Strengthening local journalism: Word of advice for newsrooms

04Mar 2020
The Guardian
Strengthening local journalism: Word of advice for newsrooms

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

By Damian Radcliffe

In an election year that type of political polarisation 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 per cent) saying that they trust reporting from local news organisations “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, (compared to 31 per cent for national news outlets), which shows that there is work to be done.

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

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 per cent in the US since 2008, today’s children are unlikely to grow up with the same perception.

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

One recommendation relates to the need to be visible – online and in real life. Journalists need to explore means for face-to-face interaction through open editorial meetings as well as opportunities provided by social media, like Facebook Live and Reddit-style Q&As (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.

Two: 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.

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

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

Joy Mayer, Director of the Trusting News project, told me that 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.

There is also the need to tackle bias. We live in a society where our media and politics are 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 versus us” culture is less pronounced at a local level. However, 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”.

Four: 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.

Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel 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 it has, 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.

Five: 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 Centre. It reports that most Americans (79 per cent 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 combating 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.

Six: Have a more representative newsroom. Journalism has a class problem. We also need more women, people of colour 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.

So, we need to make it pay. According to the Reuters Institute, only 16 per cent among digital news consumers in the US pay for news – through subscriptions, memberships or donations. “Most Americans”, (71 per cent) according to the Pew Research Centre, “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, while 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.

Seven: Be relentlessly local. At a time of content proliferation, with audiences having access to more media than ever before (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 per cent) of respondents told Knight/Gallup researchers that local news organisations do an “excellent” or “good” job covering what is going on in their areas.

Eight: Make it work for mobile. Similarly, with audiences increasingly likely to consume local and other news online and via smartphones, newsrooms need to improve their digital offer. Too often, the user experience is poor.

News organisations 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 advertisements, and easier to use.

Nine: 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 per cent of respondents felt that 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, 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.

Ten: 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 the need for the media to act as a check on those in power, audiences want local news outlets to be a “good neighbour”. 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.

Now, what about looking ahead? Typically, as shown in research from Pew and Knight/Gallup, Americans believe that local news media outlets do a good job, in terms of being accurate, useful, trustworthy and caring.

This is a valuable foundation to build on – and not least because research suggests that without a vibrant local news industry, 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, the 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.

It is noteworthy and widely acknowledged that local journalism may be more trusted than the national media, but this is not to suggest that it can afford to rest on its laurels.

A piece by the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet), a project of the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ). Damian Radcliffe is a Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism and a Professor of Practice at the University of Oregon in the US.