Thanks to COVID-19, local news will never be the same. And it shouldn’t be
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our routines, transformed our social interactions and redefined our relationships. Yet, as odd as it sounds, we’ll likely come to appreciate some of the changes this crisis wrought. Panic has a knack for dislodging lethargy.
In local news, this lethargy — in the form of a steadily declining but still significant ad base — was dislodged in sudden, brutal fashion, leading to the shuttering of hundreds of publications and the layoffs or furloughs of thousands of journalists. COVID-19 is the proverbial heart attack that needs to scare journalism straight. It’s time to stop tweeting about how terrible it’d be for there to be no local news and do something to prevent that from happening.
As crazy as it sounds to say, there’s never been a better time for that transformation. Because COVID-19 is exactly the kind of story local news should rebuild around. Rarely have people needed and desired quality local news more than today. Taking advantage of that will require major and permanent changes to how we operate. As the sage philosopher Mike Ehrmantraut once said, this is no time for half measures.
So what does a post-COVID local newsroom need to do differently? Here are my recommendations and, for each, one significant immediate action you can take to get started.
Collaborate — even with your rivals
An honest assessment of your newsroom will surely show you can’t cover anything near what you once did. (If you think you can, you may be suffering from coverage combover syndrome). There’s also an approximately 100 percent chance another newsroom is strong in areas you’re not. Work with those newsrooms. The state of the local news business is too dire for the old competitive fires to melt away any chance of collaboration. Readers don’t care about our internecine battles; we have to stop caring, too. The future has to be collaborative.
How to get started? Contact your counterpart at your biggest competitor and schedule a call. If you’re reading this and already shaking your head, spoiler alert: You should stop reading now.
Go all-local on digital
The best brands focus relentlessly on developing their core at the expense of everything else. Yet local news brands continue to spend a lot of digital pixel space on national and international news that’s available, well, everywhere. Why waste staff time producing digital content that doesn’t differentiate you and dilutes what makes you unique. Your advantage is your community. Focus on its needs — always. And don’t use the need for page views as an excuse. We’re now in a reader revenue world; page views are the emptiest of calories in any digital revenue diet.
How to get started? Run a weeklong experiment where all content on your website is local, with national or international stories appearing only if there’s a direct tie to your community, Then see how the audience reacts. And don’t use what I like to call Newsroom Complaint Math. A handful of email complaints does not constitute a reader revolt. Your overall metrics should carry more weight than any individual.
Do fewer things, and do them better
I’ve used the roulette table metaphor before, but I’ll repeat it: Stop trying to put one chip down on every beat, and stack the chips on the things you do best and give you the best opportunity to grow reader revenue. Then attack those things and give up on those others do better. (And, of course, collaborate with them).
How to get started? Hold a strategy meeting that would have three goals:
- to identify, depending on newsroom size, the one to five most distinctive things you do; and
- discuss how you’ll reallocate resources to increase the effort put toward those core areas; and
- agree on a plan to start phasing out products, beats or features that aren’t core.
Meeting all three of these goals is crucial, because a stern, sober discussion without actual decisions is symbolic innovation at its finest.
Connect directly with your audience
In local news, readers are quickly becoming our primary benefactors. So we need to give them the same time and attention we give to our largest advertisers or funders. Our customers are our partners, not just commenters or email subscribers. Much progress has been made here, but we still have a long way to go.
How to get started? Create a community board for your newsroom — made up entirely of people you don’t know. This board isn’t for newsmakers or fellow journalists; it’s for regular consumers of your work whose input you solicit during discussions about overall strategy, coverage plans and more.
Memo to local news orgs: Please stop the corporate-speak when it comes to your own businesses. No one believes you laid off 10 people as part of some secret master transformational plan. You did it because you couldn’t afford to pay those people. It does no one any good to dance around the truth, especially with the same readers you’ll be leaning on to rebuild your business.
How to get started? Write and publish a story in the coming weeks that explains the secular changes to your business, and explains why the revenue burden is moving to the reader. And don’t connect that story to any immediate staffing or pricing change. Just explain the situation. You will be able to cash in on that transparency down the road.
