Why the future of local news lies in collaboration and trust-building

by Sam Berkhead
Oct 30, 2018 in Collaborative Journalism

For local news to survive in the digital era, building a collaborative environment and regaining readers’ trust will be essential, according to a group of local news experts who took part in IJNet’s most recent live chat.

Their insights came days after The Storm Lake Times, a family-run newspaper in Iowa with a staff of 10 and a circulation of 3,000, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. It was one of this year’s more surprising wins, with a small local paper joining the ranks of national news giants like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“It was very impressive to see a small news organization take on powerful interests on behalf of the community and transparency in a high-profile case,” said Amalie Nash, West Region executive regional editor for Gannett.

The Storm Lake Times is a lucky outlier at a time when many local news organizations are shrinking, leaving a vacuum of news coverage in communities outside the nation’s large urban centers.

With this in mind, chat participants looked at possible solutions for rebuilding and revitalizing local news. Our top takeaways:

Finding local stories that matter

All too often, local news coverage is relegated to prosaic beats like school board meetings. Whether through lack of resources or lack of leads, the kind of in-depth storytelling you’d see in a Dan Barry column is a rarity at smaller news organizations.

In many cases, nothing substitutes the effectiveness of simply getting out of the newsroom and speaking to people in your community face-to-face, Nash said. Joining Facebook groups and following Twitter lists can also help you find underreported stories of value.

The Bristol Cable, a media co-op in Bristol, United Kingdom, comes up with article ideas by looking for a local angle in bigger news stories.

“I find that it's often good to follow national and international news and then ask, how is this playing out in my patch?” said Alon Aviram, the Cable’s co-founder. “A number of top stories have come about this way — for instance, our investigation on police surveillance, which was initially prompted by an investigation in Sweden.”

Teresa Gorman, local news associate at the Democracy Fund, recommended a number of resources for local journalists looking for more creative story ideas, including the Listening Post and Hearken.

“Free Press has a useful toolkit to creating an engaged newsroom that has tips for finding stories,” she added. “I also recommend checking out Gather for more resources and ideas.”

Building trust with communities

The current lack of public trust in the media has hit local news as much as it has larger outlets. So what can be done to rebuild this trust with the communities we serve?

Jesse Hardman, founder of the Listening Post, said traditional shoe-leather reporting plays an integral role in connecting journalists with their communities.

“Covering community events … builds that community trust,” Hardman said. “It shows you are willing to spend time in that place. Sources will come out of that regular coverage that can help you with your more in-depth stories.”

Finding a balance between regular community events and more in-depth features and investigations will continue to be a must for local news organizations, the chat participants agreed.

“I take the bubbling stove approach,” said Kristen Hare, who covers local news innovations for Poynter. “I have a pot on each burner, front and back, at all times. The front pots tend to be breaking or quick news. The back pots are medium and long-term projects. The trick for me is to stir the back ones regularly so they don't a) burn or b) evaporate.”

Gorman cited the three S’s — diverse stories, staff and sources — as a must for building trust with your community.

Fostering collaboration

Lastly, collaboration with other newsrooms will be vital for local news organizations looking to not just survive, but thrive.

This is because collaboration can allow newsrooms to benefit from one another’s skills and specialties while reaching a larger combined audience and getting funders’ attention, Hardman explained. In May, there will be a whole conference built on the idea of collaboration.

“‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape,’ which won a Pulitzer last year in explanatory, was a collaboration between the Marshall Project and ProPublica,” Nash said. “How it came about: reporters at both places were digging into different aspects of that investigation. They learned about each other. In the past, they would have scrambled to scoop each other. But here, they teamed up. The end result was one of the best pieces of journalism I've ever read.”

For further reading on all things local news, subscribe to Hare’s Local Edition and the Democracy Fund’s Local Fix.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via marc thiele.