Lesson 1

Articulating the Vital Mission of Community Newspapers

Key Objective:

Lesson 1 is designed to help publishers and editors reaffirm the vital mission of their news organizations and articulate a mandate for change.

Publishers and editors often assume that everyone in a community – readers, public officials, advertisers, employees and shareholders – intuitively know how important their newspaper is to the community. Yet, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “Fully 60% of Americans say they have heard little or nothing at all about the financial problems besetting news organizations.”

We recommend that you begin the strategic process by reaffirming the mission of your community news organization because it helps your customers, employees and shareholders understand what is at stake if you cease to exist.  Articulating your news organization’s mission in the digital age and its critical importance to the entire community is the first step in charting a path to survival and renewal for your news organization.

What is a Community Newspaper?

In Saving Community Journalism, we focus on coming up with a broad and encompassing definition for community newspapers.  According to the traditional definition, a community newspaper is a small daily or non-daily with less than 15,000 in circulation. But in the digital age, that definition is becoming outdated, as more and more readers get their news from digital sources.  Therefore, in the book, we defined a community newspaper as any news organization whose primary mission is to cover the important issues that affect a cohesive and well-defined geographic, ethnic or cultural community.

A community newspaper can have a circulation of a few thousand readers or nearly a hundred thousand. What is important is not the size; rather, it is the mission of the newspaper.  Under this new definition, when we speak about “community newspapers” we are talking about small and midsize dailies, non-dailies, and ethnic newspapers.  This is a large group, comprising almost all of the country’s 11,000 papers.  The hundred or so remaining metro and regional papers face slightly different issues and may have a different, broader mission. For more information on metro papers, see Lesson Four.


What Is 'Accountability Journalism'?

An organization’s mission basically establishes your reason for existing.  Why is it important that your paper or news company survive?  Whom do you serve?

The founders of our country envisioned newspapers as “watchdogs” of our democracy and sanctioned that mission with a First Amendment guarantee that set the press apart from other businesses.  Over the last two centuries, many newspapers have performed that mission by serving as a conscience for the communities they covered. By some recent estimates, 85 percent of the enterprising journalism that ultimately influences public policy at the local, state and national levels originates with newspapers.

However, the digital revolution has upended the business models of all newspapers, resulting in a dramatic decline in profitability and a significant cutback in the number of journalists at newspapers.  A recent Pew report calculates that newsroom staffing levels in newspapers have decreased a third since peaking in 2000, bringing the total back to 1978 levels.

In the 20th century, newspapers typically employed many more reporters than the local broadcast outlets, and as a result they excelled at two types of “accountability journalism” – beat reporting (in which a journalist covers the public meetings of local, regional or state officials) and investigative reporting on “quality of life” issues, ranging from government corruption to environmental and health issues.

Not surprisingly, as the amount of accountability journalism fed into the information eco-system by newspapers has declined, coverage of government news has decreased on broadcast outlets.  According to Pew, the time allotted to local public affairs on local broadcast news programs has declined by half over the last decade.  Complicating matters, a 2011 report by the Federal Communications Commission notes that 20 percent of licensed television stations have no local news programs, and more than half of radio stations don’t.

Who Are the Stakeholders in a Community Newspaper?


This has serious implications for the creation and flow of news and information at the grassroots level.  The cutback in newsrooms, coupled with a recent decision by many large, regional papers to eliminate circulation in outlying regions, could “pose a crisis for democracy,” according to a 2009 report by the Knight Commission.

Many companies begin to articulate a mission statement by performing what is known as a “stakeholder analysis.” There are numerous groups of people who typically have a stake in an organization’s success – including its customers (who are usually considered the most important stakeholders and occupy the “inner circle”), as well as employees, shareholders and even the vendors who supply the company.

Publishers and editors can begin to craft a mission statement by asking this simple question: If your newspaper ceased publishing tomorrow, who has the most to lose? The answer in most communities is that there would be a tremendous vacuum: For readers and public officials, who depend on the newspaper to be a credible and comprehensive source of news and information that affects the community.  For advertisers who depend on the newspaper to connect them with local consumers of their goods and services. And for shareholders, employees and vendors who rely on the newspaper for income.

