Local news is forever changed – and that’s okay, say researchers

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

Staff reporter

Local news is important, but it is far from perfect, says the lead researcher for the U.S. Media Deserts Project.

Speaking to a recent Ryerson University conference on the future of local journalism, Ohio University professor Michelle Ferrier said it’s time to focus the local news debate on people whose stories have traditionally been ignored or misinterpreted.

When Melanin Monroe –the sister of a Black man shot by a security guard in Ferguson, Missouri in March 2017– tweeted a photo of her brother, Ferrier took note. “This is our brother that was shot in Ferguson today,” Monroe wrote. “24-year-old, goes by the name Luh Jay Jay. Before the media puts out a photo of him.” Ferrier, who is her university’s associate dean of innovation, research/creative activity and graduate studies, used this example to show that not everyone feels “well represented” by the media, and cited it as evidence of the “damage that journalists themselves have done” to erode the trust of racialized communities in America.

“For some communities, it’s not going back to some golden age of journalism at the local level,” Ferrier said.

“For many rural communities and communities of colour, journalists are equivalent to the police, viewed with suspicion, where drive-by journalism is committed upon populations, where they’re considered zoo stories.”

Ferrier, the president of Journalism that Matters, is working on an ongoing project that aims to identify media deserts—geographic areas with no access to current local news and information. So far she has mapped newspaper circulation by ZIP code with a view to discovering gaps in coverage throughout the U.S. The next step will be to map hyperlocal coverage.

Ferrier said she wants to begin a new conversation about local news, one where journalists build authentic relationships and help the community see itself: “First and foremost we need to repair the trust that has been breached.”

Ferrier was part of the panel Understanding Local Journalism: An Overview, along with Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon, who suggested a local-news golden age never really existed, describing the nostalgia for one as a “fool’s errand.”

Radcliffe and Ferrier were joined by April Lindgren, associate professor at Ryerson School of Journalism, Colette Brin, director of the Centre for Media Studies at Université Laval, and moderator Jaigris Hodson, assistant professor and program head of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University.

“Local news needs to reinvent and reinvigorate itself. It’s not going to be what it once was,” said Radcliffe, who is also a research fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

His data comparing local news ecosystems in the U.S. and the U.K. show huge reductions in newsroom staff, boots-on-the-ground reporting, and advertising revenues across the board. More than 20,000 journalism jobs have been lost in the U.S. alone, said Radcliffe, and most of those aren’t coming back.

But to reinvent local news means knowing what it means.

“The definition of local is a real challenge for us researchers and also for policy-makers because it’s highly personal,” Radcliffe said.

“Everyone in this room would define local in a very different way.”

For example, he pointed out, the state of Oregon—population four million—is geographically bigger than the whole of the U.K.: “I work with people who might think that Oregon news is local news where that would be national in the U.K.”

Despite research challenges, Radcliffe insisted there are “very valid reasons for optimism.” There’s a chance to repair the breach of trust Ferrier spoke of, he argued, through innovations in storytelling, and through recognizing that “we now have access to tools which allow us to be more engaged, closer to our audience, and measure impact in a way that we never previously could.”

Canadian researchers are also trying to understand the challenges faced by local news media and how to take action in cases where communities are underserved. April Lindgren, lead investigator for the Local News Research Project, said the local news landscape in Canada “isn’t a pretty sight.” She called the growing awareness of the troubled local news landscape an “awakening” that has “coincided with the realization that we actually don’t know a lot about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Lindgren is investigating local news poverty—a phenomenon where local news has failed to meet community needs—through research projects such as a study that measured local news reporting on local races for MPs in eight communities during the 2015 federal election. Working with Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia she has also created a crowd-sourced map that tracks local news media closures, mergers, and openings across the country. The map has identified nearly 200 media outlet closures in 150 communities since 2008.

“Increasingly in Canada policymakers and others are raising concerns about what’s going on,” she said.

Citing non-existent, flawed or incomplete data sets that make it difficult for researchers to do their work, Brin said lack of data about the local news landscape is also an issue in Quebec.

“We talk about local news poverty, we could also be talking about local news research poverty,” she said.

To know what’s happening on the ground is key to understanding what, if anything, to do about it, said Lindgren. Her team is developing a diagnostic checklist of news poverty risk factors—what Lindgren called a “shortcut to determine if a place is at risk.” Factors such as income, population and education are among the variables that will be investigated for possible inclusion on the list.

Lindgren said the work of the Local News Research Project is an attempt to address a problem identified by Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck during his testimony before the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee during its 2016 hearings about the state of local news.

”When it comes to changes in the Canadian media landscape,” she said, “there are, as he (Winseck) put it, a lot of opinions and little data to act upon.”