Hard to believe it’s been nearly 23 years since this journalist, at age 24, became an entrepreneur and launched a monthly publication.
My dream for the San Antonio Scene was ambitious: to provide readers with a wide array of local news with alternative weekly-style writing and visuals.
What happened to the Scene? The creative part was fun and relatively easy enough, but selling advertising was essentially quantum physics for me. The experiment lasted roughly one year.
I’m proud of our efforts to create a news magazine right when the internet was changing, well, practically everything, including the news industry.
It’s no secret that traditional print news has been struggling for years, especially media outlets that cover cities big and small, rural areas and swaths of underserved neighborhoods.
According to a 2020 report from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, 2,100-plus local U.S. newspapers, print and online, have disappeared over the past 15 years. In that time, half the number of journalists nationwide have lost their jobs.
While smaller news outlets continue to struggle to find viable business models, many publications have become nonprofits while larger media-centric companies such as McClatchy try to build news organizations led by local reporters and photographers who are invested in their communities.
An all-virtual version of the South by Southwest conference, held March 16-20, offered some panel discussions about the news industry.
Zahira Torres, senior editor of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune’s investigative reporting initiative, was part of the panel “The Fight for Local News.”
She previously ran the El Paso Times newsroom, which at one time had as many as 100-plus staffers. That newsroom now has fewer than 20 reporters and photographers.
This, Torres said, makes it a challenge to cover a population of more than 800,000 people and an area ripe with vital issues, such as immigration and cross-border commerce.
“As we look at models that are focused more on being online, we have to balance how to bring in new, engaged readers while not losing all of the people who sustained you all of this time,” Torres added.
A rising number of hedge-fund and private-equity owners of publications have profited from their acquisitions by cutting costs, notably by downsizing newsrooms.
Many shrinking newsrooms have managed to redirect some of their efforts via regional investigations, but only in some subjects, and not others. Meanwhile, rural areas are going practically uncovered.
But in some instances, according to Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan, a publication’s owner offers hope to employees and readers by investing in that press outlet and seeing it as a force for public good and promoting a well-informed democracy.
The American Press Institute in 2020 organized Table Stakes, a yearlong program involving publishers and department managers of five legacy newspapers and CalMatters, an online nonprofit, nonpartisan outlet similar to the Texas Tribune. The L.A. Times also took part.
Table Stakes trained these newsrooms to adapt strategies and practices to deepen engagement with existing audiences, reach and serve new audiences, develop new revenue opportunities, and demonstrate their value that’s beyond a financial bottom line.
“We learned so much from the Table Stakes process, about understanding your audience better, serving segmented audiences in the way they need to be served, putting their information needs first,” Chan said.
Adaptation is a key for legacy and newer local news outlets toward sustainability. Larger, national organizations, too, are investing in hyperlocal reporting.
Virginia-based Axios online news organization continues to distribute short national news stories via email newsletter. But Axios recently launched coverage in five U.S. cities, hiring multimedia journalists in those communities.
In the SXSW panel, “Local News’ Next Wave,” Axios executive editor Sara Goo said her company thinks there’s a chance to grow though a mix of national and local advertising.
“Journalistically, we see an opportunity to meet the audience in a more audience-first way,” she added.
Another online outlet, Patch, publishes hyperlocal content from reporters based in hundreds of U.S. communities. Some of those stories cover national headlines, but others are more oriented for local readers.
Patch has more than 130 full-time journalists with plans to add another 35 to 40 full-time reporters this year. Patch President Warren St. John said his company places a premium on quickly publishing relevant, unbiased local news and information.
St. John is optimistic about the future of local news: “It’s the amount of experimentation around new models, adaptation of how deliver the news, and meeting end-users and consumers where they are on their devices.”
There’s glimmers of hope here and there. A new not-for-profit partnership, Colorado News Conservancy, recently acquired Colorado Community Media (CCM), a family-owned group of 24 community newspapers and websites and two shoppers in the Centennial State. This is a significant investment in Colorado’s hyperlocal community news outlets.
Regardless of the vehicle — print or online — news outlets show their importance with objective, timely reporting on the issues and happenings that matter the most to people, especially if it directly affects them, their livelihood, their community.
When Winter Storm Uri sent Texas into a deep freeze in February, eventually killing more than 100 of our neighbors and loved ones, the Texas Tribune partnered with the Austin American-Statesman to operate a text message-based product to give Texans the crucial information they immediately needed, be it length of power or water outages or when gas stations and grocery stores would get resupplied.
Whether it’s “just another day” or a time of crisis, publications such as LOCAL Community News will be there for you, delivering timely, critical and well-sourced information.
That’s the true value of local news.