Signs of the Bright Future for Local News

  • November 28, 2023
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Paul Matzko

The Wall Street Journal ran another article about the decline of the local newspaper in what has become its own, depressing sub‐​genre. It hits all the usual beats: an opening story of a failing local paper that illustrates broader industry struggles — in particular, the rise of “ghost newsrooms” that employ no professional journalists — and which prevent local news from holding governments and companies to account.

This is all true and sadly familiar. But tucked away towards the back of the piece is a fascinating, embedded story‐​within‐​the‐​story. If that buried story were foregrounded, it would provide a less routine — and much more hopeful — account of the state of the news industry. It’s about a phenomenon that I call the “new news,” and which is replacing the legacy local news industry.

Deep into the article, we are introduced to Vince Tweddell, a native of Henderson, Kentucky (population 29,781), who earlier this year started his own hyper‐​local news website covering topics from the opioid crisis (“All 14 overdose deaths through Sept. caused by fentanyl”) to renewable energy (“Standing on the edge of the future: Solar comes to Henderson County”). There is enough demand for what the Hendersonian publishes — daily articles on the website, a free monthly print edition, and an upcoming subscription newsletter — that this former adjunct community college writing professor has been able to quit his teaching job and focus on the news outlet full‐​time.

But Tweddell’s story falls below the metaphorical fold, as is the author’s note that there are “several other” promising news startups like it, including some with a habit of scooping legacy news outlets on breaking news.

Yet the takeaway at the top of the article is this:

In some places—including Henderson—startups have sprouted to cover the issues that no longer appear in the local paper’s pages, but not to a degree large enough to offset the decline of established news publications, the study said.

That’s it. Don’t get too hopeful, folks. Some places. Some startups. But “not to a degree large enough.” Honestly, not sure why we even bothered to mention them. After all, the study said so. Wait, really??

Turns out, if you read the study — by the ‘State of Local News” project out of Northwestern University — that’s a misrepresentation.

Now, you need to understand something about this project. For years it’s been tracking the closure of legacy local news outlets. It’s always made for grim reading, which had utility for legacy news outlets as they argued for various government bailouts.

But the project only just started publishing data on new news startups *this* year! And it turns out that when you look at gains and don’t just fixate on losses, this is what you get:

There are about 550 digital‐​only local news sites, many of which launched in the past decade, but they are mostly clustered in metro areas. In the past five years, the number of local digital startups has roughly equaled the number that shuttered.

In other words, we may have reached the nadir of the collapse of the traditional local news industry and are now replacing legacy newsrooms with new news startups at roughly a one‐​to‐​one ratio.

Even better, the new news outlets appear to be organized on a more sustainable footing with privately‐​sourced financing. Frequently, they’re run by former traditional journalists who find they can make a better income from their startups than they ever did working for legacy news outlets.

The startups are also independently owned at a higher rate than the shuffling newspaper conglomerates that are often run by hedge funds, which acquire legacy outlets, strip them down for parts, and leave behind “ghost newsrooms” reduced to begging for public subsidies rather than innovating to meet actual consumer demand. It’s zombie conglomerates running ghost newspapers.

Although, as the report notes, the new news revolution isn’t equally distributed. The startups are disproportionately clustered around larger towns and major metropolitan areas. And while that is a problem, it’s likely a temporary one. Think of the geographic distribution pattern of any product rollout, chain store expansion, or cultural innovation. They start from the population centers and radiate outward. Indeed, this was true for the early history of American newspapers, which began as reports on the comings and goings of merchants in harbor towns.

As I wrote in 2021, we should expect the pattern of new news startups to continue to percolate downward. It already has. It began a decade ago with journalists defecting from national outlets to start specialized publications reaching industry‐​specific audiences. It then expanded a few years ago to region‐​specific startups covering stories from mid‐​major cities like Charlotte, North Carolina that have hundreds of thousands of residents.

Now it’s arriving in county seat‐​type communities with tens of thousands of residents, like Vince Tweddell’s startup in Henderson, Kentucky. And soon we should expect similar startups — even operated on a part‐​time basis by those with deep, local knowledge — to sprout up in every town with at least a few thousand residents.

So the story‐​within‐​the‐​story is that a more sustainable, innovative, and often superior quality “new news” media is on the horizon. If you have an interest in improving local news coverage — watering the local news “deserts,” if you will — there hasn’t been a better time to invest in local news media startups in a generation. There will be growing pains; the geographic coverage will be unequal at first. But journalists no longer need to remain stuck in a 2010s doom‐​and‐​gloom mindset about the state of local news.

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