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October 19: The State of Local News

To understand the challenges the local journalism faces, one must understand the impact of major changes to the public ecosystem and general culture, according to Tim Gleason, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and a long time print journalist. Mr. Gleason, and Noel Nash, the owner of The Chronicle, a hyperlocal newspaper covering Springfield and surrounding small communities, discussed the future of local journalism at the October 19 Springfield City Club program. “While we follow the same professional standards based on fact-based reporting, people make their own inferences about what we write based on their own perception of the world,” he said.

“We live in a world of news of assertion,” Gleason said, as opposed to fact-based news. The line between journalism and social media is constantly blurred. Too often, he added, people immediately jump to conclusions:” if it is consistent with what I believe, it must be true.”

Many of the challenges associated with local journalism can be traced to the fundamental changes in information gathering with the growth of the internet.  Since the founding of the nation, the business model for journalism has been based on a balanced of funding from advertisers and from readers who paid for subscriptions. With the expansion of internet access, businesses have discovered they no longer need to advertise in print media to reach their customers. They can do that with less cost by direct outreach. This disconnect between advertising and content has led to the demise of much of local print media, to be replaced by large national chains which commoditize news. Both presenters pointed to the substantial changes in the Eugene Register Guard as a demonstration of the effects. USA Today, they said, can produce a generic story on a topic which is uniformly distributed to all media in the huge Gannett chain. Interesting, perhaps, but with little or no connection to the community in which the reader lives.

By contrast, Mr. Nash pointed out, a local or hyperlocal news outlet would talk to individuals in the community about the impact of the subject on their lives and produce reporting which focuses attention on the local community. Mr. Gleason pointed to a recent school board election in Eugene. “If the Eugene Weekly hadn’t taken on the story,” he said,” it is possible that no one in Eugene would have even known there was an election.”

The challenge of funding local journalism is exacerbated by the reality that there is so much information or perhaps misinformation, available online. People say, “information wants to be free,” but Mr. Gleason pointed out that journalists need to pay the rent. Mr. Nash added that there is value in access to a newspaper either in print or electronically. “What you get for your subscription is curated information,” he said. “Probably everything in the paper can ultimately be found on the internet, with enough time and diligence in searching. The Chronicle organizes what is most interesting and useful to the local communities it serves.”

The other value, both presenters added, is that the information presented is fact-based journalism. The Chronicle, Mr. Nash said, works hard to remain non-partisan, to write a story that is governed by the traditional ethics of journalism and free from the biases of the reporter. Those ethics haven’t changed. “We report has we always have — two sources off the record or one source on the record.” In some ways, he added, the task might be simpler for local news. “You have to remember that the people you write about are the same ones you will see in the grocery line, or the coffee shop the next morning.”

Both presenters recognized the additional challenge of the local press that results from frequently hiring staff fresh out of school with no experience. While Mr. Nash said the Chronicle would be happy to be known as a place where journalists got their start and then moved on to larger markets, it is still important to train staff to high ethical standards and keep them focused on transparency. “Transparency is a way to deal with a lack of trust,” Mr. Nash said. “Nobody is going to trust by default, so we have to be seen as living up to the ideals we espouse.” Mr. Gleason overserved that this is an important part of getting people to care about their community and to think it is important to care about their community.

In response to a question, Mr. Nash said The Chronicle has far more print subscribers than electronic subscribers. What he has seen is that the most rapid growth in subscribers is from those who live in Eugene. “The Chronicle does not cover Eugene, but apparently many in Eugene are interested in what is happening in surrounding communities.”

Both presenters expressed concern about the future of funding for local journalism. Mr. Gleason suggested that it might be appropriate to consider additional tax subsidies for newspapers, much like the long standing reduced postal rate for the press. Mr. Nash said that The Chronicle has moved to add opportunities for philanthropic support of the paper. While large local companies serving a national market may not need to reach local residents by advertising, their interest in having a strong local community where they operate could be a motivation for them to donate to help the paper.

An audience question asked how information can be provided to a whole community divided between have and have nots, who cannot afford the price of a subscription. Mr.  Gleason said that question raised a more fundamental issue – how do we build a healthy civic culture. That is not simply a newspaper problem, he said, suggesting that it raised the important question of whether access to information required that the internet be treated like a public utility, to which all residents should be assured access.

You may listen to the complete program on You Tube by clicking this link: The State of Local News.

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