Jeffrey C. Billman
Within a few months, The News & Observer, like all McClatchy publications, will end its Saturday print edition, pushing readers toward an e-edition instead. If you think that’s the end of this trend rather than the beginning—if you think the N&O will be printing six newspapers a week a decade from now—I’ve got a bridge to sell you. I doubt they’ll be printing two.
The daily newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas, is giving—as in, for free—its seven-day-a-week subscribers iPads so they can access an e-edition of the paper, then teaching them how to use it (many of them are old). Printing and circulating a physical newspaper is expensive; emailing a digital version is cheaper. Hell, iPads are cheaper.
The profitable Sunday edition, with its hefty supply of inserted ads, will still exist, for now; the others will vanish.
This is the near-future of the erstwhile daily newspaper: one print product per week, supplemented by daily e-editions and websites to which you are directed by push notifications, tweets, and lots and lots of newsletters—including morning and evening newsletters that serve the function that multiple editions of newspapers did decades ago.
The disappearance of an anachronistic medium is nothing to shed tears over. The disappearance of local journalism, however, would be. Without it, residents would be uninformed, local officials and special interests would be free to exploit their ignorance, and unexposed corruption would run rampant.
So, to my mind, the pertinent question isn’t what local journalism will look like in 2040, but the degree to which it will exist at all.
I’ll begin with our paper of record.
I have little faith in the N&O/Herald-Sun under its current ownership. To be clear, that’s not because I don’t think highly of the paper’s journalists and editorial managers. I do. Rather, it’s because McClatchy has dug itself a hole from which I see no escape. As I write this, the entire company—almost thirty papers—has a market cap of just over $4 million (with an m). It has a mountain of debt, and while it’s adding digital subscribers, it’s hemorrhaging ad revenue. Bankruptcy seems inevitable.
Sooner or later—sooner, probably—the N&O will be sold, either individually or as part of a group. If the buyer is a hedge fund or a vulture-like company like Digital First Media, the N&O will die quickly, and we’ll all suffer for it. A still-but-slightly-less-bad option is that it’s gobbled up by a chain like Tribune or, ugh, GateHouse.
Less likely but more optimistic: Local interests buy the N&O, aware that the margins will never be what they once were but cognizant of the service the paper performs. Alternatively, like The Salt Lake Tribune or The Philadelphia Inquirer, the N&O is acquired by a nonprofit and operated as a public trust.
This is how local legacy media survives—not with companies that answer to shareholders, but with local owners whose first commitment is to their community.
As Philip Napoli mentions later, the future of television news is equally uncertain; viewers are aging, and younger people aren’t tuning in. And as Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen discusses, an entire ecosystem of news organizations untethered to legacy operations has developed to fill the void, many of them excellent: The nonprofits Carolina Public Press and NC Health News come to mind.
But I wonder if there’s enough philanthropy to support all the local reporting that needs doing. I also wonder at what point reader-based revenue models will become untenable—i.e., when will readers tire of being asked to support nearly every website they visit? (Which reminds me: Please go to KeepItINDY.com today to join the INDY Press Club and support fearless local journalism in the Triangle.)
I’ve little doubt that community journalism will become democratized over the next two decades. My concern is whether this will be a sustainable profession as Google and Facebook continue to hoover digital ad dollars.
As for us alt-weeklies, I probably think about our futures too much—and about where the alts that fell over the last several years went wrong, and how the rest of us can avoid their mistakes and misfortunes. In pessimistic moments, I wonder if we, too, are anachronisms of a bygone era that needed hell-raisers and bomb-throwers; if alts were the voice of the internet before the internet existed, what are we now that the internet is everywhere?
At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, however, I see a path ahead, though it will require adaptation. The INDY of 2040—fingers crossed—will look nothing like the INDY of 2020, much less The Independent Weekly of 2000.
Print, web, Twitter, TikTok, lasers beamed directly into your brain, whatever. The medium never mattered.
The journalism is what counts.
Jeffrey C. Billman has been the INDY’s editor since 2015.
Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen
In 2040, when you access local news, it won’t be a newspaper.
