The Creator Economy for Local Journalists

An interview with journalist and academic, Jenna Spinelle, about the future of local journalists and the creator economy.

The Creator Economy for Local Journalists

At Qurio, we are very much trying to understand how the dynamics of the media industry are changing because this change is accelerated rapidly due to the rapid shift in business models and technology. In our view, two of the biggest forces in the news industry, journalism creators and local news, are transforming, and it’s very interesting to see what comes.

This is why we talked to Jenna Spinelle, a distinguished journalist and academic, where we delve into local journalism’s future and the creator economy’s role.

As news outlets continue to decline, Spinelle argues that the creator economy presents a significant opportunity for local journalists to provide trusted information to their communities. 

With younger audiences increasingly placing their trust in individuals rather than institutions, Spinelle believes that local journalists can leverage the principles of the creator economy to rebuild trust, strengthen relationships with their audience, and create unique content that resonates with their community. 

With this interview, we try to explore the potential of the creator economy in revitalizing local news coverage and hear valuable insights from Spinelle’s expertise in independent content creation and community-minded journalism.

Before you read our Q&A, we need to let you know that Spinelle will dive deeper into the issue during her “The Creator Economy for Local Journalists” course, so take a look!

Here’s our interview.

• What is the significance of the creator economy for local journalists, particularly in the context of declining traditional news outlets?

The disappearance of local news outlets has created a vacuum for trusted information about local issues. At the same time, media consumption habits have shifted from following institutions to following individuals thanks to the rise of creators and influencers on social media. Taken together, I believe these factors present an opportunity for people covering local news to take lessons from content creators to change the way they approach reporting and the relationship between news outlets and their audiences to rebuild trust and meet readers where they are. 

• In what ways can the creator economy contribute to the sustainability and growth of local news outlets? Can the creator economy play a role in revitalizing local news coverage?

Adopting tools from the creator landscape helps audiences build deeper, more personal connections with journalists covering their communities. Many of us can point to national writers we follow on Substack, podcasts, YouTube, or other platforms and how much of a connection we feel to them. My hope is that the same thing can happen at the local level. Readers will see reporters as their neighbors and someone they feel they know and can trust.

• How can local journalists leverage their online presence and create unique content that resonates with their audience?

One aspect of this is about taking down the barriers that journalists put between themselves and their audiences. This might include sharing information about what’s going on in their lives, their opinions or analysis on community issues, or inviting feedback from readers about what they should be covering. Being vulnerable and taking down the fourth wall — even just a little — can help readers get to know the person who is giving them information and keep them coming back for more. The boundaries here will look different for everyone, but I think that everyone can find someplace to give a little bit. 

• How can they understand their audience better to keep them happy and returning for more?

Ask! This is one thing that journalists are already very good at doing but don’t often have time to do because they’re busy rushing from one story and deadline to the next. A key lesson learned here might be that what’s important to elected officials or other power players in a community might not be the same thing that readers are interested in. 

• How can local journalists build and maintain relationships with their audience to foster trust and engagement?

Again, I think a little vulnerability can go a long way here. If a reporter demonstrates that they are willing to build genuine relationships with their readers, then readers will reciprocate. We see this happen all the time with national writers, podcasters, and creators who build entire communities of their readers on Discord, Slack, and other platforms. How cool would it be if the same thing could happen at the local level? Journalists can be the catalysts that bring together neighbors to get to know one another and build a stronger social fabric in their city or town.

• Is there an effective way for journalism creators to adapt their content formats, delivery methods, and storytelling techniques to meet their audience’s ever-changing demands and interests?

National examples show us that the most successful formats are not the traditional news story that still dominates local news coverage. Rather, newsletters, podcasts, videos, and social media provide the opportunity for more free-form and personality-driven content, as well as a way for readers to connect with authors and each other. The storytelling itself will also need to have a more informal tone that puts the journalist into the story when appropriate. 

One example of this might be a reporter covering local school boards who is also a parent of children in those schools. The traditional rules of journalism would say that the reporter should abandon their personal views in the name of “objectivity,” while a creator-focused approach would involve the reporter taking down that barrier and writing to readers about what happened at the meeting and how they feel about it as a parent and hopefully opening the door for a broader conversation with readers. 

• How important is it to collaborate with other creators or journalists in the context of the creator economy for local news?

Collaboration is essential for independent creators to build and expand their audiences. For influencers and national writers, this means partnering with other large-scale creators in their niche. For people working at the local level, it could mean collaborating with nonprofits, businesses, and local influencers to get the word out about what you’re doing and what value you can bring to your community.

• How can local news organizations collaborate with content creators and influencers to reach wider audiences and increase their impact?

I hope newsrooms will encourage their staff to branch out and explore ways to connect directly to an audience that’s interested in a specific aspect or issue in a community and look for ways to partner with people who are already doing that through their own blogs, newsletters, podcasts, etc. There’s no reason that a newsroom should see an independent creator as a competitor; rather, they should seek ways to build on each other’s audiences.

• What potential monetization strategies can local journalists explore within and outside their newsrooms?

Local journalists can take advantage of the same monetization tools available to national journalists — subscription platforms like Substack and Patreon and creating paid membership communities on Slack or Discord. They can also explore sponsorship opportunities with local advertisers who might want to reach their specific audience apart from or in addition to what their news outlet offers. Advertising in a reporter-focused newsletter could be an add-on to an advertising package on the news outlet’s website or other products.

• Most of the time, creating content on a single platform won’t cut it. How does one manage diverse platforms and formats consistently without sacrificing quality?

I’m a big fan of the evergreen and timely platform theory that I learned about from Katie Stickley at Creatorly Media. The basic idea is that creators should choose one evergreen platform (blog, newsletter, podcast, YouTube) and one timely platform (Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to focus on. The decision about which platforms to choose should be based on what the creator is most comfortable using and what the intended audience is most likely to use. 

• Content creators face constant pressure to deliver, which can take a toll on their mental health. What’s a good mindset to deal with this and avoid burnout?

The best way to approach burnout is to be honest with your audience about what’s going on. If you’ve already built trust with them, they’ll understand if you need to take a break or cut back on the amount of content you’re producing. I had the opportunity to explore this issue through an episode of the News Guest podcast I produced that focused specifically on burnout. I also hope that addressing burnout as part of the planning process will help reporters recognize when it’s happening as they launch and grow those projects. That’s why I’m devoting an entire module to it in my course!

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