Bad news for local news

Above: Illustration by robuart/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1259 for July 23, 2020

There’s a lot of talk around the idea of local news in the US, much of it focused on the grim reality that it’s dying even as the need intimate, community-level reporting with authority becomes even more important.

The Poynter Institute tracked the collapse of 50 local newsrooms in the US during the Covid-19 crisis alone .

In 2019 I joined the Civil project, navigating digital hoops to participate in a journalism project adamantly tied conceptually to the blockchain and tokens.

In the end, it wasn’t clear what Civil was doing. The only clear effort that the company made at building a conduit for the financing of journalism came down to financial “boosts” for projects and stories.

A boost was a kind of community crowdfunding of journalism at the project or story level, but most of the boosts seem to come from within the Civil community itself instead of from the readers who would most clearly benefit from the coverage.

Successful Civil Boosts

Some early boosts for large ideas met or exceeded their financial goals, raising sums between US$450 and $1000.
The overwhelming majority of boosts, unfortunately, either failed to gain financial traction or raised insignificant sums.
All the projects posted for boosts four months ago have attracted no support.

That timeline coincides with the collapse of Civil and by early June, CEO Matthew Iles was writing the final post for Civil’s dream of a “moonshot mission to create a blockchain-based media platform for trustworthy journalism owned and operated by the public.”

The online blog/magazine/publisher Medium is working again to reinvent its model (seventh time and counting…), after destroying the prospects of at least a dozen publishers wooed to the platform with promises of support and smoother backend support.

Civil promised less, so its closure damaged less, but the withdrawal of another effort at journalism support is another dark ripple in the modern rapture that is reporting online.
In the Caribbean, the situation grows bleaker.

The second report on advertising revenue for media houses by Media InSite chronicled a year-over-year drop between May 2019 and 2020 ranging between 26.48 per cent in Guyana to 53.66 per cent in Barbados.Trinidad and Tobago sits in the middle of that revenue crater with a drop of 38.55 per cent.

Revenue online is gutted by a combination of competing Facebook ad placement efficiencies and reach and the nightmare of Google ads.

Those shortfalls are both caused and matched by drops in readership. Print alone charges for a physical product, but it’s a declining source of revenue.
The news gets worse for the far more popular online versions of most print publications.

Revenue online is gutted by a combination of competing Facebook ad placement efficiencies and reach and the nightmare of Google ads, which are great for advertisers but almost uniformly horrific for publishers.

This year I experimented with programmatic advertising from Auttomatic, the creators of WordPress. In the first six months of the year, I served as of this writing 65,535 ads. The revenue from that is US$3.65. That’s what monetizing means for niche-audience news sources online.

The result is a perfect storm for journalists, an abundance of readers who don’t want to pay, a dwindling resource of subscribers and advertisers migrating to programmatic advertising that’s proven hostile to online publishing and broadcasting, replacing dollars with pennies as income.

These are difficult times for the practice of journalism, but it’s even worse for many niche and audience focused branches of the craft.

Here in TT, we often think of our mainstream media as national, but our scope is really local and that reporting targets a network of communities offering an independent source of information.
In chasing the larger goal of being national, the vigorous attention needed to deep-dive local news has been lost.

In the first world, that loss is becoming more acute and deeply felt as coverage migrates from the street corner to big picture reporting that grows ever more homogenous.

Reporting is a lot like policing. When officers operate at a high institutional level and lose contact with the beat, a critical element of trust is lost and the value of the connection between the work and impact of its outcome is broken.

Fresh efforts at rethinking the news compact with the public are the business of the Local Media Association, which is creating an interesting model for reinvigorating street-level reporting.

Poynter and Neiman Labs are adding small newsroom training to reports on what is now a decade-long collapse of authoritative news resources.
Civil is gone, but the question of the evolving role of news media is still being vigorously cross-examined.

It’s time TT started its own reevaluation of the role of local journalism in the face of the forced evolution of journalistic practice.