(Photo of newspapers by AbsolutVision via Unsplash)
For most of our country’s history, we never had to think much about how we got our facts.
For the entirety of the 20th century, journalism was robust, widespread and low-cost to the consumer. That’s because of one of the world’s longest-running, most-successful business models: the dual income of advertising-subscriber revenue that coalesced at a time when newspapers both created and distributed content.
The technology that allowed for truly national media came later and purchases happened locally, so hometown newspapers were some of the most influential, best-funded institutions in every city and state in the country.
That’s not true anymore, of course.
The adtech companies that were founded in a post-web world have changed this so dramatically that we still don’t understand the implications. It should be intuitive; Google, Facebook and the like invested so effectively in data and software that there is no local media company in the world that could ever compete. They won, fair and square.
Where once The Washington Post, The New York Times and The News Journal were very much in the same business, today national and local media form one of the foundational divides in understanding how we get our facts. The Post and Times are true global brands, with the web allowing them to serve the biggest audiences they’ve ever had with an array of strategies. They’re thriving. The News Journal, like its regional metro daily peers across the country, is on a death watch, as print advertising and subscriber revenue continue to fall, and online income cannot make up the difference (iconically this was called “trading analog dollars for digital dimes.”)
Worse yet, Harvard University’s influential Nieman Journalism Lab reports “the end is in sight” for the long-beleaguered local newspaper model. This year will likely see private equity firms consolidate the final few big newspaper chains in the country, including News Journal-owner Gannett. (Several metro newspapers have gone to local control, notably The Salt Lake Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer; more on that in a moment.)
For the last five years of Technical.ly publishing daily in Delaware, I’ve had dozens of conversations with influential Delaware business leaders, policymakers and civic do-gooders. Though there is genuine concern, inaction has prevailed, fueled by confusion about the core problem and doubt about its seriousness. This is an essay from a veteran of local community publishing in a post-advertising world calling for and outlining action. Though this problem is happening everywhere in the United States, Delaware is the least prepared of the markets we at Technical.ly know best.
It’s important to know that the collapse of local news environments is very understood by industry veterans and not particularly unique to Delaware. Yet still seven in 10 Americans report they assume their local news publications are doing fine financially. Let me be clear: They are not. Today, there are likely more coal miners than there are local journalists. As The Atlantic put it, “Local News is Dying and Americans Have No Idea.”
The structural change Delaware’s local media environment is facing is familiar to every state: We know important outcomes result from having geographically tied journalists, but we’re still at the very beginning of new models to support them emerging. Worse yet, because Delaware has been squeezed into other local media markets (New Castle into Philadelphia, Sussex County clumsily into Maryland and distant Baltimore, with Kent County up for debate), the journalism community here is, of course, smaller and I’d argue a bit less outward facing.
So as change comes elsewhere in the country — albeit, painfully and slowly — I’ve found much less is happening here in Delaware. Many communities around the country have active, collaborative news ecosystems. Local journalists who truly confront the daunting media landscape recognize their competition is actually not other news organizations, but an array of countervailing forces, readers who are uninitiated to our sector’s challenges and traditionalists who are holding back true business model adaptation.
In Baltimore, Technical.ly’s assistant editor, Stephen Babcock, helps to lead a group of local journalists from most of the city’s outlets to find collaboration. In Philadelphia, Technical.ly (and our sister site Generocity.org) are early partners with a group called Broke in Philly, thanks to our managing editor Julie Zeglen, which includes essentially every news organization in that city in collaboration to report on poverty. In Washington D.C., one of our earliest clients for our talent acquisition support (more on that in a moment) happens to be a rather influential news organization there. For the last decade, we at Technical.ly have also organized a daylong conference dedicated to the future of news, especially local journalism sustainability, and people from all those cities attend. (We do have at least one longterm attendee from Delaware, Mr. Ken Grant.)
To be clear, none of these other places have solved the big hurdles — nowhere has. But in all of them, they recognize they cannot rely entirely on their metro daily newspaper, and several other first steps have been taken. This can be an opportunity for Delaware.
We know what the first few measures to be taken are. Let’s take them.
