Currently viewing the tag: "Columbia Journalism Review"

January 30, 2018

By RHIANNA JACKSON-KELSO
Staff reporter

Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, gives a talk at the Ryerson School of Journalism. (Rhianna Jackson-Kelso)

The breakdown of trust between journalists and the public is due in large part to the decimation of local news, says Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Though subscription levels to the New York Times and Washington Post have spiked in the last 12 months, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s own audience is also roughly 50 per cent higher, smaller publications have not benefitted from the “Trump bump” and are still struggling, Pope said during a recent presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

“If you’re a newspaper writing about what time the library closes or […] what the sale is at the local store, that is a pretty intimate and, frankly, sort of unimpeachable relationship between the [news media] and its audience,” Pope said during his Jan. 16 talk titled “Watching the Watchdogs in 2018: Why media criticism matters now more than ever.”

With local news outlets struggling or shutting down, however, Pope says these intimate relationships have begun to dissolve.

“What’s happened is that a lot of that landscape has been taken away [due to] failed business models and a lack of any kind of digital strategy,” said Pope. “A lot of communities [are left with] no local newspaper and the national talking head[s] or national press that doesn’t really pay attention to what they’re doing.” In the absence of local journalism that reflects their concerns and communities, Pope said, citizens are left with the sense that news organizations aren’t interested in the issues that matter to them.

“The local level is where this [breakdown of trust] is going to be most effectively fixed, as opposed to trying to start at the national level and work our way down,” said Pope, who joined the Columbia Journalism Review as editor in September 2016 after jobs at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, and Straus News.

To rebuild trust between journalists and the public, Pope said, journalists must work harder than ever to be accurate in their reporting because “the margin for error is incredibly tiny.”

“We have to be so incredibly careful right now. […] Every mistake is amplified, every correction becomes a sort of meme,” said Pope. “Unfortunately, that is coming at a time when the resources, the editing ranks of a lot of news organizations, are cut to the bone.”

Journalists also need to go out and re-establish connections with their readers, said Pope, who pointed to a variety of trust-building experiments underway in the United States.

One such initiative is the Columbia Journalism Review’s upcoming “Trust Tour.” The tour will target “news deserts”—areas that are no longer covered by local news outlets, or where news coverage has shrunk dramatically. Face-to-face conversations between local editors and their readers will be facilitated by the Review in a bid to educate readers about how the news is curated, improve their understanding of what an editor’s job entails, and to help them put faces to bylines.

In keeping with its trust-building efforts, Pope said the Review is also in the process of redefining what kind of stories it wants to publish and in particular how it can make the journalistic process more transparent for readers.

“Our mandate is just much bigger [now],” says Pope. “When we think of ‘what is a CJR story?’ now, we think of [people in the newsroom], but we also think much more broadly” about how to include laypeople who are interested in learning about how journalists gather information and decide which stories to publish.

Local newsrooms in the United States, he added, are exploring a variety of other approaches to building audience trust. A recent Columbia Journalism Review article recounts efforts by the editor of a local newspaper, the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla in Washington State, to address reader complaints that it was publishing “fake news.” The strategy focuses on open discussion and direct responses to every complaint.

In another example, Pope cited the efforts of a small Pennsylvania newspaper—one that is embedded deep within “Trump country”—to connect with readers who were voicing criticism on Facebook about the paper’s news coverage. The editors initially invited these readers to visit the newsroom to see firsthand how the editorial staff made decisions and produced stories. The detractors failed to show up for the tour. They were, however, eventually persuaded to sit down with the editors for lunch and a discussion about the journalistic process—an initiative that led some readers to rethink their negative feelings about the paper’s coverage.

This combination of communication and education, Pope said, is crucial to re-establishing trust between the public and the press, and to rebuilding a healthy network of smaller, local news outlets. It will also be central to forging a culture of subscription-based news media, which he predicted is the way of the future for the industry.

“The dependence on subscriptions does change the nature of these news organizations,” Pope said. The attendant risk, he added, is that editors will feel obligated to cater to their paying subscribers and media partisanship will increase.

Pope downplayed the possibility that subscription-based news media might also be a problem for people who can’t afford subscription costs: “I don’t have a lot of patience for that,” he said, pointing out that many people are happy to pay for subscriptions to services like Netflix and Spotify. “There is a willingness to pay for [these things]. We just have to make news one of them.”

In addition to rebuilding trust between journalists and the public, Pope said navigating these new funding models for smaller news organizations will also be critical.

