A project of Democracy Fund

July 26, 2019

Local Fix: After Youngstown, “News Hypocrites” and Archives


Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. But first, we always begin with one good idea…

One Good Idea: Shoot Your Shot

It’s hard to keep track of the many opportunities, awards, and contests available these days, so occasionally we like to take a moment to highlight a few and to encourage you to shoot your shot. Get some national-local collaboration going with two different projects: Report for America’s application for their next round of host newsrooms is live – get those in by September 30. And Reveal Local Labs is looking for their next two local lab regions – apply by August 14. Or how about some contests? Current’s Local That Works competition is open until August 7, and is waiting for your innovative local projects. And the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s contest is open until August 5.

All Eyes on Ohio

A few weeks ago Margaret Sullivan went to Youngstown, Ohio, and the piece that she wrote about her trip took off on Twitter. “Democracy . . . is about to die in Youngstown,” read the headline of the piece, which detailed the upcoming closure of the city’s 150-year-old daily newspaper, the Vindicator. It marks the first time a city the size of Youngstown is losing its only daily paper. Sullivan argues it likely won’t be the last, calling the Vindicator’s closing “the tumbling of the first domino.” In the wake of Sullivan’s article there was a buzz of energy focused on Youngstown, summed up nicely by Christine Schmidt at NiemanLab. “Last week, ProPublica announced it was adding a new spot to its funded Local Reporting Network for a Youngstown reporter. On Tuesday, the Youngstown business journal announced plans to expand with an investigative team and more local government coverage. And now The Compass Experiment — the McClatchy-grown, Google-funded, Mandy Jenkins-led project to build up new local news sites — will launch its first site in Youngstown.” As we think about what happens when cities lose their only paper, this mix of local and national interventions will be interesting to watch, but we also want to remind everyone of some incredible work already happening in local journalism across Ohio. Ohio is home to bold collaborations, creative new start-ups, commercial hyperlocals and investigative nonprofits. Taken together, the story of Ohio journalism has its challenges; but the state is also proving to be a profoundly exciting space for local people who are building bold new ways to strengthen and sustain journalism.

Give the People What They Want

Earlier this summer an Axios headline declaring the U.S. a “nation of news consumption hypocrites” made the rounds. The article compares answers to an Axios / SuveyMonkey poll about what topics readers say they want to read with web traffic data showing what people actually read about online. For example, readers ranked healthcare as a topic on which they’d like more coverage, but healthcare stories ranked seventh in the web traffic data. The Axios piece used these findings to deride this as reader hypocrisy, but we don’t believe it’s that simple. Using traffic data as a proxy for people’s desires profoundly oversimplifies issues of audience attention, consumption and information needs. People want cameras in town hall meetings even if they don’t watch hours of public access TV each week. People want watchdogs holding leaders to account, even if they don’t read every investigative story. Does this make them hypocrites? We should remember when measuring what people consume that they can only order what newsrooms put on the menu (as this comic makes clear). There has been lots written on how newsroom analytics shape editorial choices, thereby determining what is offered to audiences, and how platform algorithms that drive audience attention privilege certain kinds of content (entertainment, outrage, conflict) over others. Yes, when people’s desires don’t match their actions, it makes it hard to monetize that desire – but does it invalidate their desire altogether? Below, we have collected some more nuanced takes on understanding reader’s desires, meeting their needs, and giving them the respect they deserve, to help you sort this all out for yourself.

Archive it!

This week the photographs of Ebony magazine went to auction in Chicago. To the great relief of many, the winning bid came from a group of philanthropic partners who plan to open the archives to the public through the Smithsonian and the Getty Image Institute. It is a reminder of how preserving archives is an essential but often-overlooked aspect of journalism’s role in shaping public narratives. But a March, 2019 study from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that the digital content of many news outlets – especially local, independent and alternative news sources – are “at risk of not being preserved, threatening to leave critical exclusions in a record that will favor dominant versions of public history.” In the digital age, when much of our content lives on platforms that are controlled by non-journalistic entities that treat all content as equally ephemeral, news organizations will need to work even harder to archive work. Journalists like Ben Welsh, editor of the LA Times Data Desk, are on it and ready to help with resources like PastPages, an open-source project that offers several easy-to-use tools and collections. NiemanLab also has a rundown of digital tools to help you avoid the fate of journalists who have seen their work disappear when a site unexpectedly closes. It’s also worth noting that archiving need not be limited to doom-and-gloom scenarios. As Debbie Galant and Joe Amditis of NJ News Commons wrote for Local News Lab, “archives hold huge potential to add context to current events, fuel community engagement and even serve as a new revenue stream.”

Have a good weekend,
Josh, Teresa, and Kip
@jcstearns, @gteresa, @kipdooley1

The Local Fix is a project of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, which invests in innovations and institutions that are reinventing local media and expanding the public square. Disclosure: Some projects mentioned in this newsletter may be funded by Democracy Fund, you can find a full list of the organizations we support on our website.