond readership numbers alone to measure their success.
Abandoning readership metrics may seem absurd: How can local news strengthen democracy if people don’t want to read it? This year, however, two separate studies settled on a difficult truth: In today’s marketplace of news, you literally cannot give local newspapers away.
Daniel Hopkins and Tori Gorton of the University of Pennsylvania offered free digital subscriptions to local newspapers to 2,529 people and found that only 44 (1.7%) actually subscribed. Among those people, they found little evidence of political effects. The audience for local newspapers has largely moved on to national, partisan, polarizing alternatives.
In a similar study, Andrew Trexler of Duke University offered free digital subscriptions to a local newspaper and found similarly low uptake (3.8%). He also sent residents daily newsletters and found low news recall with few political effects on engagement, trust, or support for democratic norms.
These are carefully conducted, large-sample, causally valid studies with troubling findings. We cannot ignore their conclusions when addressing the current local news crisis.
Efforts to reinvest in local news, either by supporting existing outlets or starting new ones with different models of journalism, have a choice: they can try to increase demand and “win back” the readers of the past, or explore models of local journalism that do not need broad-based readership to have positive civic effects.
The studies above suggest that the deck is stacked against the former strategy. The most politically engaged audiences have too many other options for instant, quality news about national partisan politics. A bundle of non-local stories by non-local reporters, as many local newspapers have become, is simply not an attractive option or viable product in today’s marketplace. Those audiences of the past were also unrepresentative: local newspapers have long catered to wealthy, white, highly educated suburban voters, and efforts to chase those readers could be detrimental.
The Roadmap for Local News provides a more promising approach. By involving non-journalists in the newsgathering process, helping community members navigate the policy environment, and reorienting coverage around the questions and concerns of regular people, “civic media” could improve representation by reminding city government officials that they are being watched by a diverse array of constituents. This civic media model of journalism does not require broad-based readership to have positive political effects.
It would be counterproductive if the momentum towards saving local news only chased the restoration of readership numbers from the financial heyday of local newspapers. Hopefully, these new investments will define civic impact more broadly and target their interventions toward models focused on improving their communities and their politics — and we can all reap the benefits.

Joshua P. Darr is an associate professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and a senior researcher in the Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship at Syracuse University.

Joshua P. Darr is an associate professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications and a senior researcher in the Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship at Syracuse University.
 
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The Nieman Journalism Lab is a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age.
It’s a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

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