The future of community journalism

Al Cross shares a his philosophy, "Subscribe to independent journalism," on a bumper sticker as he gives the keynote address during the 2018 Hall of Fame dinner.

Speech by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky, at the 2018 TPA Midwinter Conference

First time I’ve been to Galveston, but have been to Texas many times, and always feel at home here; maybe it’s because your state was settled mainly by people from Tennessee, my native state, and Kentucky, my home state.
Y’know, we share a lot of the same sayings: all hat and no cattle (my states are the biggest cattle states in the East), hot as a two-dollar pistol; old as dirt, rough as a cob, cold as a well-digger’s knee (or a certain larger body part). Close enough for government work; handy as a pocket on a shirt; I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; and he’s one brick shy of a load. Some of my favorites involve animals: rode hard and put up wet; like a duck on a June bug; that dog won’t hunt; fine as frog hair; as independent as a hog on ice; look what the cat drug in; crooked as a dog’s hind leg; if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then; and: there’s more than one way to break a dog from sucking eggs.
I have never figured out what that last one really means, except there’s more than one way to do some things, and different approaches may be needed. And that’s what I want to talk with you about tonight.
When Ed Sterling called to invite me to speak to you, he asked what I would like to talk about, and I immediately replied, “The future of community journalism” – I guess because I wonder about it a good bit, and I’ll bet many of you do, too. Not much is clear, the major exception being that different approaches are needed. Every market, every newspaper, is at least a little bit different, so you must write your own future.
You can’t talk about the future of community journalism without discussing the future of journalism. I think it’s important to remember that we will always have journalism, because we will always need storytellers.
So many times when people say they’re talking about journalism, what they’re really talking about is the news business, which pays for journalism. And the news business is in trouble, because its economic model – mass circulation that drew advertising, which paid 75 to 80 percent of the bills – has been crumbling for more than a decade. Perhaps the best example in the weekly newspaper trade is that if you see a grocery ad in a paper, it’s probably an insert, and those are becoming less common as grocers find other ways to reach customers.
From what I can tell n my own research and discussions around the country, weekly newspapers’ circulation and household penetration, generally speaking, are declining 2 to 5 percent a year, and that trend is not sustainable.
Increasingly, the response to these existential threats has been to live with less revenue but get a bigger share of it from the audience. That’s why paywalls have become common, as newspapers finally discovered that enough people were willing to pay for access. Some community newspaper companies say they want to get 50 percent of their revenue from the audience. They think it can work because there are enough people willing to pay for unlimited access and special benefits for subscribers. It might work in some markets, but I have my doubts when it comes to the smaller, less-well-off markets that community newspapers typically serve.
he idea of getting more revenue from the audience has come more slowly to community journalism, which has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business because it usually doesn’t have competition. You are probably the only reliable, consistent, professional, comprehensive source of news and information for your locality. You probably don’t compete with a television station, and radio news in most places is a ghost of what it once was.
But you are still in competition, with every other source of news and information, for people’s time and attention. There is only so much time the audience can spend with media. It’s more time than it once was, because of smartphones, but those devices are used mainly for social media, not news media.
So you are, for the first time, in a battle with competitors you don’t know or see. And some you may not have even imagined, because local news is becoming less important to some people.
That’s partly because people are paying more attention to national news than they once did, thanks to last year’s unusual presidential election and our very unusual president. One community newspaper chain even put a President Trump button on all its home pages to drive traffic.
A bigger factor, I think, is that people now spend time online, in virtual communities, that they once spent engaging with their geographic communities, like those you serve. That probably makes them less interested in local news.
And another factor, in rural areas, is that your readers – or your former readers – increasingly commute to jobs in more urbanized places. We’ve some research in rural Kentucky and found that the longer someone’s commute to work, the less likely they are to subscribe to, or regularly buy, their local paper.
And these folks are commuting because of a lack of jobs, or good jobs, in the communities where they live. One big reason Donald Trump won the election was a sense in many rural communities they are being left behind. And in many places, they are. They see the shuttered factories, the vacant storefronts and the high-school commencement exercises that amount to a mass farewell to what could have been a big part of a community’s future. That is not good for local businesses, including the newspaper.
So, if we were doing a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, those would be among the weaknesses and threats. We would also have to include the growing impact of social media, which usually give people notice of a news event but not a real news story, unless the post includes a link to one and they click on it.
I think one of our weaknesses is that we have not done a very good job of helping our readers understand better what real journalism is, and the difference in the three types of media: Strategic media, which could also be called message media: essentially, public relations, advertising and marketing; News media: that’s us, who practice journalism, the essence of which is a discipline of verification; we’re mainly about facts; and social media, which have little of any discipline, and certainly no discipline of verification.
Too often, we just say “media” when we mean “news media.” We need to use the phrase, not the word, to remind people that journalism is different – we have a discipline and a mission: searching for truth to serve the public.
Beyond that broad mission, every news outlet has its own priorities, but they are rarely shared with the audience. I wish every newspaper regularly published a statement of principles – what it stands for – and asked readers to hold it to account if they think it hasn’t lived up to them.
We need to explain these things to our readers, and to former readers and prospective readers, using social media and other platforms. We need to explain how we go about our work, and invite readers’ involvement and feedback. Ask them what they want to read about, and what they think of your work.