You might access it as an event—a community gathering convened by a journalistic institution around a topic that matters. You might explore it as an AI chatbot that you can ask specific questions over audio or text message. It might be a database that shows you contextual information based on your location. It might be a well-designed electronic magazine that arrives in your inbox or a quarterly hard copy that sits on your coffee table.
It could be from a niche brand, a metro-wide organization with stories curated to your interests, a hyperlocal vertical, or a feed of voices you’ve chosen to follow.
What you won’t see in 2040: newsprint, appointment programming, and traditional advertising support.
The good news: Local media isn’t dying. The biggest players in the industry might be tied to legacy platforms that are becoming less relevant for audiences, but we’ve equated a business model with an entire industry. And this narrative overlooks the hard truth that local media will likely be a less straightforward business in the future.
Using both national trends and current statewide experimentation, here are five things I predict will happen between now and 2040.
1. Local newsrooms will get smaller.
Metro-focused legacy media will see further staff reductions and regionalized production. This trend could be visible at The News & Observer and WRAL. These organizations will still be crucial for their in-depth investigations, but community coverage will be deprioritized.
McClatchy is better positioned to shift to different models than some legacy organizations because it’s reached 50 percent subscriber revenue and because of its efforts in experimentation.
Two examples: the Google-funded Compass Experiment in Ohio (which works like a local digital startup) and the ten journalism labs in different sites funded by philanthropy and the community.
Most legacy giants, including my former employer Gannett (recently acquired by GateHouse), will try to find sustainability with scale, consolidation, and efficiency.
But in the process, regionalization could mean that more resources are committed to large areas with growing populations. Rural areas, suburban municipalities, and shrinking communities will be seen as less valuable properties and will either be offloaded or given fewer resources.
If this happens, with fewer watchdog reporting resources in smaller and shrinking communities, local governments will be held less accountable—until a hyperlocal startup fills the void.
2. Alt-weeklies become multiplatform brands.
Alt-weeklies, which have also seen retraction tied to legacy business models, will be nimbler in their shift to new media models, differentiated from startups by their institutional voice and content focus. The INDY and other alts with responsible ownership will be thought of less as weekly products. Instead, they’ll be known on myriad platforms for their strong, often adversarial institutional voices questioning authority.
As equity becomes a more mainstream issue, alt-weeklies will help push forward important conversations in civic and cultural spaces through content and community events, taking on a greater activist role. Weekly print will cease, instead shifting to a quality quarterly publication that looks more like Durham-based Scalawag, with longer pieces that audiences will want to hold on to.
Alts have long been pathways for marginalized folks in journalism to grow careers; they’ll be an important part of the greater journalism ecosystem.
3. Collaborations will create better journalism than could be done independently.
As newsrooms shrink, organizations will collaborate for statewide or region-wide projects with impact. Such examples exist already: The ten-organization project about draconian sexual assault consent laws caused a change in legislation this year. It was led by the Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit founded in 2011.
The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, brought together by the Solutions Journalism Network and the Knight Foundation, will tackle affordable housing. The organizations in the group range from legacy media to public media to online media that serve black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities in Charlotte.
Because of the unique collaborative efforts happening in North Carolina, along with Philly and New Jersey, we will be a state to watch for innovation in local media.
4. New revenue models, including reader-supported, will emerge.
Communities concerned about equity in information will voluntarily support the information sources they believe in: The INDY and my own media organization, Raleigh Convergence, have asked for community support while keeping our respective content free.
Different media companies will try different community-funded models in the future. Membership is becoming common, but outside-the-box ideas include The Devil Strip in Ohio’s co-op model and Berkeleyside’s direct public offering (which raised $1 million). Some media companies will become B Corps, while others, like The Salt Lake Tribune, will become nonprofits.
Philanthropy is more likely than public funding to support journalism in a more divided political climate, though public radio is one area of media seeing growth now. Organizations like Local Independent Online News Publishers (I’m a member) will help startups become sustainable businesses.
5. Local media will focus on storytelling.
Storytelling should be a best practice for local media, but it’s too often information that’s pushed out on platforms that better suit the writer than the reader. The future of local media will have storytelling designed for the user’s understanding and engagement.
