The Stories That Make Places: The Fall and (Maybe) Rise of Local News

This hurricane season has been a showcase for the importance of local media. While national outlets concentrated on the big-picture drama of Harvey, Maria, and Irma, reporters for local television stations and newspapers in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico were busy providing potentially life-saving information to their neighbors äóñ in many cases, while dealing with the impacts of the storm themselves.
Local news plays a similar role day in and day out, albeit on a smaller scale äóñ highlighting local events, covering the minutiae of neighborhood politics, and celebrating the work of local artists, innovators, and citizens. Unfortunately, the internet has made the last fifteen years very challenging for the institutions that do this work äóñ first and foremost, city newspapers. For more than a decade, pressure from digital competition has forced these once-mighty institutions to shrink steadily äóñ and while a few papers with national reach have begun reversing the trend, thereäó»s been no such turnaround for regional and local papers.
Thatäó»s worrisome for Kristen Hare, who reports on local innovation in the news business for the Poynter Institute. Poynter, perched just across the street from USF-St. Pete, is one of Pinellas Countyäó»s most important institutions, though itäó»s less known locally than it should be. On a weekly basis, journalists from across the country gather there to learn more about their craft, and Poynter also owns the company that publishes the Tampa Bay Times.
Reporters at the Times, Hare says, are exemplars of why local journalism remains vital to a thriving community. In the anxious period before Hurricane Irmaäó»s near-miss of the Bay, Times journalists bunkered down with the paperäó»s printing press, while (ironically) using Facebook and other online tools to provide up-to-the minute information on the evolving situation. Theyäó»ve also produced hard-hitting investigative work, such as the Failure Factories series on local schools, that have made life here better for tens of thousands. That series also, it should be noted, won the Times one of the six Pulitzer Prizes it has garnered in the last decade.
A New York Times reporter canäó»t do that sort of work, says Hare. äóìJournalists from national and international outlets parachute in [during emergencies],äó she says. äóìWhat theyäó»re lacking is context and contacts.äó
But even with all those Pulitzers, the Times has been struggling to adjust to the new economic reality of the digital age. Online revenue hasnäó»t grown quickly enough to cover declining print ad sales, and between 2006 and 2015, its reporting staff was cut in half.
To try and reverse that trend, publishers are furiously experimenting with their business models, and entirely new organizations are experimenting with new models. äóìWhat Iäó»ve seen,äó says Hare, is that äóìin all the places the legacy media have shrunk, new services have surfaced.äó
In fact, she cites another Florida publication as a good example äóñ Miamiäó»s The New Tropic. Its frontpage looks a bit like that of an old-school alt-weekly, featuring local politics, neighborhood guides, events, and bar reviews. But under the hood, itäó»s a much different beast. In one of the founderäó»s words, äóìWe have a growing business model that eschews traditional advertising and the breathless hunt for pageviews in favor of creative storytelling, audience insights, and engagement with real people.
To translate that a bit: instead of relying on ads from local restaurants, The New Tropic and its Seattle sister publication, The EverGrey, are part of what is essentially an advertising agency called Whereby.us. They partner with companies like Lyft or agencies like Miami-Dadeäó»s Department of Transportation to create what are, in essence, immersive, locally-targeted advertisements.
This use of äóìsponsored contentäó or äóìadvertorialsäó (a mix of advertising and editorial content) is one of several new approaches to funding media that have emerged from the crash of print advertising. Tampa Bayäó»s own 83 Degrees Media, which provides an important window on changing neighborhoods across the Bay in partnership with developers and agencies, is one example. So is what youäó»re reading right now: Creative Pinellas is funded in part by local tourism boards.
But that model canäó»t fill all the gaps created by the decline of traditional newspapers. Other approaches Hare cites include pursuing nonprofit funding, asking locals for donations, expanding into the events business, and selling merchandise. Almost all of those approaches involve appeals to readersäó» sense of place äóñ for instance, Hare says that the merchandise that performs best for news organizations plays up the locale, not the newsroomäó»s brand.
In addition to the Times, Tampa Bay is home to two other organizations that have, at least for now, forged paths through the chaos. Creative Loafing has managed to stay afloat even as alt-weeklies like it have folded across the country, in part by producing events like this weekäó»s Slider Showdown. Those events celebrate our cityäó»s creativity, bring locals together (because whatäó»s more important to forging communities than food), and help CL produce fine writing about local culture (including a good bit of work by yours truly).
Then thereäó»s WMNF, the eclectic, local-centric music and news station based in Seminole Heights. Area phenom Selwyn BirchwoodŒæhas cited the station as one reason he found Tampa such a welcoming home for his music, and WMNF has relied largely on listener donations for decades. More and more local-centric organizations are rediscovering that model, including the award-winning California news site Berkleyside.
And innovation goes beyond funding sources. Hare says that as theyäó»ve had to work with fewer resources, local news outlets are focusing on what theyäó»ve always done best äóñ bringing people together by telling stories that are important, or gripping, or both. Theyäó»re learning more about who their readers are, and how to engage them. Theyäó»re also discovering, at least in some cases, that the stories that grip their local audiences now have a chance to attract eyeballs from much further afield.
Even given all the possibilities theyäó»re exploring, thereäó»s no guarantee that vital institutions like the Times can save themselves, much less bring back their heyday. äóìNewsrooms need some runway to make this work,äó as Hare puts it äóñ and unfortunately, weäó»ve already seen many of them run out of time. Across the U.S., and internationally, hundreds of local papers have folded up shop.
That makes it harder for smaller towns and cities to have important conversations about their futures, which were long driven by local columnists and editorial boards. It also, not incidentally, makes life harder for the aspiring writers who once found their first toehold in a local paper äóñ some of todayäó»s most renowned novelists, TV creators, and cultural critics got their start as reporters.
Surveying that landscape, Tampa Bay residents should be thankful that theyäó»ve got as much as they do äóñ a reduced but still creatively thriving newspaper, an alt-weekly able to promote local arts, and smaller outlets experimenting with new models. What the future holds is still uncertain, but recognizing the importance of local news is the first step towards keeping it alive äóñ and, maybe, helping it thrive again.

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