Back in the heady days of print journalism, when newspapers were near-monopolies and veritable cash cows, reporter Tom Sherwood received a mild reprimand from his boss at The Washington Post.
The problem? He wasn’t spending enough money. More specifically: He wasn’t spending enough of the company’s money by taking sources out to lunch.
“I can fix that,” Sherwood said.
Sherwood told this ’80s-era story at a recent Washington, D.C., forum called "Pressing On: Will Local Journalism in DC Survive?" Just considering that title alone, the ironies are profound. It’s not just that The Post, like other newspapers, would lose circulation, readers, and revenue in the years since Sherwood was advised to be less thrifty. It’s the idea that—of all places—Washington, the capital of the Free World, with all its wealth and educated residents, would have trouble maintaining local news coverage.
If D.C.’s flagship paper has problems finding an audience for local news, what does that mean for publications in Torrance, California; Ames, Iowa; and Charleston, West Virginia?
“The difficulty stems from the business model,” said Scott Brodbeck, founder and CEO of Local News Now LLC and an instructor in the graduate Journalism program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. “It’s not a journalists’ problem—it’s a revenue problem ... Online news upset the business model.”
A Game-Changer Called the Internet
The history of that demise is well known. With the meteoric rise of the internet, readers migrated to online content and to the sites of news aggregators like Google and Yahoo. Classified advertisers left newspapers for sites like Cragslist. And retail, which would come to face its own challenges from online competition, deserted high-priced print publications for more targeted online ads.
These factors hit newspaper circulation and revenue hard. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, weekday circulation fell 17 percent over the preceding decade, and ad revenue dropped by more than 50 percent.
The online revolution also affected radio and television news, which Sherwood moved to after 15 years at The Post, but it was harder on network news shows than local reports. Sherwood recently retired from a long career at NBC News4 and is now a contributing writer for the Washington City Paper.
So, does this signal the end local news reporting, or at least, local news reporting that is actually profitable? Brodbeck doesn’t think so, and the success of his company, which operates two “hyperlocal” news websites in the D.C. region, ARLnow and Reston Now (for Arlington and Reston, in Northern Virginia) supports his view. After just eight years of existence, the two sites boast “cost-effective advertising and marketing solutions” for advertisers and a network that serves more than 600,000 unique visitors a month.
The company is lean, with just four employees, two of them reporters. While that might not be a big number, one indication of the site’s promise for journalists is that its reporters tend to stay only about a year before moving up to bigger jobs elsewhere—just like they did when print journalism was in its prime.
A New Role for Reporters
That’s one model for a career in the new world of journalism. Another is for journalists to strike out on their own, become experts on certain topics, then maybe start a blog and figure out for themselves what will make money.
Those who succeed “will need to have a much-expanded skill set from journalists of yore, including basic website management, self-promotion, business skills, speaking ability, etc. (teaching these skills is an important opportunity for journalism schools),” writes Ben Thompson in his Stratechery blog. “What’s sure to be the most frightening—or exciting, depending on your outlook—is that the market will, for the first time in the history of news, be the ultimate arbiter of what writers are worthwhile.”
At Georgetown, Brodbeck teaches a course called “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” something one would be hard-pressed to find in journalism schools during the boom times, when reporters concerned themselves with the editorial side—and let the ad department work its magic. Now, Brodbeck said, all journalists should take an entrepreneurial view of their careers and understand issues like building an audience and monetizing small business models, whether or not they want to go into business for themselves.
“You need to be fully invested in the job,” Brodbeck said. “It’s not a nine-to-five job” or one where you can punch in the proverbial time clock. “You need to be willing to put in the work and be an active self-starter. You need to strive to be the best.”