1. Stop criticizing the News Journal.
In just about any regional city in the country today, a favorite pastime of civic leaders, professionals and any longtime newspaper reader is to condemn the local newspaper. This is particularly pronounced in Delaware. At times, I’ve gone blue in the face defending Delaware’s paper of record through the years in private meetings because I think so often there is a concerning misunderstanding of the broader environment. The News Journal is still today the most important news organization in Delaware, but its future appears grave.
Web-powered scale ripped apart newspapering. You are more likely to read the New York Times today than you would have been in 1994, and you are less likely to read the News Journal today than you would have been in 1994. The business model at the very core of why the local newspaper was so important here long before the News Journal consolidated into a single publication in 1989, is systemically broken, and it’s bleeding out.
I haven’t the slightest doubt that the News Journal is staffed by exacting and committed professional journalists, with ever-increasing pressures and declining revenues. They’re doing a whole lot with very little support. I’m thankful we have the News Journal for now, and everyone in Delaware should be, too. We need the professionals there.
Despite every macroeconomic obstacle, metro daily newspapers remain the single most important news organization in just about every community around the country. The concern, though, is that nearly all of them are in hospice care. We need to look to the future.
2. Pursue (an unlikely) local takeover of the News Journal.
For an array of reasons, not the least of which is that the News Journal’s parent company is now embroiled in another end-state dance with private equity firms, this is likely now too late. But given Delaware’s famously close-connected civic class (Delaware’s daily newspaper was owned locally before the late 1970s), this is too worthy a pursuit to ignore.
Delaware civic leaders should at least make a bid to take over the News Journal, if only to have pursued this option.
It’s important to understand that local ownership of a newspaper doesn’t solve the core problem of sustainability. Due to a major philanthropic investment, The Philadelphia Inquirer is owned by a nonprofit, and garners national interest in its structure. But its problems remain: It reported a $5 million shortfall in 2019 amid the near certainty of continuously declining print revenue. Still, local ownership can buy time and focus on longterm planning. In contrast, under private equity ownership, there is a very real possibility that the News Journal could be shuttered, or otherwise effectively drained until the last dollar of possible revenue is secured.
Anybody interested in this course of action needs to know the News Journal has a troubling history with influential local ownership.
3. Delaware’s existing local media need to come together.
In my 15 years of local reporting, one truly wonderful, prevailing positive trend has taken place: the rise of cross-newsroom collaboration. Any publisher, editor, journalist or other local media player with half a brain has come to realize the competitive landscape has changed. Any news organization that follows the journalistic ethic, one that allows for true newsroom independence and can result in challenging reporting, is an ally, not a combatant. Sure, healthy competition for stories is a longterm good. But there are too few journalists and too many stories for this to reasonably happen as often as it once did.
Instead, news organizations should recognize we’re playing by the same rules in an era that is not looking kindly on fact-based dialogue. Today our real competition comes from organizations that sell access and trust where local media companies could. We need to have a shared sense of identity and partnership, like I’ve seen in cities across the country.
This could start small: Journalists could form a local Online News Association chapter to build relationships. Perhaps more to the point of sustainability, I’d eagerly join a meeting of other publishers who employ journalists in Delaware. We’re divided because of old habits. We need to be more in sync now than ever. Let’s have a dinner together. The future presently looks darker, not brighter, for our work.
4. Philanthropy and corporate funders need to get involved.
No local community in the country had an existing journalism funder because, for centuries, local publishing was one of the most profitable sectors in any given state. (In fact, more than a few community foundations were founded by former publishing families.) This change has come rapidly so new funding needs to step in. Similarly, no corporate social responsibility nor community impact dollars have ever been budgeted for this work before. It’s just too new, and seismic, a problem.
Fortunately there are best practices developing. If you’re interested, you should subscribe to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism’s Solution Set newsletter, the Local Fix newsletter and Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. There’s a growing collection of research on this urgency, much of which is focused on re-thinking business models, including the Local News Lab.
Here are a few clear, first truths to absorb: Don’t start from scratch but instead bolster existing players; don’t intend to recreate the general-interest newspaper model that we’ve already learned doesn’t work and incentivize good work and collaboration with dollars.
I’ve been in about a dozen states and heard some version of “Let’s create the next Texas Tribune or a local ProPublica” without fully understanding the problem’s origins, landscape and status. So, maybe starting something new is a good goal. But the existing media in Delaware are gasping for air and are the right place to start. There are roots, expertise and groundwork established.