Ditch the institutional tone and get personal
Yes, there are lots of stories where the traditional journalistic tone is necessary to avoid being viewed as biased, insensitive or snarky. But there are plenty of stories where a more personal tone would work. Newsletters are the perfect sandbox, since they come into our most personal digital space: our e-mail. The accompanying voice should reflect that intimacy.
How to get started? Set a goal every day of using the words “we” or “us” or “you” in copy at least three times. It’s not hard. For example, if you aggregate COVID-19 testing locations, which of these headlines do you think would better appeal to a consumer?
COVID-19 testing locations announced
Here are all the places you can go to get tested for COVID
Similarly, if you solicited COVID-related life hacks from your readers, which of these sounds better?
The best COVID life hacks, according to readers
We asked for your best COVID-related life hacks. Here’s what you told us.
I have been beating this drum for years, so I won’t repeat my arguments in full. But I’ll just say it again: Your job is to satisfy the needs of your readers, not to soothe newsroom egos. If there is content out there that would benefit your readers, not linking to it is a journalistic failure and a business one, since poorly served readers don’t become subscribers. If there’s one permanent truth in journalism, it’s that someone will always have a story you wish you had. And that’s only going to happen more as local media gets more democratized. The larger players are getting smaller, and smaller niche players are multiplying. Don’t close your doors to that ecosystem, or else you might be soon be closing your own.
How to get started? Create a section of your home page — and not all the way at the bottom — where you include 4-5 direct links to stories from other sites that your audience would benefit from. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it, and they’ll come back.
Make your stories work harder for you
We focus so much on how many stories we produce on a given day that we often forget about another key factor: a story’s shelf life. A story that is read 1,000 times a day for a month is far more impactful than one read 5,000 times in one day before being overtaken by events. COVID-19 has created dozens of opportunities for long-fuse stories: lists of restaurants doing takeout, lists of jobs considered essential, aggregation of remote schooling policies by county, maps of testing locations, etc. These are resources that will matter for months, not hours. The routine crime story has the shelf life of an open can of tuna; are they really worth doing?
How to get started? In story meetings, introduce story shelf life as a factor in determining which stories are pursued and which are not. And make sure you’re doing at least one story per day that has a shelf life of a week or longer.
Be great, but don’t be sensational
Gallup’s numbers on media trust are not pretty. But according to a 2019 Knight Foundation-Gallup report, “more Americans trust local news than national news: 45% of Americans trust reporting by local news organizations ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot,’ compared to 31% for national news organizations.”
Those local numbers aren’t great, but that data should disabuse anyone of the notion that it’d be a good idea to emulate the 24/7 cable networks that have separated us ideologically and divided us culturally. So don’t get too focused on the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary. Be steady, be trustworthy and be personal. But don’t be CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. It won’t work in a tight geographic community.
How to get started? Cut one story from your story budget every day that screams “routine crime story” and replace it with a more useful piece that appeals to a larger swath of your audience. I’m not saying don’t cover crime; I’m suggesting raising the bar for when you cover crime and replacing that newfound bandwidth with broader-appeal stories.
Stop talking about the past
No one cares about the good old days anymore. Even those of us who lived through some of them are exhausted by tales of huge newsrooms, huge profit margins and lavish expense budgets. It does us no good to relive the past. Time was already our enemy; we have none left to waste on nostalgia.
How to get started? Discourage the use of the following phrases from your newsroom:
- “We’ve never done that before.”
- “We tried that once, and it didn’t work.”
- “That new thing we launched yesterday isn’t working.”
- “That seems risky.”
To survive, risk must be an essential part of every newsroom culture. Our longstanding aversion to risk has done nothing but increase the overall peril we face. If you don’t think this pandemic has been cruel to local media, check out this story that lists the many sites where COVID provided the final nail in the proverbial coffin. That story is two months old. Since then, many others have joined this sad list.
COVID-19 hasn’t just been disruptive for local news; it’s been destructive. It has laid bare the insanity of what was long our primary digital business model, one where we can simultaneously see our audience skyrocket and our revenue go off a cliff. But it’s also served as the clearest possible reminder that local news is crucially important to our communities.
We will come out of this pandemic with far less local news available than before. Whether that decline continues is largely up to us. But we can’t afford to waste any more opportunities.