Local newsrooms are pillars of a local community, they should act more like that

This post was originally published on Medium.

When I started writing this article I felt that each word brought the next one like a chain unraveling inside my Google Docs (please excuse me, otherwise fascinating Medium editor!). To be honest, I shouldn’t be that surprised, since I’ve been thinking a lot about what you are about to read for quite some time before I finally sat down and put them into (digital) paper.

Local newsrooms are pillars of a local community, they should act more like that

You see, over the last decade or so, I have been involved with a local business directory venture, a non-profit radio station run by volunteers, a political party, activists, a community council election campaign, and numerous cultural and civic society organizations — all in my beloved hometown of 34,000 people in Western Greece.

After all these involvements I have developed a particular interest and understanding of the inner workings of a local community, in all its different shapes and forms. Here, I would like to show you why I believe that; media are an integral part of the operating system of a local community and not just an outside observer.

I’m grateful that I have discussed these big ideas and main points with Tassos Morfis, my co-founder at Qurio. We have just begun on our journey to build an audience engagement platform for audience-driven digital media organizations and this is one of our first takes on why local newsrooms are important for us.

Local media as an archive

History began the day humans invented writing. Without a publicly available, easy-to-use, and permanent point of record, there is no way to find out what life was like before we were born, what was important, and who was around to decide.

At the moment (pun intended), we have begun to notice an alarming phenomenon in so-called news deserts — gaps in the local history continuum. You probably know the quote: if a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it, was that tree in the forest after all? If there is nobody to record and comment on what is happening, did that really happen?

Mind you, journalism is not only about keeping those in power in check or only about investigating a mega issue that affects the lives of millions. There are plenty of fragments of collective history that matter, whether that is a statement from a local activist, a presentation of an art exhibition that came to town, photos from the opening of a new pastry shop, crime and health reports, remarks on education or poverty, etc.

Local media are exactly these points of record: a snapshot of the events that took place and a contemporary note of why that was important. Journalism (literally, keeping a journal) has the power to provide the building blocks of collective knowledge that will allow future generations to learn more about us and shape their opinion about what is life as we know it.

To further add to the point, not all media have the ability to be objective — they are not historians and they shouldn’t be considered as such. In my opinion, objectivity is a loose idea, a utopia that we are not supposed to reach as a species and I’m arguing that we don’t have to since that would sanitize journalism from the human factor. No, my idea of news coverage is about fairness, not objectivity, acknowledging the shortcomings of your arguments, and giving enough space for ideas that you are not one hundred percent comfortable with.

Which brings me to my next point:

Local media as a sanctuary of free speech and conversation

Long gone are the days of the “agora”, the public square where everyone was invited to get on a stand and speak up his mind about his fellow civilians or argue about the mishaps of the government. Over the last century or so, this (literally) common ground of ideas and debate has been transferred to media, whether that’s the Sunday’s paper or a post on social media.

However, what social media got wrong -or incredibly right, if you read The Facebook Papers- is that public debate and the overall health of our democracy do not need war for fanatic engagement. On the contrary -it has become more obvious to me than ever before- that what we are looking for is a middle ground, a grey area that can accommodate different viewpoints in respect, and provide a fundamentally safe space for adversaries to coexist.

This could be a vision of how local media can contribute to the well-being of a political system that is powered by its people and serves its people. Modern democracy as we know it.

To begin with: start from the truth. We are in dire need of validated information, first-person statements, and first-person narratives that are (in millennial terms), as “no-filter” as possible. It might sound trivial but unfortunately, this is not the case for a big part of the news coverage out there.

​I’d love to see how local news can design meeting points and provoke agreements. To ask leaders of different political fronts to participate in public debates, either in physical or digital form without disqualifying opinion pieces that do not adhere to different viewpoints but point out differences or any indications of misunderstandings or straight-out lies.

And finally: despite the partisanship that local news has embraced, it’s always going to be about the narrative after the fact. As local media, you can be designated Democrats or members of the GOP who also give credit where credit is due. Published stories you publish can still be bearable to read from all sides. We should be responsible participants in the local public sphere without having to hide our identity and our beliefs.

Local media as a key commercial partner

I don’t know if I’m late to the party but I get the sense that missing revenues is kind of a big issue for local media organizations these days. In fact, during our research work for Qurio, we have struggled to get a clear view of the financial well-being of local newsrooms. Unfortunately, what DID come up stubbornly often were reports of newsrooms shutting down, venture funds liquidating assets, experienced journalists losing their jobs, and whole cities losing their media partners. Could this be avoided?

The elephant in the room is that “big tech” digital platforms have taken a huge part in the digital advertising market. A lot has already been written about this but, in my opinion, things didn’t have to be that way. The most radical voices whisper that these two shifts (the rise of digital advertising platforms and the fall of media revenues) happened in parallel but are not fully correlated.

In my opinion, local media should focus on their strength and their unique advantage: their relationship with their audience, one that is based on trust and responsibility.

Our suggestion for local media: You have the privilege of a privacy-friendly approach to commercial relationships and advertising. Most commercial partners would have to pay tributes to nameless gods to acquire an email list like yours, with carefully collected opt-ins, one carefully moderated and cleaned up. Using privacy-friendly digital marketing solutions, monitoring your internal marketing operations, and adding protective measures to minimize the impact of a security breach — all these help you become a better digital citizen and finally offer a more compelling business proposition.

This brings us to our first point: local media can be a strategic media partner for local businesses and organizations. Having established a history of attention and having built audiences of thousands of people make you a considerable option for well-targeted and effective advertising. One could argue that following waves of users ditching social media platforms altogether, local media and niche media are the only valid options to reach particular segments of your target audience.

Then, of course, local media are by nature close to content production, whether that’s text stories, photos, video, or audio. Have you ever heard of native advertising? In this case, local businesses hire media organizations to produce content that is somehow related to them, either directly or not. If this kind of collaboration happens transparently, then it most probably won’t hurt your credibility. I cannot help but mention the amazing case of how The Continent asked its readers if it should accept an advertising deal. (Go on, click this link, and go read it. I’ll be right here waiting for you to come back.)

And finally, there is the utility side of it. Local media can create value for local businesses by becoming a provider of help and solutions for their community. I’m super excited to see local websites offering job boards, classified ads, local business directories, guides for tourists, and anything else that can be valuable in the specific context of each market. Allow me to misquote from memory, but as one said, we all thought that Facebook was the problem, but it seems now that the real menace for local media was actually Craigslist.

I’m not taking all that space here to discuss all the possible revenue streams that newsrooms can use. I’m only focusing on opportunities for commercial partnerships with local businesses.

Trust as the ultimate asset

Trust isn’t just a feeling but it has solid, material effects. For example, you can’t advertise a local business that has abusive and unjust behavior toward its workers. You can’t bear the weight of promoting a scam, a store selling rotten apples. Your reputation is at stake and your audience knows that. As a result, they unconsciously trust that your advertising partners are legit and mean no harm.

Trust is the oxygen of any media operation. Moreover, it is a huge enabler for business models that are based on a direct relationship with your audience, such as donations, subscriptions, memberships, etc. But let’s keep that in mind for a future blog post.

Wanna get Qurio? Come on in!

Almost two years since we first began on this journey, dozens of interviews with audience engagement editors, community managers, and executives from local newsrooms and nonprofit media, we are ready for some big announcements: Qurio is ready for you!