For its first-ever research report, the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon stayed in its own back yard, exploring the state of small-market journalism in the Pacific Northwest.
“Like their peers across the country, (local media operators in the Pacific Northwest) are experimenting with new revenue models, different ways to tell stories and innovative ways to engage and reconnect with audiences,” said Damian Radcliffe, the University of Oregon professor who oversaw the study.
The report, entitled “Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest: Why it matters, how it’s evolving and who pays for it,” draws on interviews with past and current staff from 10 local media outlets, including Inland Press Association members the Seattle Times and the Bend Bulletin.
Papers with circulations under 50,000 represent the majority of daily and weekly print newspapers in the United States, a group that until recently grabbed little of the national media spotlight.
Like larger publications, they’ve experienced digital disruption, with resulting revenue drops and newsroom shrinkage. Of necessity, these outlets have had to embrace new ways of storytelling, the report notes, recruiting staff with video/visual skills and relying on analytics to measure reader interest.
But audience engagement goes much further than studying the numbers on a daily site-visit report, and the report illustrates how publications struggle with defining and implementing engagement, the buzzword of 2016, according to the report.
For Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon), local journalists have the opportunity and responsibility to be brand ambassadors for the profession.
“Engagement plays a part in this, in that it gives people a one-on-one relationship with journalism,” May said in the report. “They begin to understand how it works, what’s legal to print and what’s not, what news tenets are, and why some stories are irresponsible and others are worth their time.”
To this end, May’s paper hosts a monthly radio call-in show in which readers engage with staff, and she appears at a weekly “Coffee with the Editor” at a local bakery.
Another engagement model falls under the study’s example of “Solutions Journalism,” in which reporting on social problems doesn’t just point out what’s failing but also points to what works.
The Seattle Times paired with the Solutions Journalism Network for a story about “school discipline that doesn’t deprive students of their education,” said Sharon Chan, vice president of innovation, product and development at the Times. Instead of writing the traditional stories detailing racial disparities in discipline policies, “we went out and covered promising approaches, and then we had two events: One was a solutions workshop with 40 stakeholders, and then we had a town hall with about 200 people.”
The result of the gatherings, which included administrators and students, was two pieces of state legislation, Chan said.
Of course, all the reader outreach in the world means nothing without a business model that keeps the publication running. News deserts, like food deserts, are a concern, according to the Cottage Grove Sentinel’s May in the report:
“The communities in my immediate area have lost their weekly newspapers. But their kids still play high school sports, their water still costs money, their economic development is still of interest, their city council still meets, and they still have street fairs, concerts, and farmers’ markets.”
To replace lost ad revenue, the papers surveyed suggested a number of revenue replacements and enhancements, ranging from a foundation model that pays for a certain beat (education in the case of the Seattle Times), to paywalls and digital subscriptions, events, memberships and digital media services.
Disruptions noted, the report finds reasons for optimism among small-market papers:
“Despite a challenging financial and political environment, these outlets all continue to perform important acts of journalism, engaging audiences and communities on issues that matter to them.
“The future for the sector may be fragile, but the region shows vibrancy in experimentation and innovation with storytelling, concepts of journalism, and various revenue models.”
For the full report, visit the Agora Center website.
Maureen M. Hart is a former Chicago Tribune source editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org