Local news will include cycles of conversation, where information is facilitated in a way that’s accessible to a large audience—not just the people who have been paying attention. The isolation and lack of civility on digital platforms will push communities toward in-person programming, community storytelling, and conversation. Journalism practitioners will be less extractive and more a part of their communities. Objectivity will fall to transparency.
Community members will learn journalism as a tool, from public records requests to reporting from public meetings, much like the City Bureau Documenters program in Chicago.
Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen is the founder of Minerva Media Co. and the editor and publisher of Raleigh Convergence. She has previously been a reporter and editor for USA Today, The Des Moines Register, and The Augusta Chronicle.
Philip M. Napoli
Those of us who research local journalism feel a bit like climate scientists. But rather than warning of rising temperatures and melting ice caps, we chronicle newsroom closures, staff layoffs, and expanding “news deserts” across the country.
And as with the climate, we are at a point with local journalism where the future looks very grim unless we make some dramatic changes. So, in predicting what local journalism in the Triangle is going to look like twenty years from now, I’m going to offer two forecasts. The first scenario assumes things continue as they are. The second assumes that we begin to make the kinds of changes necessary to revive and stabilize local journalism.
Projecting from current trends, the next twenty years are likely to see the near eradication of local journalism as we have traditionally known it. The few local newspapers that remain in the Triangle will wither and die.
The economic hardships that have affected local newspapers will take a similar toll on the area’s local television stations. Already, the typical local TV news viewer is quite old and getting older. As the current generation of local TV news viewers dies off, they are not going to be replaced because the next generation hasn’t included local TV newscasts as part of their regular news diet. As a result, over the next twenty years, we should see the investment that local TV stations make in local news decline substantially. In terms of online news sources, the question is whether, at some point in the near future, they find a way to actually make money when competing with digital giants like Facebook and Google for advertising dollars; and/or a way to get people to pay for digitally delivered news.
They haven’t found the answer over the past fifteen years, so it seems unlikely that they will find the answer sometime in the next twenty.
And when the economic motivation for providing news evaporates, that leaves the political motivation. We see the ramifications of this already, as we’re witnessing the rise of hyper-partisan local news outlets that really aren’t news organizations at all. These are news sites financed and run by PACs, political parties, and political candidates. However, these digital sites often masquerade as traditional news organizations, frequently concealing the details of their ownership and sources of financial support. And what they produce seldom meets the accuracy and objectivity standards of traditional journalism.
As traditional local news outlets continue to fade away, these partisan propaganda outlets will increasingly fill the void.
As a result, the next twenty years will likely see the kind of hyper-partisanship that characterizes national cable news become the norm in local journalism, leading to increasingly contentious, polarized, and unproductive local politics.
Over the next twenty years, the last vestiges of the idea of objectivity in journalism may actually fall away.
The more optimistic scenario is one in which we move on from the idea of local journalism being a sustainable commercial enterprise and embrace the idea of local journalism as a public service.
In this scenario, the majority of local news organizations operate as nonprofits, supported by an as-yet-to-determined funding model. Perhaps it’s a tax on social media platforms’ revenues, as some have proposed. Perhaps it’s a massive expansion of philanthropic support at the local, regional, and national levels for local journalism. Perhaps it’s an enlargement of our existing public broadcasting system into a more expansive public media system, with the U.S. finally emerging from its position bringing up the rear among developed nations in terms of how much we spend per capita on public service media.
Most likely, it will take a combination of all of these and more for local journalism to regain its footing. Scenario 2 requires a massive change in how communities, news organizations, journalists, policymakers, and philanthropies think about local journalism.
Fortunately, that change is starting to take place.
This scenario could lead to higher-quality journalism than what has been produced under the traditional commercial model. This scenario could lead to journalism freed, to some extent, from the pressure to maximize views, clicks, likes, and shares. As a result, it could lead to journalism that is less sensationalistic, more substantive, and that better serves the information needs of local communities.
I return, in the end, to the climate change analogy. In terms of both the climate and local journalism, we are at a critical juncture in terms of deciding what the next twenty years will bring.
Philip M. Napoli is the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
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