Ordinary, But Extraordinary

Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability is a love letter to an often overlooked group of people:  journalists and business executives of local news organizations around the country who toil anonymously delivering news and information to millions of citizens. It is also, I hope, a strong call to action to all who care about nurturing strong local news in the digital age.

Currently, most local news organizations are what we think of as traditional newspapers, printed on paper and delivered to residents in a defined geographic area. Often they are the prime, if not the only, credible and comprehensive source of news about the community, informing and educating, and, in the process, sustaining democracy at the grassroots level. Like many of the communities they serve, almost all of these news organizations are struggling to address long term economic issues that will affect their ability to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.  

 Headlines in recent years have focused on the travails of the country’s largest and best known papers, metros such as the Washington Post and venerable national publications such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, where I was a senior business executive for almost two decades. Saving Community Journalism focuses on the country’s other 11,000 newspapers (dailies in small and midsized markets, as well as weeklies) and digital start-ups trying to offer a robust alternative to a severely diminished local print paper.   Since historically local news organizations have produced the vast majority of information that sustains our democracy, their survival ultimately determines the health and well-being of the entire news ecosystem, including the metro and national papers.

This, then, is the call to action:  local news organizations must begin immediately reinventing and reimagining both their journalism and business models, or risk being tossed aside by both their readers and advertisers. The strategies that newcomers (start-ups) and old timers (print newspapers) must pursue are slightly different.  However, both must have a three-pronged strategy for controlling costs, using new digital tools to build vibrant communities of “readers” on many platforms, and profitably pursuing new revenue.  

Saving Community Journalism tells the story of a dozen newspapers throughout the country, ranging from a 7,000-circulation weekly in West Virginia to a 55,000-circulation daily in California.  As I like to point out, these papers are both “ordinary and extraordinary.”  They share many of the same characteristics as thousands of other community newspapers.  But they bring an extraordinary passion and vision to the task of reinventing journalism and the business models that will support news in the twenty-first century.  Examples of how they have tackled the challenges can be found on the free instructional website that accompanies the book, savingcommunityjournalism.com.

This blog offers an opportunity for me to share and build on the many insights into community journalism that I’ve gained since I was appointed Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina in 2008.   When I returned “home” to my native state, I was intent on applying the lessons I had learned at the Times and the Journal to the excellent newspapers where I had worked as an apprentice.  What I have learned as the project unfolded over the past five years, and expanded to include more than 200 contributors, has significantly enhanced my own view of the challenges and opportunities afforded those who are passionate about community journalism.

Leading transformative change is never easy, whether you are responsible for the New York Times (circulation 1.6 million) or the Rutland Herald in Vermont (circulation 12,000).  But the challenges are very different.  In the next couple of weeks, I’ll introduce you to some of the “ordinary and extraordinary” publishers and editors profiled in Saving Community Journalism. Executives from four of those papers will be present at a May 8 panel discussion on Saving Community Journalism broadcast live from UNC at jomc.unc.edu.   If you miss it, I will summarize their thoughts in this blog, focusing especially on what they know now that they wish they had known five years ago.

I’ll also highlight the eye-opening insights we learned about why readers and advertisers value local newspapers and news organizations.   My main takeaway is this:  as journalists and news executives we often spend too much time talking among ourselves and relying on jargon (such as “hyper-local focus”), rather than really listening to what our loyal customers say they value about community journalism.  We extol our role as the “watch dog of government,” yet our readers and advertisers have much more expansive and complimentary views of our role in the communities we serve.  

Strong news organizations build community by identifying and highlighting the most important public policy issues, fostering regional economic growth, and building geographic and political identity.  As Harvard professor Ron Heifetz says, a strong local news organization is an anchor in the community.  It “reminds a community every day of its collective identity, the stake we have in one another, and the lessons of its history.”  

Economists use the term “creative destruction” to describe what’s been happening to the news industry. Those two words, placed together, embody both the threat and the opportunity for all community news organizations in the digital age.  Our goal is to help strong local newspapers and ambitious start-ups learn how to navigate “the gales of creative destruction,” as the economist Joseph Schumpeter once described it, and build strong journalistic enterprises that will, in turn, help build strong communities.


Join the conversation! Follow us on Twitter @businessofnews, join our Saving Community Journalism LinkedIn Group, or send us a question or suggestion on the "Staying Up-to-Date" page at savingcommunityjournalism.com.  


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