The Rebirth of Local News

October 19th, 2018

Dramatic shifts in journalism’s traditional business model have challenged news organizations today.

Employment at newspapers alone in the U.S. has fallen by nearly half since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. To boot, the line between real and fake news continues to blur, and media condemnation continues to grow. Trust in the news is at historically low levels. At first glance, journalism’s future may look bleak.

But the news about journalism is not all bad. Every day, news organizations in New Mexico and elsewhere experiment with innovative projects to reach traditionally distant audiences, to tell more and deeper stories, and to rebuild the news into a productive force that makes audiences want to tune in – and not tune out.

To surface ideas about how to build trust in local news, and to explore roles artists might play in that process, Creative Santa Fe, along with the investigative news organization Searchlight New Mexico and the media nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, convened an evening dialogue called Rebirth of Local News, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Thurs., Sep. 13, 2018. The event brought together journalists and artists from dozens of local organizations, including a poetry performance by Albuquerque Poet Laureate Hakim Bellamy, a roundtable discussion also moderated by Bellamy featuring five New Mexico media organizations, and a series of small group conversations answering questions related to trust in local news.

Each speaker explained a specific innovation that addresses some aspect of journalism’s crisis. Nonprofit news organizations have sprung up to cover critical issues, including Santa Fe-based Searchlight New Mexico, whose reporter Ed Williams spoke about using text messages to build sources in communities he otherwise couldn’t reach one-by-one. Organizations like Report For America are helping fill staff gaps at shrinking local news organizations, including at KRWG public television and radio in Las Cruces. Report for America reporter Mallory Falk spoke about approaching her news coverage in a complex community. Similarly, ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network is supporting a reporter at the Santa Fe New Mexican; Rebecca Moss talked about crucial investigative stories at Los Alamos National Labs that would otherwise go untold. Newsrooms are collaborating more than ever before, according to National Native News anchor and Navajo Nation member Antonia Gonzales, who spoke about cross-media collaborations with print outlets and television stations to increase her reach and improve Indigenous representation in the news. And organizations are finding new ways to train young people – especially young people of color – to become journalists, Roberta Rael of Generation Justice explained.

After reviewing feedback from the evening’s subsequent small group discussions led by local journalists and artists, reviewing in-depth post-event surveys, and cataloguing a dozen more answers received by a text message phone line set up for the event, here’s what we learned:

SENSATIONALISM MAY ATTRACT VIEWERS, BUT IT CAUSES DISTRUST. “Distrust is created by sensationalized news that draws on the negative aspect of human experience,” one attendee wrote. Most people already don’t trust the news. People trust journalists less when they think they only look for the bad. The Reuters Institute recently found that the negativity of the news is by far the most important reason people stop engaging with it.

DIVERSITY, TRANSPARENCY, AND LOCAL OWNERSHIP WOULD INCREASE TRUST IN NEWS, participants said. Attendees said they wanted diversity both in the journalists who report stories, in the sources they quote, and several called for news available in more than one language. They asked for transparency. That is, “telling more about HOW you did that story.” Several expressed skepticism of corporate influence over news stories, asked for disclaimers between fact and opinion, and said a news organization should be truthful when a corporate influence mandates a story is important. (Think, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s recent mandate to dozens of local news anchors to recite the same script.)

In an ideal future, NEWS ORGANIZATIONS WOULD ACT AS CONVENERS OF DIFFERENT SECTORS AND CULTURES, participants said. “Journalism should provide resources that empower people,” one wrote. Attendees asked for news that teaches and encourages people to ask, “Why?”, and for news that inspires action.

ARTISTS CAN TELL POWERFUL STORIES, too, and often in fewer words than a journalist. Artists and journalists share a common goal to humanize issues, to create awareness and understanding. And in that way, the two fields have much to learn from one another. One idea that surfaced: News outlets could have artists in residence, to help interpret news stories in a visually arresting way, and produce art that conveys a factual truth, with a human connection.

Much of the conversation about sustaining journalism today focuses on technology and platforms (“Do we use Facebook or Twitter to reach audiences?”), and not on news itself (“Does my coverage or lack of coverage alienate some part of my audience?”). Too, many of these conversations happen in silos – with journalists, and among industry experts – without much outside expertise or input from audiences. Rebirth of Local News sought to disrupt those dominant paradigms of confronting journalism’s crisis, by bringing artists and other audience members into the conversation early and often, and reflecting not just on journalistic platforms, but on the process itself.

Click to watch the recap of The Rebirth of Local News event: