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The Decline and Fall (and Rise?) of Local News

 6 min read / 

The internet brought about many challenges for the whole news media industry, but one part of it was particularly hard hit. Local news held a privileged position in decades past. Serving a population that was easily targeted by advertisers, and with little competition for that audience, local papers could be run as very profitable businesses. Supported by classifieds and ads from local and regional business looking to grow their customer base in a limited geographic area, they enjoyed decades of undisturbed sustainability. However, these advantages were taken away once they were targeted by new technological developments. Services like Craigslist or Gumtree took the lucrative classified ads business from local papers, a source of revenue which was often vital if those papers were to survive. Google AdWords and Facebook could target ads at audiences based on age, sex, interests and, most importantly for local news, location, taking away another of the competitive advantages that had enabled papers to thrive up until that time.

With declining fortunes, many local papers lost their ability to keep on operating, and hundreds have shut down. In America alone since 2004 around 1,800 papers have either shut down or merged. In the United Kingdom there are 198 fewer papers in 2018 than there were in 2005. Those numbers keep on going up. With each paper which goes out of business, hundreds of journalists, editors and printers lose their job. When the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, 200 employees were out of work.

 

Rocky Mountian News’ last frontpage

But the problem of this decline is not just that people are sadly put out of work. Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister, said recently that the hundreds of closures experienced in recent years were a ‘danger to our democracy.’ Local news provides a place for people to engage with the politics of their hometown, to get a sense of what is going on there which is not possible when it is only national and international institutions which act as sources of news. News organisations serving communities smaller than large regions and nations empower their readers to connect with and take part in events and movements which shape those areas. In the wake of the collapse of the Rocky Mountain News local engagement, such as contacting politicians and attending meetings of civic organisations, fell. Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes, political scientists at American University and George Washington University respectively, studied the effects of a healthy local news environment on elections to the House of Representatives. They found that in areas that were not served well with news on local issues experienced less competitive races, reflecting a fall in political engagement. Danny Hayes went on to say that “When local papers cut coverage there’s essentially nothing to take its place in these local communities.”

There are several things which could attempt to replace the coverage local papers offer though. The most obvious is television news coverage. However, television cannot offer the breadth of reporting, limited as it is by broadcast schedules, with only limited time given over to journalism and news reporting. Hyperlocal volunteer services, facilitated by the internet, have also emerged, but these can only act as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to more traditional organisations. National media, of course, cannot match the depth of coverage provided by institutions which are closing.

 

Local papers in the UK are closing

With the importance of local newspapers recognised by both public figures, private researchers and owners there have been attempts to arrest the collapse of the industry. Large parent organisations which own a number of papers have taken a different approach to independent operators. With greater financial resources and access to digital experts, these companies have pursued a strategy of growing their audiences, changing local papers into regional ones, with a greater focus on national matters. But there is often pressure to pursue corporate advertising targets, driven by clickbait titles and the journalistic equivalent of fast food. This diminishes the quality of reporting that may shrink a paper’s audience. Independently owned papers, without the access to the resources offered by larger organisations, instead concentrate on increasing the depth of their content. These different tactics both train their attention on advertising money, even though it is widely recognised that local newspapers will not be sustainable based on advertising revenue alone. There is also a tension in shifting content strategies from those which seeks to create a lot of stories with widespread appeal, but which are of low quality, to one which prioritises high-quality content which readers feel is worth paying for. Papers can often not afford the time it would take to replace advertising money by growing a subscription base.

An approach which looks to monetise content in other ways is needed. While a subscription to a newspaper offering coverage only on community matters may be off-putting to consumers, a service which gathers many different sources into one place would be more appealing. Mogul News offers a path for these papers to monetise their content. By having access to a large audience, the cost of shifting approaches is diminished. Organisations will be paid in a similar manner to freelance and independent journalists, with engagement metrics beyond just page views being rewarded. That means that both stories with broad appeal and those which focus on a deeper connection between content and reader are rewarded. Mogul News will also allow publishers to use the innovative technologies we are developing that decentralise the editorial process and which incorporate some of the latest developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to streamline and smooth the whole publishing procedure. By having to devote less money and time on the polishing and editing of stories, local newspapers can put their full attention into writing and producing articles. Mogul News’ aim is to help the whole media environment and we have solutions to the issues faced particularly by local papers. By working with these organisations Mogul News will help return to communities the voice and information they need for people to be properly engaged.

Journalism is important. Local journalism is particularly important as those voices are not as easily replaced as writing which covers a wider remit. The challenges facing local papers have already taken their toll, but by embracing the possibilities opened up by technological developments they can overcome these. Mogul News is determined to help in this.

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