Local news is the unsung hero of the media. Dedicated reporters and editors in tiny newsrooms, with few resources, devote their careers to telling the stories that impact people most in their daily lives. From the results of local elections to what’s happening in the schools, local newspapers are often the only ones paying attention to the minutiae of small towns and cities across the globe. But these important newspapers have often struggled in face of a changing — and increasingly digital — media landscape.
According to Reuters research, 53% of people worldwide said they used local media to access information about Coronavirus or other health news, and 50% checked local weather forecasts. However, only 32% said they had accessed news about local politics. Other topics were similarly unpopular among local news users. Reuters’ global survey found that in places where people are more attached to their local area — such as Austria, India, and Romania — more people tend to access local news topics on average. In places like Japan and Peru, where people are less attached to their regions, they also access fewer local topics on average.
Despite these numbers, research shows that people put their trust in local media. In fact, in 2021, 75% of U.S. news audiences said they had a lot or some trust in local news — just 58% said the same about national news. The same is true for 64% of French respondents. And in Australia, readers in rural and regional areas “are five times more likely to go directly to their local newspaper website than Google or Facebook for local information, and almost 10 times as likely to go to their local news website over a council website for news and information.”
It’s clear that local news media still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many people — and depending on where an outlet is located, it may even be consumers’ most trusted source. But that doesn’t mean local newsrooms are not facing big challenges.
Challenges and solutions for local news outlets
A 2019 report from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media found that since 2004, the U.S. has lost almost 1,800 newspapers, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. Unsurprisingly, roughly half of the remaining 7,112 papers were located in small and rural communities. Most of these newspapers had a circulation of less than 15,000. Competition for audiences has only increased since then, and the economic pressures of the coronavirus on small businesses have put even more stress on dwindling advertising revenue.
Many of the newsrooms that have not only survived but thrived over the past decade are embracing new ideas and technology. For instance, the Knight Foundation identified five new business models that local news room should keep an eye on:
- The news co-op: This model takes subscriptions to a whole new level, actually giving readers the opportunity to “own” a piece of the newspaper. “The Bristol (UK) Cable has been run as a cooperative local news organization since 2014, with 2,000+ members paying £3 ($4.20 USD) per month to get a vote in major decisions of the publication; they also donate their skills and time to help out,” reports Knight.
- Non-profit news: Local news is a public good, right? So why not capitalize on a non-profit status that relieves some of the tax burdens of for-profit businesses.
- Government support: This idea is nothing new. NPR and the BBC are just two examples of high-profile, publicly supported news organizations. Many governments offer support that is, in fact, available to small, independent news organization.
- Merging public media and digital media: “There have been a series of mergers involving public media stations and digital media startups in their communities. Among the many mergers over the past few years: Colorado Public Radio bought Denverite, WAMU bought DCist, and most recently NJSpotlight merged with NJTV and WNET,” reports Knight.
- State-level support: In the U.S., states are also stepping up to help local news organizations — providing them with everything from training to workspace.
Technology cuts costs for local newsrooms
For years, it has seemed that the only way newsrooms could cut costs was by cutting staff. While the media has learned to do more with less, technology has played a key role in ensuring reporters can still do their jobs while creating efficiency, and sometimes even enabling new monetization opportunities.
This is epitomized by the converged newsroom, which “operates like a content factory, responsible for all intake, production, and output. It gathers and processes raw material, creates different products, and then ensures they are delivered to the target audience.” In an ecosystem defined by the near-constant emergence of new channels, and dwindling time and resources to address each channel, technology that helps reporters create or disseminate content to readers regardless of their preferred platforms, can make all the difference.
The Nordwest Zeitung is a large regional news publisher in Germany with a paid circulation of around 110,000 — and 1.4 million monthly visitors to NWZonline. With over a hundred micro-regional sections — each containing pages of local news relating to a small town or district — keeping these local pages up to date is important to maintaining reader engagement. However, managing such a large volume of content in a timely fashion would require considerable editorial resources. NWZ, therefore, decided to use the automation features of their Eidosmedia platform to curate the local content, while keeping manual editorial processes to a minimum.
To learn more about how NWZ saves operational costs in a converged newsroom read the NWZ case study.