“You have a role to play in all this,” Pope told the audience made up mostly of journalism students. “You need to get out of your bubble and go out and do your reporting, [meet] new people, spend some time on their territory. There’s too much reporting, I think, that still goes on online, and I think there’s a lot more you can go out and do in person.”

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.

By GREGORY FURGALA
Staff Reporter

Across the United States, reporters and editors at local newspapers are working longer hours, in smaller newsrooms and with fewer opportunities for advancement.

They’re also optimistic about the future of local news, and their futures in it, a recent study in the Columbia Journalism Review has found.

Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study “Life at small-market newspapers: A survey of over 400 journalists,” says that optimism stems from the unique opportunities small markets afford local newspaper reporters, such as  covering under-reported stories and living in the community they work in.

“What’s often really unique to local organizations is the opportunity to bring people together, to actually bump into your readers,” says Radcliffe, “which gives a great opportunity for storytelling in a way that’s much harder to do in a major metropolitan—particularly in a large national publication.”.

He discussed his research on a panel about the economics of local news, joined by Nikki Usher Layser, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University; Nicole Blanchett Neheli, a professor of journalism at Sheridan College; and panel moderator Sherry Yu, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University.

For the study, Radcliffe and co-author Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, interviewed 60 industry experts, analyzed data from the Pew Research Center, the Engaging News Project, the American Society of News Editors’ Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey, amongst others, and created an online survey. A majority of the 420 journalists and editors who responded reported that, despite the documented challenges associated with working at a newspaper, they were still eager to embrace new digital tools and looked forward to the future of local news.

Local newspapers are often the only source of original reporting in town, Radcliffe says. Serving smaller markets provides both local newspapers and their reporters with unique opportunities they need to leverage to survive.

“Locality is a real asset,” says Radcliffe, “Both in terms of being able to tap into an audience for readership, and also in terms of potential revenue and local ad dollars.”

Local newspapers still aren’t spared from the general downward trend that’s taken hold of the newspaper industry, though. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2016, newspapers’ ad revenue suffered its steepest decline since 2009, and newsroom employment continued to fall. The only difference, Radcliffe says, is it happens at a slower pace in smaller markets.

Despite their optimism, reporters are still ultimately overburdened and under-resourced, and they’re still trying to do it all.

“You can do anything,” says Radcliffe, “But you can’t do everything.”

He suggests a less-is-more approach, saying reporters should limit the scope of their work, hone in on their strengths, and play to them.

Stepping away from the 24-hour news cycle could be a start, and it could even strengthen the newspapers reporters work for.

While speaking with reporters at the Seattle Times, Layser says she saw an “obsession” with updating stories online, an impulse prompted by a metrics-driven news environment—one story about a pitbull, she notes, was updated 24 times—and she says it might hurt newspapers in the long-run.

“Most people are coming to you on the web,” says Layser, “And all they’re seeing is a pitbull story instead of that great investigative feature that you actually do have.”

“This may, in turn, undermine your overall authority.”

Blanchett Neheli has seen that process play out at at the Metroland-owned Hamilton Spectator, where one digital team handles thespec.com, the Waterloo Region Record’s site and guelphmercury.com. At the spec.com and record.com, a mandate to get more pageviews can be at odds with local reporters tasked with providing local content to their readers. As a result, local news, which doesn’t always prompt a spike in traffic, can lose out to viral content online.

“At the Record, they really want to keep it local,” says Blanchett Neheli, “But they have to broaden the focus of local to get more pageviews.”

Competing goals are a source of friction, says Blanchett Neheli. Record editors call Hamilton wanting more local content on their website and complain that their readers don’t like what they’re seeing, but for the online team, “it’s about the metrics.”

The focus on up-to-the-second performance might be counterproductive in the long run, as well. While Blanchett Neheli was researching The Spectator, she found that local stories ultimately performed better than viral content in the long run. Moreover, she says, its print product, including classifieds, still generates about five times as much revenue as digital.

Despite ongoing problems, Blanchett Neheli says the journalists she spoke to are still eager to report.

“They’re doing great work. They’re very proud of the work. They’re very supportive of each other.”

While the way forward for local newspapers may not be clear, Radcliffe cautions against buying into the worst predictions about the death of local news.

“Too often, the doom and gloom narrative about the future of journalism, and in particular the future of newspapers stems from journalists themselves,” he says.

“If we keep telling audiences that our industry is dying and is on its last legs, then there’s risk of it becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.”