A couple of years ago, the demand for hyperlocal information as well as the recognition of marketers that were willing to pay to reach a hyperlocal audience was seen to be a boon for local media. The trend indicated hyperlocal media would generated more eyeballs and receive more marketing dollars.
Unfortunately, while there’s still strong demand for hyperlocal news, local print and broadcast news outlets are facing challenges.
For local papers, one previously unanticipated problem was the dependence on advertising from local retailers. The retailpocalypse, which describes the sector’s meltdown resulting in the shuttering of hundreds of stores (likes Sears, K-Mart) or the bankruptcies of entire chains (Toys R Us, Bon-Tons), has also resulted in a significant drop in local newspaper advertising. So we’ve seen local newspapers shrink in size or close.
It’s gotten to the point that Dr. Michelle Ferrier at Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University has developed an interactive map called The Media Deserts Project to “identify areas that lack access to fresh, local news and information. We map layers of daily newspaper circulation, hyperlocal online news sites and other emerging media to identify underserved and underrepresented communities.” The vast majority of the country, according to the research, has 0-2 daily newspapers — and this incudes large cities. New Jersey (is) poised to invest $5 million into local journalism to shore up local reporting.
So local newspapers have to find new ways to get the money necessary to sustain their local journalism. That may mean experimenting with new business models.
Meanwhile, while local TV news may not have been as vulnerable to the loss of retail advertising. they face a different set of challenges. Unlike local news, one of the fundamental challenges to local TV news is the product itself.
- Local TV news programs compete not only with other local TV news but also with social media. Competition for local broadcast used to be between ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Now it’s from Twitter and Facebook. So news departments are very well aware their competition has expanded significantly. It also means that local TV news is more inclined to broadcast clickbait stories that are quick and easy to tell, rather than more meaningful news that may have more impact on the community.
- They typically have more hours to fill but not more resources. A generation ago, the local news had two broadcasts at 6pm and 10pm or 11pm. These days, local news may air at 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm plus 10pm or 11pm. Unfortunately, news departments haven’t gotten larger to help cover more news. So reporters have to repeat the news on different programs, producing a segment at 5pm and another segment offering a different take on the same story at 6pm. Or they have to find two stories, one to tell at 4pm and another at 6pm — which means they don’t have much time to develop either story.
- Reporters are pushed to post their stories on social media, too. Sometimes the people who are scooping the 6pm News are the reporters themselves who are incentivized to push content out via social media. (Station bosses look at the number of followers for each reporter, the amount of engagement, etc.) So you can see behind-the-scenes aspects of the day’s story on their Twitter or Facebook feeds. (These posts often include links back to the station’s website.) So while they’re putting together a package to be broadcast, reporters also have to keep in mind how to tell the story effectively via social.
- Broadcast reporters must be multimedia-friendly. They produce their package, then Tweet about it, then write up a text article for the website, and then also produce a video that has photos and captions but perhaps no actual footage of the reporter. That last format is ideal for commuters who want to watch video but don’t necessarily want audio to accompany it because it’s noisy on the subway or commuter rail.
- The tail wagging the dog is views, likes and clicks, not policy stories. The slogan for local news used to be “If it bleeds, it leads” the broadcast. While that’s still the case, story selection is often based on what will get the most viewership, not necessarily what news will affect the community. This result: the further clickbait-as-news that is shorter, cuter, fluffier — which many reporters don’t like but must follow. The more significant kind of news takes more time to research, develop and tell — and reporters don’t have much time; they’ve got overwhelming and competing demands placed on them.
There are structural issues facing local print and TV news, and local outlets have to evolve with the times — and this has been going on, in one form or another since the early 1980s, setting up 1987’s “Broadcast News.” But this post is in no way trying to blame reporters, producers or assignment staffs. Their jobs have gotten tougher — no question.
The intent is provide consumers of local TV news with a sense of what’s driving the type of coverage being produced, and to keep that in mind when they watch, read or “like” a segment. It’s also to help businesses think about how they approach local TV news if they want to get coverage.
Let us know if you think we got this wrong or if you have insights into how local media can address the challenges they’re facing.