Read All About It: New Business Models and Technology for Local Newspapers

Thursday, September 13, 2012, by Samantha Surles

People have been talking about the decline of local newspapers for a long time, but lately they also seem to be talking about possible solutions to the problem. The importance of local papers to community life is undiminished, but shifts in the advertising industry are making it more and more difficult to keep the presses running. The decline in local news stands to bring out major changes in the way communities exchange information, especially in the realms of small business and local politics.  Digital advertising revenue is slowing down as large online advertisers cut prices, driving press and online news to the edge of the market.

As of April 2012, print losses in advertising were exceeding online advertising gains. Total news advertising, print and digital, fell by 7.8% in 2011, while circulation declines more slowly.  Some members of the journalism community hope that recent developments like the launch of the licensing organization, Newsright, will help to ensure that online news aggregators (like Google) direct revenue back towards original authors. Some members of the journalism community suggest that the problem is content and that newspapers should free their writers and photographers to be more creative.

There have been recent efforts to find solutions outside the advertising industry, as social media, search engines, and online shopping sites continue to absorb larger portions of the ad market.  The New America Foundation has suggested the “teaching hospital model” for local newspapers. The Foundation encourages large universities to partner with local newspapers and radio stations, so that students may provide updated tools, ideas, and services to community news outlets while learning the trade. Mercer University will act as the first trial for this new model, accepting funding from the Knight Foundation to bring in a local newspaper and radio station. The Knight Foundation supports and promotes local news programs (including one in Charlotte, NC) with the goal of keeping communities informed of events, information, and social and political issues. Other innovative projects supported by the Knight Foundation include the mobile information program in Boston, which will teach journalists to use data visualization technology.

People have been talking about the decline of local newspapers for a long time, but lately they also seem to be talking about possible solutions to the problem.

In D.C., the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region has built a tool to track and share information on affordable housing, tenant organizations, and landlord involvement in high risk areas. News cooperatives are also a rising trend, promoting content-sharing and collaborative projects by pooling resources. While Mercer has taken the boldest step, countless other universities have put their best people on the problem, including our own Penny Abernathy at the UNC School of Journalism who recently co-authored a study on how news organization will survive in the digital age. Even Warren Buffet threw in his support for the cause when Berkshire Hathaway bought 63 local daily and weekly newspapers this summer.

The old legal issues are still present: publicity rights, copyrights, privacy, licensing, freedom of information, and countless others. New legal challenges lie in determining where newspapers can find an anchor, if they chose the New America Foundation model, and how this affects their independence. It remains to be seen whether newspapers will remain a force in advertising and, if so, how ads will be built into new platforms and data visualization models. Perhaps the broadest and most pressing question is how this change in information flow will affect local politics and civic responsibility. We can hardly expect a government by the people, for the people, if the people have no idea what’s going on.