Here’s an example, from the Sunbury Daily Item in central Pennsylvania. The editor is Dennis Lyons, who took a buyout as managing editor of USA Today but came out of retirement to edit this small daily. He has a Community Advisory Board that generates good story ideas and sources, and he holds roundtable discussions with community stakeholders before starting to report major enterprise stories, to point the projects in the right direction and identify sources. These things are not wastes of time; they save time, because they are in effect the beginning of the reporting process.
Dennis Lyons talked about his work on a trip he and I made to China a few months ago, to talk about community journalism. That country has a very different political system, but its newspapers have many of the same concerns we have here – an audience that is going elsewhere for information. That shows the depth and breadth of the changes in the news and information business. It’s one of the greatest changes in the history of the world, not too far behind the invention of the printing press.
At the same time the world has changed, and journalism is under attack, most notably by the president of the United States. You might think that has nothing to do with your journalism, but I have heard editors all over the country say it is casting a shadow on their work.           They have begun to feel the sting of the anti-journalism message – yes, it really is a message against journalism as it should be practiced – and they have begun to realize that in a larger sense, we are all in the same boat; that they have an important role to play in restoring, building and maintaining the reputation of, and belief in, journalism.
And this has serious implications beyond our business; this week the RAND Corporation issued a 324-page report about the decay of truth in our society, the lack of agreement on basic facts – partly because people don’t understand what sources are valid, but also because news media have blurred the lines between fact and opinion. Strategic media, or message media, are using social media to trump (no pun intended) the news media.
As you defend journalism, you don’t have to defend the networks or the big papers; you can use some of their failings to explain what journalism is supposed to be. But you are journalists, or employers of journalists, so I think it is in your interest to defend journalism – and to help people understand that it has standards and principles, and that it is to be held accountable, just as it holds others accountable.
But the most important thing you can do for journalism, and the news business that pays for it, is to show its value to your community. That means you must produce journalism that helps set the public agenda for your community; that holds public officials and institutions accountable; that provides a fair forum for debate; and that acts as a leader in the community.
These are not easy things. And, I’m sad to say, a lot of community newspapers fall short. Editorial timidity is a common characteristic in community journalism, and it’s understandable. I teach my students that the fundamental conflict in community journalism is between the personal and the professional – the desire to fit comfortably into a community, and the responsibility to sometimes make others uncomfortable.
One way to successfully manage this conflict is to have a set of clear principles that not only guide your work but let the public know how you think you are supposed to do that work, and invite them into the discussion.
So, in our SWOT analysis, those are some opportunities – most of which, as they often do, are responses to threats. What about the strengths of community newspapers?
The biggest is that in most markets, you have a local-news franchise that no one has really invaded. Now, don’t take it for granted; a newspaper I once helped edit got bought by a chain, its staff gradually lost the local people, and a former editor started an online site that wasn’t really about hard news, but mainly local features and sports. But those are things people wanted to read about, and they had a personal acquaintance with the publisher, so his site took off – and the local paper, once one of the best in the state, now has one of the lowest household penetrations in the state, about 30 percent.
In that story, of course, there’s a reference to another strength of most community newspapers: community connections. They help you understand your community, its needs, its wants, and its preferences. But they may also restrain your journalism, and you have to be careful about that. Always remember you are a public servant.
And in the age of social media, where many community conversations occur, you need to be part of those conversations, and your paper needs to have a presence. You must be where your audience is. They can provide story ideas and sources. And if they are participating in the news, that can make them advocates for your paper.
This doesn’t have to be all that complicated, especially at small newspapers, where many of you are surely doing these things already. But I think it needs to be part of your fundamental approach to our journalism.
And more than ever, that journalism needs to be good.
Just about every manager in journalism or the news business realizes the importance of unique local content. That is nothing new to this crowd; unique local content is the main reason community journalism has been the healthiest part of the traditional news business. But now that you are in competition with every other information source, that content has to be quality content.
Newspapers need to step up their game and prove their value to their communities. That means fresh and helpful enterprise stories, with good storytelling that gives readers information an perspectives new to them. It means real watchdog journalism, which send the message: “We’re important to you because we’re looking out for your interests.”
You’ve got to take on the local bullies. Here’s just one example, from Texas: The Weatherford Democrat found that the county judge had hired his mistress, first as an office manager and assistant, though she was unqualified (no high-school diploma, and lied about it on the application), then gave her a raise and made her head of the emergency medical service.
Bill Ketter, the news vice president for CNHI, which owns the paper, shared with me a note from editor James Walker, who told him, “Circulation folks just told me that we had a guy renew his subscription this morning and urged us to “please, please keep covering our crooked judge.”
Quality journalism also means being careful, ethical, fair and respectful, especially on social media. You may not have any substantial competition for local news, but increasingly there are blogs and sites, groups and individuals, who have it in for you, or at least want to hold YOU accountable.
So, back to that old saying: There’s more than one way to do things. Each market is at least a little but different, but I think I’ve laid out a few principles, strategies and tactics to follow to make sure your community journalism has a bright future: Keep public service at the top of your mind, engage with your audience, defend journalism, prove your value by giving your neighbors coverage they can get nowhere else, and make sure that is quality coverage.
It’s a pleasure to be with you this evening. If I can help you, let me know. My short job description is “extension agent for rural journalists.” Good luck in your work!