Imagine what could be, not what has to be imported.
I also frequently confront efforts to essentially recreate an all-encompassing publication because that’s what we came to expect with the 20th century newspaper: something for everyone. But another crucial change ushered in by the web makes that model ineffective today: where newspapers did both the creation and distribution of content, the web has split those functions. Like them or not, social media like Facebook, newsletters, web forum and other web platforms are powerful tools for distribution. What they lack is robust and routine information that is professionally verified.
We have a creation problem today, not a distribution one.
To that end, funders can push for collaboration, between news organizations or between a news organization and a nonprofit or civic group, to encourage the kind of information communities truly desire. If you think there are stories in Delaware that need telling but there is too limited capacity to tell them, then you should do something about it.
If you want to see more video of Delaware, support a project with DeTv and the fascinating work of Ivan Thomas. If you want to see more neighborhood coverage, pilot something with Town Square Delaware. If you’re concerned there’s not enough oversight on Delaware’s legal, housing or other established business sectors, sponsor more of it with the Delaware Business Times. If you want more thoughtful, community-first business news, partner with Doug Rainey‘s Delaware Business Now. If you want to see more stories of innovation and economic change, underwrite more here at Technical.ly. Bring all of us, and the News Journal, WDEL, and Delaware Public Media together. If you’re worried about statehouse coverage, imagine funding a reporter that had to be shared by multiple outlets to encourage collaboration.
The state of storytelling and journalism in Delaware is only going to get weaker without your involvement.
5. Look for local journalism from truly different models.
In the other cities we publish Technical.ly, the fact that we aren’t an ad model tends to be a virtue. Rather than display ads, we help introduce our clients to our readers, the technologists and other serious professionals as a talent acquisition strategy and entrepreneurs and executives for lead generation and economic development storytelling. (This is entirely independent from the newsroom work we do, led here by our Delaware-native lead reporter Holly Quinn, but it does support her work and would allow it to expand; we also have the Technical.ly Journalism Fund to which organizations can contribute if they want to see deeper reporting.)
It’s a virtuous cycle. Our newsroom’s job is simply to create trusting and longterm relationships with our readers. We don’t pursue page views for the sake of page views. We want you to subscribe to our free newsletters and look to us as allies in your career. If you want to hire across the Mid-Atlantic, or you want support in employer brand or economic storytelling, we can help you do that, and you’ll simultaneously support free and independent reporting in Delaware. This is working well in other cities we publish in, but it’s something different in Delaware, a smaller market where we never rolled out our fuller model.
Still in five years, we’ve always been active participants in Delaware’s innovation ecosystem conversation, as a means to make our community better, and to fund our work. We need partnership to grow routine beat reporting on Delaware’s economic change for the longterm.
This is very different than local news models of the 20th century. (I wrote broadly about this trend in an essay from the fall on what I call “journalism thinking.”)
Similarly, there is a frenzy nationally for nonprofit public affairs journalism organizations that fund their work primarily with memberships, donations and philanthropy. The zeitgeist has been captured by the new American Journalism Project, and there are already true success stories like Baltimore Brew, VT Digger in Vermont, the Batavian in upstate New York and Berkleyside in California.
That approach, too, is something new. Delaware needs policy coverage like any place, but this state more than most also needs storytelling about its economy, its neighborhoods and culture. This won’t happen from one organization anymore. It will happen if there’s an ecosystem of publishers.
We need to embrace these and other new approaches. Because philanthropy cannot, and I’d argue, should not, entirely sustain this work alone. We need commercial models, but we need help in this alarming time of transition.
This trend of declining local news resources is not a dip that will reverse course. This is going to get more dire with every passing month. For those still reliant on old funding models, more advertisers will leave. We need to invest in what can be here for Wilmington and Delaware to have honest and challenging and fact-based conversations in the future.
If at any point you have complained about Delaware’s or Wilmington’s story not being told, you need to do something about it. If your work benefits from a story being told, this is your responsibility, too.
We have a broad understanding for why we think professional journalists matter: We mirror back what a community looks like, we chart the first draft of history and we are meant to remain ready for the alarm bell of endemic civic strife. We can’t do that without a rethink of how local news organizations in Delaware can thrive.-30-
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