Strengthening local journalism: 10 tips for newsrooms

byDamian Radcliffe
Feb 26, 2020 in Local News
Reporter

Only 13% of Americans trust the media “a great deal,” and 28% “a fair amount,” a Gallup poll found last year, with 69% of Democrats, 15% of Republicans and 36% of independents saying they “trust media.” 

In an election year that type of political polarization may only increase. 

Yet, evidence — such as Poynter’s 2018 Media Trust Survey, and a recent Knight Foundation-Gallup report — suggests higher levels of trust in local journalism.

However, that still amounts to fewer than half of Americans (45%) say they trust reporting from local news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” (compared to 31% for national news outlets), which shows there is work to be done.

[Read more: Shrinking local newspapers affect community politics, study finds]

 

With that in mind, here are 10 recommendations for local news organizations everywhere to build trust, tackle bias and make news pay.  

Building trust

Growing up, it seemed like there was a reporter (and a separate photographer) at every public event I went to. 

Of course, that probably wasn’t the case, but with newsroom employment declining by 25% in the U.S. since 2008, today’s children are unlikely to grow up with the same perception. 

Nonetheless, opportunities to engage with audiences are greater than ever.

(1) Be visible – online and in real life

Journalists need to explore means for face-to-face interaction through open editorial meetings, meet and greets and opportunities provided by social media, like Facebook Live and Reddit style Q&A’s (known as AMA’s or Ask Me Anything).

Podcasting, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for newsrooms to put a voice to a byline by previewing content being published tomorrow or explaining what is in the paper —and why.

(2) Allow audiences to peek behind the curtain

In the past, we took trust in our profession for granted. Now we have to earn it. The most obvious way to do this is to explain what we do.

How are stories put together? How do we decide what goes on the front page, which quotes to use and which ones to cut?

Podcasts are a great format to share “the story behind the story.” And tools like Instagram Stories can be similarly effective by going behind the scenes and showing reporters out and about, doing their job. 

Promoting news literacy is essential if we are to create an audience that understands the work that goes into — and is therefore willing to pay for — the news.

(3) Explain your terms

Research suggests audiences do not necessarily understand how journalism is produced, or the terms journalists use to describe it. 

A Reuters/Ipsos survey last year found 60% of respondents believed reporters get paid by their sources “sometimes or very often.” 

Joy Mayer, Director of the Trusting News project, told me when journalists talk about “anonymous sources” many people assume the journalist doesn’t know who the source is either.

Not only do journalists need to share their process, they also need to take care with the terms and labels they use, as these are seldom understood outside the newsroom.

Tackling bias

We live in a society where our media and politics is more polarized and partisan than in recent memory. 

Moreover, as CNN’s Brian Stelter suggests, current media business models further fuel this polarization. 

The “them vs. us” culture is less pronounced at a local level, but as Knight’s research indicates, “that trust is more fragile than previously understood — and vulnerable to the same perceptions of partisan bias that threaten confidence in the national media.”

(4) Cede (some) control to your audience

Historically, journalists determined the news that audiences received. However, this needs to change if trust is to be rebuilt.

Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken, and Mónica Guzmán, cofounder and editor of The Evergrey argue in a story for Nieman Lab that journalists should ask, “What can we help the public understand or do today?”

“We won’t start with our ideas,” they suggest, “we’ll start with the information gaps the public demonstrates they have, and focus our efforts squarely on filling those gaps.”

Getting audiences to submit questions, and listening to their needs, can result in stories that journalists might not otherwise have produced.

[Read more: A new approach to engagement: Q&A with Hearken's Jennifer Brandel]

(5) Talk to different people

White, older, more-educated Americans are more likely to have spoken with local journalists than other demographics, according to the Pew Research Center. Most Americans, (79% of them) have never spoken to a local journalist.

This matters, because local journalists are often the only journalists people ever meet. As a result, they are a proxy for the wider industry, and the frontline of combatting the “fake news” narrative.

Visibility — which includes the range of people you talk to for your stories — matters, not just at a local level, but for perceptions of the wider journalism industry too.

(6) A more representative newsroom

Journalism has a class problem. We also need more women, people of color and a wider spectrum of political beliefs and educational backgrounds in newsrooms.

Newsroom demographics – and world views – must more closely align to the public. Without this, it’s too easy to (often rightly) accuse newsrooms of bias and of being out of touch.

Making it pay

According to the Reuters Institute, among digital news consumers in the U.S., only 16% pay for news, through subscriptions, memberships or donations. “Most Americans,” (71%) according to the Pew Research Center, “think their local news media are doing just fine financially.” 

The financial reality is different, and more than 1,800 local papers have closed since 2004. Over 1,300 communities lack original local reporting, and other areas are at risk of joining this list. Avoiding this is essential for the future prosperity of local journalism and the information needs of local communities.

(7) Be relentlessly local

At a time of content proliferation, with audiences having access to more media than ever (much of it for free), there’s a business imperative to be both distinctive and meaningful. 

Unless you offer content of value, people will not pay for it. Less than two-thirds (61%) of respondents told Knight/Gallup researchers that local news organizations do an “excellent” or “good” job covering what is going on in their area. 

(8) Make it work for mobile

Similarly, with audiences increasingly likely to consume news (including local) online and via smartphones, newsrooms need to improve their digital offer. 

Too often, the user experience is poor.

News organizations at all levels — especially local — need to improve the look and feel of their websites and online content so that it is less cluttered (which means fewer distracting adverts) and easier to use.

[Read more: Incorporating mobile journalism into local newsrooms]

(9) Don’t be shy about showing impact

One of the most striking statistics from the Knight/Gallup study revealed that “Americans are not fully persuaded that local news is holding powerful people and institutions accountable.”

Sixty percent of respondents felt local news only does a “fair” or “poor” job of accountability reporting. Nearly two-thirds indicated a desire for greater coverage of subjects like drug addiction, K-12 education, the environment and planned public works.

Local newsrooms need to take heed of this. They not only need to do a better job, they also need to do a better job of highlighting their impact and successes. 

(10) Offer a broad story mix

Although watchdog reporting is a cornerstone of journalism, too much of it can be overwhelming for audiences. Avoiding the news is a very real concern, and the combative, often depressing, nature of the news turns many people off.

Alongside acting as a check on those in power, audiences want local news outlets to be a “good neighbor.” Lighter, community-orientated stories matter, as do stories that report on potential solutions to problems. 

“You need your pit bulls and you need your poodles,” my friend Kevin Anderson once told me, when reflecting on the mix of skills, personnel and content needed in local newsrooms. 

Looking ahead

Typically, as shown in research from Pew and Knight/Gallup, Americans believe local news media does a good job, in terms of being accurate, useful, trustworthy and caring. 

This is a valuable foundation to build on, not least because without a vibrant local news industry, research suggests that fewer people run for office and citizens become less engaged with elections.

Moreover, positive effects such as the link between consumption of local news and civic engagement, local media’s ability to act as a check on those in power, create an informed citizenry or foster a sense of community, also risk being lost.

Local journalism may be more trusted than the national media, but it cannot rest on its laurels.


Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Fred Kearney.