Extensive research at the University of North Carolina, as well as dozens of interviews with stakeholders in communities large and small, has revealed that stakeholders view the local newspaper has having a broad mission and role that goes significantly beyond the original “watchdog” function envisioned by our nation’s founders.  As advertisers, readers and government officials pointed out, even in the digital age, local newspapers are “the glue that binds” a community – politically, socially, and financially, as well as journalistically.

Click here for an exercise on articulating your paper’s mission.

What Are the Three Important Roles of a Community Newspaper?


Setting the agenda for public policy debate:

UNC research in the 1970s established that newspapers – more than any other medium – basically determine the “hot button” issues that are debated and voted on in communities large and small. Newspapers set the agenda for public policy debate when editors and publishers decide which stories will be covered, how much coverage will be devoted to certain issues and which stories will be given prime placement and called to the reader’s attention.  In addition, the editorial page gives newspaper editors a chance to advocate for certain causes.

This “agenda-setting” role is especially important in a digital age, when readers often suffer from information overload.  In the beginning of the Internet Age, most observers assumed the digital revolution would provide citizens with technological tools that would make government and democracy even more transparent. But, as the past decade has shown, most citizens rarely have the know-how, tenacity and resources to pursue and investigate complex policy issues and their far-ranging implications.

What is often missing from blogs and other sources of citizen journalism is the context and analysis that professional reporters and editors have historically provided. Or, as a state legislator put it, “I trust the editors at the paper – more than any other source – to tell me what is bubbling below the surface that I might have missed.  They tie it together and tell me whether it is really an issue or a personal beef of some blogger.”

Encouraging economic growth in the area:

Newspapers encourage economic vitality in a region by providing a marketplace for readers and advertisers to connect. Market surveys have shown that, even in a “digital” age, most people buy goods and services close to home. So there is a still a need for a central marketplace that allows local merchants to inform current and potential customers about the multiple products and services available in the area. Dozens of advertisers interviewed by UNC over the last four years expressed a desire to support the local newspaper.  As one advertiser put it, “I realize that it is important for this community – and for my business and other small businesses – for the newspaper to survive.”

Journalists on the paper have an equally important role in encouraging long-term economic growth and overall prosperity in the community.  Through their “agenda-setting” function, editors and reporters nurture discussion around issues that can either impede or accelerate economic growth.  They can highlight underlying trends that help public officials and local businessmen focus on ways to prioritize investments. And by publicizing a deep-seated economic problem afflicting a region – such as low high school graduation rates – a newspaper helps a community begin to develop a strategy for addressing high unemployment in the region.

Fostering a sense of geographic community.

Even in a digital age, we still identify politically, socially and economically with the geographic place where we currently work and live.

Newspapers unite the various political and governmental entities in our geographic region and help us understand what our vote means to the larger community, or why we should be concerned about a certain issue that especially affects our town or zip code. A good local newspaper also informs us of nearby employment opportunities and guides our shopping activities in the area.  And it connects us socially with others in the community, who share our passions, our interests, and our concerns. As one reader summed it up, “Even though I’m on Facebook a lot, I still depend on the newspaper to tell me about people in this community I don’t know or know only in passing.”

As this very quick exercise shows, everyone in a community – whether large or small – has a tremendous stake in the survival of a local newspaper. A strong local newspaper plays a vital day-to-day role in influencing the future vitality of a community.

By reaffirming the mission of your community news organization, you will be better able to manage the expectations of customers, employees and shareholders in the days ahead, and to involve all three groups of stakeholders in a productive discussion about why your newspaper must change if you are to survive the threats posed by the digital revolution.

Click here for an exercise on drafting a mandate for change.

Key Insights:

Because the Internet has assaulted the traditional business model of news organizations, the historic mission of newspapers – informing and educating the public – is also threatened.

Many people remain unaware of the financial problems affecting newspapers and the peril this presents to a smoothly functioning democracy.  Therefore, newspapers need to reaffirm and articulate their important and historic mission.

Extensive research has found that the historic mission of newspapers is as vital as ever, especially in the Internet age when we often suffer from information overload. Newspapers are the glue that binds a community politically, economically and socially.  Strong news organizations perform three unique and critical roles in community:

  1. setting the agenda for public policy debate by informing citizens and public officials about important issues
  2. encouraging regional economic commerce
  3. fostering a sense of geographic community