In 2016, the world witnessed a dramatic political shift as Brexit in the United Kingdom, followed by the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, revealed fissures in the modern democratic process.
The emergence of social and digital media as a way to produce, consume and share news was a significant contributing factor to both these events.
Platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter have helped facilitate the spread of “fake news,” which may have unduly influenced the democratic process.
These global events serve as a case study, or perhaps even a warning, about the central role a healthy news ecosystem plays in a functioning democracy. The state of news is under pressure from multiple forces that include digital disruption, the decline of advertising dollars, increased media concentration and an increasingly fragmented audience.
Nowhere are these pressures more keenly felt than in local and community news.
Research into local news shows that it plays a vital role in the health of communities and in a healthy public sphere, especially when it comes to charitable giving, increased turnout in local elections, sharing community stories to enhance social cohesion and strengthening local civic culture.
Despite its benefits to communities, however, the availability of local news is inconsistent, if not scarce, across North America.
In the U.S., for example, lower-income communities tend to have less access to local news than their higher-income counterparts. Similarly, in Canada, research has shown that news about key election races is available unevenly across the country.
Civic reporting doesn’t go viral
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are often seen as effective ways to gather and distribute news as well as to reach new audiences. While social media technology can help shed light on some of the pressing issues of local news, and can also provide low-cost, high-impact ways for local news outlets to share information, it may be unwise to put too much faith in them.
In fact, research shows that only certain types of information spread online. Civic reporting, like coverage of town council meetings or budget briefings, are often drowned out by global and national headlines, as well as emotionally-charged and celebrity-driven news. While these preferences reflect previous analog habits to some extent, audiences’ increasing reliance on algorithms and recommendations has led to a deluge of such content, effectively drowning out the weaker signals from local news.
So, we ask, what is the way forward?
We put together a multi-media publication on local news to explore the changing role of local news in our current media environment and beyond.
Bringing together work from a variety of journalism scholars and practitioners at universities in Canada and beyond, we learned that the future of local news can be understood first by looking at the value of local news, then by considering the challenges facing local news today, then finally in understanding the role of technology in the current and future state of local news.
Local news values
The tremendous value of local news can be seen in work by Ryerson University journalism professor Joyce Smith. Looking at the ties between local news and charitable giving, Smith’s work shows how local news can build community cohesion through the act of community giving.
Similarly, work by journalism instructors Tyler Nagel from SAIT Polytechnic Institute and Alycia Mutual from the University of Northern British Columbia about the coverage of the first cruise ship to go through the Northwest Passage demonstrates the role of local news via a case study in northern Canada. Their research showed that Northern communities are lacking local and public media sources and often rely on southern media to cover stories in their communities.
Finally, Carrie Buchanan’s work out of John Carroll University shows that independent, non-profit publications tend to publish the largest number of locally relevant stories in their communities, underscoring the need for alternate non-commercial funding models for local journalism.
Local news challenges
Despite its value, local news faces some tremendous challenges. For example, investigating the changing and complex nature of the local news audience, Lenka Waschková Císařová and her team from Masaryk University debunk the myth that local news audiences are declining due to lack of interest. Through their study of Czech local news audiences, they discovered that while few Czech adults consume local news, it may be partly related to the availability of local news across platforms.
Local news availability is truly under threat around the world. Marc Edge from University Canada West suggests that Canadian regulators have not done enough to curb anti-competitive behaviour by Canadian newspaper chains and that readers who now have fewer news sources to choose from are paying the price.
Phillip Napoli’s team at Rutgers University notes significant differences in local news availability in different regions of the United States. The Rutgers analysis suggests that while some communities may be able to continue under current models of financing, advertising and audience availability, others will need to find creative ways to remain viable.
Local news and technology
Technology may be an additional contributing factor to the decline of local news availability. However, it also offers some innovative solutions.
The first author of this piece, Jaigris Hodson, did research at Royal Roads University to examine whether the popular social media platform Twitter can pick up the slack in election coverage when a local newspaper is shut down. She found that topics that trend on Twitter tend to be national rather than local or hyper-local in scope. This research adds to a growing number of studies of social media that suggest it cannot by itself make up for declining traditional sources of local news.
Despite this, there is promise in the use of technology to understand the state of local news. Claus Rinner’s team at Ryerson University combined geographic information systems and news content analysis in a new method for understanding patterns of local news coverage.
April Lindgren from Ryerson University and Jon Corbett from UBC showed how participatory mapping can be used to track changes to local news outlets. Finally, work by the second author of this piece, Asmaa Malik, along with Gavin Adamson at Ryerson University, shows the potential for what’s known as natural language processing to help local news audiences and journalists assess news quality. This type of technological initiative is much needed in an era of fake news.
A future bound with our own
Taken all together, the research shows that the future of local news is sobering but not without some measure of hope. By illuminating both the values and challenges besetting local journalism, we can re-imagine a future for local news where some of these challenges may be addressed more clearly.
Perhaps new business models, such as entrepreneurship, can offer one way to help fill a gap that has been left by the old-media monopoly model.
At Ryerson University, for example, journalism-related startups are developing innovative tools and services to serve their communities with news via the Digital News Innovation Challenge.
Local news will not survive if it tries to simply put old wine into new bottles. Instead, local news producers must create news that resonates with their communities. The crowd-sourcing technologies developed by Lindgren and Corbett and the mapping tool created by Rinner’s team may lead to more precise, targeted efforts to address the needs of diverse local news audiences.
At the very least, they encourage us to think outside the box and remember that the audience needs to be attended to before they are ready to pay attention.
Finally, we must remember that local news can be more meaningful to communities when those who deliver it are part of the fabric of that community.
Smith’s work on charitable giving showed this, as did Buchanan’s work on independent hyper-local media. A local news organization run by a faceless national corporation will perhaps not be able to garner the support of a community the way a local news outlet can. For this reason, we are encouraged to reflect on the right scale for local news. Small may very well be the new big when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of local and community news over time.
Local news availability impacts each of us in all of our communities. The future of local news is tightly bound with our own as we continue to face the political and economic uncertainties of our times.
This piece is a modified version of the Editors’ Note from our recent publication: The Future of Local News: Research and Reflections, accessible at futureoflocalnews.org