Society must entirely re-think local print journalism

If local print journalism fails to remain economically viable as a business, communities must revive it under a new model

Dan Almasi, Executive Editor

It’s no secret that journalism is in a bad place, but still, too few understand how bad it truly is, and even fewer fully grasp the potential ramifications of insufficient news coverage on affected communities.

Journalism on a local level is no longer profitable in its current business model. In fact, community newspapers shouldn’t even be considered businesses – they should be considered non-profit organizations that employ objective social activists (the term “public servant” might seem appropriate, but government officials making six figures fall under that category).

Local print journalism is essential to the communities it serves. Local newspapers have long served as community watchdogs that expose unethical and/or illegal local government actions and transgressions.

For those who don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the fragile state of community-based print journalism, here’s the reality:

Traditionally, the editor of a local newspaper would focus on the quality of the content in their newspaper. Today, more and more newspaper editors are forced to write a majority of the content in their respective publications. Often, there is simply no budget for reporters – whether it be full-time employees or freelancers.

I know one editor of a Bee Group newspaper covering an entire Western New York town who works a second job in retail on weekends. She works 40 hours a week Monday-Friday producing – almost virtually on her own (freelance reporter contributions account for a small percentage of the paper’s content) – an entire town’s weekly newspaper, but still fails to support herself financially via that job alone.

She landed the position fresh out of college. Traditionally, newspaper editors work their way up and are veterans by the time they reach the position. I’m not questioning whether or not she does a sufficient job – she works her butt off and is passionate about what she does. But still, such hiring practices are obviously not conducive to producing high-quality journalism.

Even in this case – one of a profitable local newspaper group – the quality of the information being distributed should be higher. The company is structured as a business; profiting comes before producing high-quality journalism. Everything the Bee Newspapers do is just good enough – from content quality to employee pay grades to overall product (naturally). Not to mention one Williamsville office is home to all nine newspapers.

Luckily, the Buffalo News – owned by one of the richest men in the world – picks up the slack when it comes to providing ample coverage of important community issues.

I also know someone who recently left a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. They now work several jobs – one including a content marketing job that pays $300 for pieces that take roughly three hours to write from the comfort of her home. She made $11 as a newspaper reporter.

I also know someone who just left a job as the editor of a local newspaper. They’re now a content creator for a university.

I once freelanced for the Niagara Gazette. They offered me $30 to cover a high school football game in Orchard Park – a 25-minute drive. I requested $40 (yeah, I demand the big bucks). They obliged.

Driving to and from the game, watching the football game, conducting post-game interviews then typing up a recap in a Tim Horton’s took a total of about four hours. Subtracting gas money (and an entirely necessary large coffee), I might have made minimum wage that night.

I’m not calling the Gazette cheap – it was generous of them to accept my request for an extra 10 bucks. I assume they can’t afford to offer much more, and I appreciated the opportunity and experience.

If I were still pursuing a career in sports journalism, I wouldn’t be against freelancing for them again as the experience is invaluable, but I’ve since altered my career path.

I recently began writing digital security content for ColoCrossing – a Buffalo-based IT services provider. Essentially, I rip off other content sources (this isn’t uncommon in the field, and isn’t even looked down upon, really – digital marketing is a successive think tank in which everyone feeds off and adds onto each other’s ideas). I gather insight from four or five sources then construct my own article. I don’t have a profound knowledge of the field. Writing my first piece took me an hour and a half (I expect to get quicker at it), and I was paid $50.

There’s a longstanding joke within the communication field that public relations is the dark side of journalism. It seems there are two now – PR and content creation and marketing, and more young, talented journalists are finding themselves on one of the dark sides.

Many journalism majors are too far into their education to change direction when they realize how unprofitable the field is. Many young journalist prospects once passionate about covering local issues opt for safer albeit less fulfilling jobs.

And as local newspapers continue to fold, many young journalists seeking jobs in an increasingly competitive yet increasingly unprofitable field have no choice but to filter into less impactful fields in which their skills are applicable.

As a society, we must recognize the value of local journalism and re-think it from the ground up.

The public funding of local journalism is its only potential savior in many cases.

Unfortunately, local newspapers often rely too heavily on defunct business models (tirelessly work to increase advertising revenue and pay reporters dirt-cheap wages). Too many local newspapers sooner fold than relinquish pride rooted in the belief that traditional local print journalism is still a self-sufficient business model if done the right way.

But if a local newspaper is structured like a business, with someone aiming to profit at the top, then public funding isn’t going to happen, nor should it. As local newspapers structured as businesses fold, local newspapers structured as community-funded watchdog organizations must rise.

Yeah, it’s unlikely. But maybe once communities without proper coverage realize how truly vulnerable they are, things will change.

A 2009 study by Pew Research Center states that only 43% of Americans said losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life “a lot.” I couldn’t find a more recent applicable study, but I’m sure the response would be similar today – at least within communities that haven’t yet lost their newspapers. I’m willing to bet that number is a lot higher within communities affected by a lack of ample coverage – those which have suffered the loss of newspapers and have realized the detriment.

Sure, public funding of news exists – but not on the level it needs to. National Public Radio (NPR) is the best example of well-funded ethical (depending on who you ask) journalism. Much of its funding comes from public telethons, government funding and other sizable endowments.

The same type of business model must be adopted by local print journalism if it wants to survive. Government funding is unlikely (especially in today’s political climate – the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is currently fighting potential cuts), but telethons and other crowdfunding methods are underutilized by community print news organizations.

Investigative journalism usually finds some success seeking public funding. Locally, the Investigative Post manages to stay afloat thanks primarily to just that, but I’ve heard they’re struggling from someone familiar with the organization.

Not to mention they’re currently dealing with a lawsuit from Greenleaf Development Corporation. I don’t predict Greenleaf wins, but this example only lends itself to my argument that local journalists aren’t in it for the money, work hard and are at great risk, and therefore should be publicly funded.

That’s not to say communities would certainly rise to the occasion and offer the needed funds, but if they’re smart they will. Purchasing a newspaper here and there wouldn’t hurt either, but research continuously shows that prescription-based business models are not sustainable for print journalism.

Big newspapers are currently experiencing a substantial rise in subscriptions nationwide, but local newspapers aren’t feeling the surge. And the surge we’re seeing is in large part due to the Trump effect. People are finally realizing the necessity of journalism in the age of Trump.

It won’t last anyway.

“Trump is becoming old news. Right now, he dominates the media. But that can’t go on for long,” said Chris Dickey, the foreign affairs editor of The Daily Beast to a crowd of several hundred college journalists including myself at the College Media Association’s 2017 New York City convention in March.

This is a national problem, and too few people understand the inevitable rise in corruption and lack of accountability within small communities as newspapers fold.

Too few people understand that – when a local newspaper is on the brink of folding – it doesn’t always mean a corporate big wig is abandoning ship because he’s no longer stuffing his pockets; it often means local newspapers have no more than minimum wage (if that) to offer journalists with degrees. It means hard-working print journalism veterans are putting in overtime hours while serving their communities but still struggling to support their families.

In communities where local print journalism has failed under a business model, communities cannot allow ample news coverage to go by the wayside. Local journalism is no longer a business – it’s an essential civic role that must be filled and funded, one way or another.

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Twitter: @Almasi_