Is the Future of Local News Bright or Bleak?

The news industry is facing many obstacles in terms of user-generated content, the transition to digital sources and the decreasing size of newsrooms across the country. News sources, especially local ones, have to stay on their toes in this ever-changing industry, never knowing what challenge they will face next. I recently attended a panel hosted by the Portland Press Herald, as part of Maine Startup & Create Week, on envisioning the future of local news. Whit Richardson, a Press Heraldreporter, guided the discussion on the importance of local news and investigative reporting, as well as the benefits and challenges of the digital revolution. Panelists included Bob Kempf, Vice President and General Manager of NPR Digital Services; Justin Ellis, Staff Writer of the Nieman Journalism Lab; and Lisa Williams, Director of Online Engagement and Revenue of the Institute for Nonprofit News

Creating a community of support with added-value 

With many newspapers going digital, many people are asking themselves, how will newspapers continue to not only stay afloat, but also bring in revenue. According to the Pew Research Center, the news industry brought in around $46 billion in revenue in 2004 then decreased significantly to approximately $16 billion in revenue in 2014. Williams explained that the focus should be on building a robust connection with your audience. What are you asking them to do other than read an article?

The goal is to convert consumers of your work to supporters of your work. Kempf added that collaboration between entities that may have previously competed is important. Consolidation is inevitable, so how can you collectively add value to your community? And additionally, make sure you are deepening your relationship with your core constituents? As a local news source, what is making you different from national news? What can you help solve?

Lastly, Ellis stated that with this increased focus on readers, you should be creating feedback and interaction with the audience, not just delivering a product. An example of this includes the Los Angeles Times offering subscribers access to dining events and book festivals. Events allow added income through tickets and sponsors, in addition to earning new members through increased engagement.

Technology and the rise of social media

Social media is proving to be a rather large obstacle to the news industry. For example, Facebook is launching instant articles, in which advertising will be eliminated and a user doesn’t even need to leave Facebook to consume the news. According to Ellis, local companies and channels should think about what is the most sustainable for them as an outlet. It’s important not to just jump on the bandwagon with the next new social page, but to consider what has the most added-value for the outlet and its audience. Ellis further explained that consumers are getting news from Facebook, but they aren’t going to Facebook for news – the news finds them.

Similarly, Williams added that the emphasis shouldn’t be on the home page of your news site, since people are going straight to article pages through other outlets, such as Facebook. The focus should be on how your article pages look and how your site looks on different sources and devices, i.e. phones and tablets.

Kempf noted that before you adapt a new social or technological application or anything new, test it, measure it and learn it. Resources are scarce in the news industry, so make sure it merits going to the next step before you dive in.  The session concluded with the question: where do you see the news industry going in 5, 10, 100 years?

As a consumer of news, what do you think? 

— by Jillian Kanter, Broadreach Assistant Account Executive and Communications Chair of MPRC