Best Route To Newspaper Resilience is Local, Local, Local

The recipe for newspaper resilience can be complicated.

But the most important ingredients remain local, local, local.

Local ownership.

Local commitment to serve as THE Community Forum.

And, a local economy that supports trusted journalism.

That’s my major takeaway from an interesting study of Iowa news-providers by a digital journalism professor at the University of Northern Iowa writing for the Center for Journalism & Liberty.

I had a chance to speak with Christopher R. Martin who found Iowa to be an excellent state to examine why some newspapers and news organizations are more resilient than others “at a time of financial distress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”

While his report notes a “presumably bleak” future for newspapers, Martin is encouraged as operators figure out solutions to the financial challenges.

Martin

“I’m trying to remain an optimist,” Martin said. “There’s always a need for journalism. Always a purpose for it.”

I recommend reading Martin’s 44-page report. FIND IT HERE. Let me know what you think. His study includes a special thanks to the Iowa Press Association which provided information.

What makes Martin’s report timely is that he acknowledges the many different business models being considered as print advertising declines across the industry and technology giants soak up a majority of the digital dollars.

Spoiler alert: Martin’s conclusion favors non-profit structures — at least for now.

We need to “rethink what happens with newspapers going forward,” he told me. “People want journalism but it’s difficult to pay for it.”

Martin selected eight news operations in Iowa to explore different structures. They range from metro and community daily newspapers to family- and privately- owned weeklies to employee-owned publications to regional operations to non-profit, online-only newsrooms that are supported by grants and donations.

The organizational variations then allowed him to establish these 10 “dimensions (that) contribute most to resiliency”:

  • Local ownership. “Local owners are more vested in the community and treat newspapers like a necessary asset, not a fungible one,” Martin writes.
  • Centrality of journalism to the business.
  • Nonprofit status.
  • Nonprofit funding support. His examples demonstrate a boon and a struggle.
  • Diversified business.
  • Commitment to community.
  • The health of the local economy.
  • Little or no reduction of newsroom staff. “Staffing cutbacks — including furloughs and layoffs — have done the most damage to the quality of journalism in the sample.”
  • Historic reputation and civic institution status. “The dimension of reputation is a bit like the Biblical passage about how no one is a prophet in their own land.”
  • Lack of competing local media.

In his concluding section, Martin offered two immediate solutions to consider:

  • Employee stock-ownership plans to maintain local ownership. Martin notes two in Iowa: Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. “ESOPs deserve more attention as an option for newspapers. They aren’t good at reviving failing newspapers (and it would be unfair to saddle employees with a losing investment), but they have been used more often when private ownership is coming to a close with non next-generation successor. Instead of a typical buyout or merger, ESOPs can be an option in sustaining local, community-oriented ownership.”
  • Postal subsidies to reduce expenses for small newspapers that use the Post Office to distribute their publications. Martin pays homage to the history of the Postal Act of 1792, which “helped make newspapers a flourishing part of the fabric of life in the United States.” He suggests newspapers of today should be “freely distributed by the U.S. Postal Service.”

In our phone discussion, I asked Martin if resilience was the same success-oriented path as Relevance.

Not necessary, he said, though they could be vital twin strategic objectives for newspapers.

If a newspaper is not relevant, readers are not going to pay for it, Martin said. ” Most resilient newspapers are most relevant to advertisers and readers.”

Thumbs up here.


Added context on the group publishing Martin’s study:

“The core mission of the Center for Journalism and Liberty is to ensure that the news media of the United States and our democratic allies is fully independent and robustly funded in the 21st century’s digital economy. The Center’s work is guided by the belief that government plays a fundamental role in structuring news media markets and business models to ensure that neither the state nor any one or few private actors control the words or actions of reporters, editors and publishers. The center focuses on policy solutions with regard to privacy, platforms, business models, and content integrity.”

—TAS

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