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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 ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff reporter

Collaborations between newsrooms and community members could be key to saving local news, says an expert in journalism and community engagement.

Growing sustainable journalism models in areas that are underserved by  local news organizations is more complicated than aiding individual outlets, says Josh Stearns, associate director of the U.S.-based Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program. Instead, he said, stakeholders must find innovative ways to bring newsrooms and community members together to maintain local news.

“The health of local media used to be easily measured by the health of a few institutions,” Stearns said at a recent conference on the future of local journalism. “Today, we have to understand not just the health of individual organizations, but also the networks and relationships between them. We have to understand both the newsrooms and the ecosystems they are a part of.”

Stearns’ luncheon address at the conference, which was hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, focused on finding a framework for creating healthy local news ecosystems.

“The future of local news,” he said, “will be built not as a series of disconnected institutions, but as a network of connected and collaborative ones that, together, create a diverse, vibrant public square.”

While working with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 2014, Stearns and Molly de Aguiar created New Jersey’s Local News Lab to study interventions for struggling news ecosystems. They worked with six small New Jersey outlets – both online and print – to experiment with new strategies for community engagement, collaboration and financial sustainability.

After one year, all six participating newsrooms saw increases in web traffic and engagement and all developed at least one new revenue stream. Local journalists also ended up with better connections with citizens and fellow reporters thanks to the creation of collaboration hubs, the sharing of common training and support services among newsrooms, and new community engagement initiatives.

The Local News Lab, along with other organizations and universities, created new shared service programs including the Sales Academy, a program that offers newsrooms marketing and ad sales training, and an online list of legal questions and answers for New Jersey journalists.

“I think that a healthy news ecosystem is one that is cohesive, and a cohesive news ecosystem is one that balances the need for collaboration with the role of competition,” said Stearns.

Stearns found that shared services like legal networks and technology co-ops can help small newsrooms become more efficient and enable them to use each other’s strengths – from social media development to community event planning – to ensure that the entire news ecosystem thrives.

Collaboration also means working with community members who need local news to make informed decisions and have their voices heard, he added.

Free Press, for example – one of the Local News Lab’s newsroom participants – created the “News Voices New Jersey” to invite community members to meet with journalists and discuss local issues that mattered to them. Strategies included public forums, community advisory boards and events hosted by the newsroom.

Another Lab participant, the Media Mobilizing Project, created numerous community storytelling projects to give a voice to community members and issues often ignored by the media. One example of this was a video series about casino workers organizing and fighting against poor working standards.

“Right now the incentives to do community engagement work are up against the incentives for getting as many stories and bylines on a page as possible at any given time,” Stearns said in an interview before the conference. “But some news organizations are realizing that deep engagement with communities is fundamental to the sustainability of local news.”

While connecting with community members, many of the news organization participants found new ways to create readership incentives. For example, more than 500 people signed up to a loyalty card pilot program during Brick City Live’s first year with the Lab, and the Newark-based news blog used their initial revenue to create a sustainable app-based version of the program.

Most recently, the New Jersey legislature introduced a new bill that would allocate $100-million from the state budget to support public interest-media in the state. Free Press used the connections it had made with the community and other newsrooms to advocate  for this legislation.

Stearns, who joined Democracy Fund one year ago to take the experimental models into areas with compromised local news systems, said the project is  currently identifying three to five regions where its Ecosystem News Project will support local news innovation in ways similar to the approach used in  New Jersey.

The methods employed to address  New Jersey’s local news issues won’t work for every new region, he said, as all news ecosystems are different, but the framework created will help the organization collaborate and form a “deep partnership” with local stakeholders.

“We’re not going to be a national funder who swoops in and says, ‘Here’s how we fix the news,’” said Stearns. “We’re going to say, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned, here’s some resources – let’s work together.’”

Jessica Thom, assistant professor, at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. (Jasmine Bala)

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

While most Canadian millennials get their first taste of news via Facebook posts, Twitter shares and other social media, that is typically just the starting point when it comes to their news consumption habits, a new study suggests.

