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Outrages & Insights

Local news options continue to decline



 

The state of local news media in Western New York was in a precarious position before anyone heard of COVID-19. Now that the virus has wreaked havoc on both public health and the economy, the situation is that much more concerning.

 

The problems at the Buffalo News have been well documented in this column: smaller staff, less news coverage, shrinking circulation, and thinner profit margins. And now the paper is in the hands of a chain carrying more than a half billion dollars of debt. Yet, the News continues to make money—or did, prior to the pandemic—and puts out a respectable paper. That’s more than a lot of large metro dailies can say.

 

The picture for other local papers is gloomier. Two alternative weeklies—The Public and Artvoice—have closed in recent years. The secondary dailies are struggling: the Tonawanda News shuttered in 2015 and the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun & Journal limp by with skeleton staffs producing stories for smaller and smaller audiences. Ditto for small dailies in Olean, Dunkirk, and Salamanca. 

 

Television news operations are faring better, adding hours of programming and benefiting from lucrative transmission fees paid by cable and satellite TV providers. But the consensus is that local TV’s time will come, just not as soon or savagely as it has for newspapers. Long-term trends show that local television news is losing its audience, an uptick during the pandemic notwithstanding. Nationally, the drop was around fifteen percent in 2018 alone, as more viewers, especially younger ones, cut the cord. More viewers may follow suit as they decide, in the teeth of the recession—or is it depression?—that hefty cable bills no longer fit family budgets.

 

All of the aforementioned media are suffering financial setbacks in the short run due to loss of advertising revenue. 

 

“The coronavirus and its effect on the economy only serves to exacerbate the problems we’ve been seeing for years across the nation in the business model for local journalism,” says Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former editor of the Buffalo News.

 

The reality is that our local media outlets collectively lack the revenue to employ the staff required to produce the full range of stories necessary to meet the needs of news consumers. It’s not just here in Buffalo, but across the nation. What suffers most are deep-dive investigations at one end of the spectrum and hyperlocal neighborhood news at the other. Sports and entertainment listings, not so much.

 

Television and what remains of local radio newsrooms—along with daily newspapers—do a good job covering the news of the day. But TV viewer attention spans and newsroom budgets don’t favor long investigative stories, and hyperlocal coverage doesn’t attract a broad enough audience to justify valuable airtime.

 

The News has done some impressive investigative work the past couple of years, but, as its staff gets smaller, it’s likely that there will be fewer reporters available to do this costly, labor-intensive work. More granular coverage of community issues—including coverage of town councils and school boards—has largely gone by the wayside.

 

Those that rightfully lament the decline of local news equate it with the struggles of daily newspapers. That’s true to the extent papers have historically produced most of the reporting in any given community. But the analysis overlooks the major role television has in delivering local news and the large, if shrinking, audience it has. In Buffalo, WGRZ, WIVB and the News all have audiences of roughly equal size. Moreover, research shows news consumers in the Buffalo market prefer television over print as their primary source of news, forty-eight percent to thirteen percent.

 

All this is to say that how local TV news operations evolve is going to have a big impact on the quantity and quality of local news. It’s not just about the daily newspaper.  And it’s just not about the established outlets, either. The media ecosystem is growing to fill the gaps left by the declining fortunes of legacy publishers and broadcasters.

 

More than 200 nonprofit news organizations have been established nationwide over the past decade, with some, including my Investigative Post, focused on producing in-depth investigations and analytical stories. We publish on all the major platforms—online, television, radio, and here in Spree—and reach a wide audience.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, more than 150 for-profit digital news businesses have sprouted up around the nation that deliver hyperlocal neighborhood news or dive into specific local issues. “People are hungry for news where they live,” says Steve Beatty, former executive director of the trade group for news entrepreneurs, Local Independent Online News Publishers.

 

He notes that these for-profit digital operations are starting to take the place of weekly newspapers, which have started to fall by the wayside, adding, “It’s a return to the old town newspaper but, instead, it’s the old town website.”

 

We’ve got a couple for-profit digital operations in the region, Buffalo Rising and the Batavian. They don’t function as newsrooms in the traditional sense, but they are getting information out to the public that’s not necessarily found elsewhere.

 

Nonprofits are gaining traction with funders, be they foundations, companies, or individuals. But investigative journalism can be a tough sell: some potential funders love what we do, others hate it. Sullivan, for one, thinks it’s time for foundations to ante up to support local journalism, saying “freeing up more of their endowments has real possibility.”

 

Ben Smith, media columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote that it’s time to make way for news nonprofits. “It’s a moment of deep crisis for the local news business, which could have been blown over by a light breeze and is now facing a hurricane. But it’s also a moment of great promise for a new generation of largely nonprofit local publications. The time is now to make a painful but necessary shift: Abandon most for-profit local newspapers, whose business model no longer works, and move as fast as possible to a national network of nimble new online newsrooms. That way, we can rescue the only thing worth saving about America’s gutted, largely mismanaged local newspaper companies: the journalists.”

 

It’s uncertain how the future will unfold for local news outlets. But Sullivan is certain that in Buffalo, as with the rest of the nation, the future will be digital. “It has to be,” she says. “Digital is where several generations now live. They live on their phones, and we need to recognize there’s no going back.”

 

Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.

 

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