Newsroom resources are stretched. News deserts expand. Local community information is patchy and hard to find. This perfect storm of local journalism challenges may prove a catalyst for change, and at the eye of it is data. Reliable, comprehensive, updated data.
Last month we attended the US Local Media Association's first post pandemic conference in Chicago. It was very energizing hanging out with 200+ people whose mission it is to create the best possible local journalism in their communities. What was even more uplifting was that every single one of the dozen small and medium sized local publishers we had meetings with are actively looking at how they can combine data and automated content production to provide more readers with more stories.
In parallel to the emerging use of local data to create more relevant content, there are early signs of another shift in local journalism. Simply put it's a shift away from a mindset of reporting about communities, to one where we create journalism for them with a focus on inclusivity and agency. Like the Bloomfield Info Project, a public service journalism lab in New Jersey, which identifies information gaps around things like food distributions, free dental clinics for children and state aid for undocumented immigrants. Their journalism is not about publishing articles, but about providing local people with information that helps them in their lives.
This is all happening against a backdrop of, at best, stretched resources in local newsrooms, or, at worst, their actual disappearance from many towns. Recent research by the Charitable Journalism Project in the UK, shows that local Facebook groups, rather than the local paper, are now the default source of local information for many people.
Taking a step back, it would be useful to consider what local publishers actually do, and why. The terms "news" and "journalism" aren't interchangeable. Staying updated – consuming news – is just one of many user needs (described in the BBCs User Needs model). Local journalism can be useful and valuable to readers in many ways. Many of them – and this is my point – have data at the heart. I want to mention here the excellent research done by the British journalist Shirish Kulkarni (partly as part of the 2021 JournalismAI Collab Challenges) around News Storytelling through Modular Journalism, which indicates that people really value being able to easily access the data and facts of a story.
So what value(s) can local publishers create through data?
Scale. With data as a base, it's possible for newsrooms to produce lots of hyperlocal stories without the need for extra manual resources. A great example of this is Crosstown, a neighbourhood newsletter project in Los Angeles, which collects data on things like traffic, crime, COVID-19 cases and building permits and publish them collated into newsletters. "One journalist can create 10, 100, 110, or even more newsletters, each with unique information about a different neighborhood. Everyone gets coverage, but the costs don’t rise," notes editor Gabriel Kahn in a recent blog about the project.
The same logic is used by local publishers like McClatchy, who publish automated content based on local data to provide readers with comprehensive coverage on e g high school sports and real estate sales across all communities in a publishing area – information the newsrooms don't have the manpower to cover. “We want our journalists to produce journalism, not track down information. They should focus on what they are skilled to do,” says McClatchy VP Audience Growth & Content Monetization Cynthia DuBose.
Inclusivity. In Sweden, most local media groups publish automated content based on local sports data, which means they are able to report on all matches of all divisions of all local sports. This gives many more individuals in local communities – teams, players, coaches and fans – a stake in the sports reporting. Across the border in Norway, regional title Bergens Tidende are a year into publishing automated summaries based on the annual reports of all local companies with a turnover of more than €300,000. Says project lead Jan Stian Vold: "The fact that we now have easy access to the results of all local companies mean we cover many we hadn't previously ever written about. More people are included in our business journalism."
There's an opportunity here – at the intersection of data, the need for reliable local information and a more inclusive local journalism, which, coupled with the challenge of stretched newsroom resources may just herald a new era in local publishing.