The study contradicts the commonly held belief that young people don’t go much beyond social media in their quest for news, says Jessica Thom, a Ryerson University School of Image Arts assistant professor and the author of the research. In fact, she said, many youth use social media as a gateway to mainstream news sites.

“They’re really reading the trending topics; they’re reading the title of the article that their friend has posted or shared,” Thom said in an interview. “They’re really getting kind of the bite-sized pieces of news from their social media, and then they either click on that article or they search that title and they find out more information through search engines.”

Participants in the research, which Thom did for her doctoral dissertation, said that after social media such as Facebook brought a news event or development to their attention, they would often use Google to seek out more information from a trusted mainstream news site.

“That is a very conscious decision that they make, to find a mainstream news outlet that they have some sort of understanding of or with,” Thom said. “It’s for the most part not things like blogs, live streams, Twitter or opinion comments on YouTube where they’re going to find out the facts about a news story.”

Thom’s investigation of how young people choose which news to consume and which news to believe involved focus groups, interviews and online diary-keeping. Participants were aged 18 to 29.

If young people weren’t interested in the topic of the story or didn’t think it was important, they normally didn’t go much further than the headline on social media, said Thom.

“That idea of importance was also something that was a little bit vague,” she said. “[It] can be something that’s important to them because they have a family member, a friend or a roommate that has some sort of affiliation to that story. They could be from that country; they could know someone who’s visited that country.”

Participants, she said, clearly understood that reading the news is a key part of being an informed citizen and participating in a democratic society. They demonstrated a “sophisticated approach to—and interest in—becoming informed citizens,” rather than a lazy or haphazard approach to news consumption, she wrote in her dissertation.

Thom noted, however, that young Canadians also “depend on sites and aggregators like Facebook, Snapchat and Google, as well as their friends and family, to funnel important or interesting news to them rather than spending time and mental energy sifting through thousands of news sites, blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, Snapchats, radio broadcasts and television news bulletins to find the most relevant news.”

The proliferation of fake news, she added, has “made judging the truthfulness and deception in news very challenging,” and this is something millennials have to think about when consuming online news.

When deciding what mainstream news outlet to visit and believe, Thom wrote that young Canadians use a mental checklist. It may include questions like: “Is the source credible? Have you used it in the past? Does it have a tradition? Is the language appropriate? Does the language sound like a professional journalist or does it sound like ‘Joe’s blog’? Is the spelling accurate? Is it more opinion-based or is it more fact-based?”

Study participants, she said, used literacy skills taught in their public school curriculums to determine which sources are the most trustworthy. Although participants pointed to mainstream and legacy media sources as credible, she noted that they generally didn’t believe or trust soft news stories, particularly those that were political.

The young people Thom spoke to indicated that a “breaking news story is instantly believable, but a political story is likely spun in some way,” she wrote, noting that they felt these stories could be more opinion-based and have a political bias.

“It was the difference between reading the facts and knowing the news story and being told an opinion about what that news story is.”

The lesson for news outlets, Thom said, is that they need to share news in a way that follows the gateway system if they want to target young Canadians.

“They not only can make their information easily accessible via social media so that the news can be encountered by them, but [they can] also make sure that it’s a brand that comes to be known [and trusted] by young people earlier in their lives so it becomes more of a habit to use them,” she said. “So, when they go about making a decision about what news they’re going to look at through a search engine, that can be one of the options. Because they know that brand – they know the news organization – that’s something that they’re going to come to trust.”

While this brand might not be a news outlet they use every day, millennials will come to have some sort of understanding and belief in the news outlet’s credibility. It “might be one that they’ve heard about [and see online], one that they know their parents watch at 6 p.m., or that they know that their grandparents have delivered everyday,” Thom said.

Thom said her research objective was to increase and add to the discussion of how people, specifically young Canadians, consume news.

“There’s a lack of dialogue about our news consumption in Canada. Not from journalists who are obviously very interested in this, but from our government, from our public institutions,” she said. “I don’t think that we actually have the numbers and studies that can back that stuff up in a Canadian context.

“The way that we get informed in a contemporary news landscape is something that we need to know a lot more about. Particularly [since] our next generation is going to be getting informed that way.”