by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
The state of local news media in Western New York was in a precarious position before anyone heard of COVID-19. Now that the virus has wreaked its havoc on both public health and the economy, the situation is that much more concerning.
The problems of The Buffalo News have been well documented previously in this column: smaller staff, less news coverage, shrinking circulation, much thinner profit margins, now in the hands of a chain carrying more than a half-billion-dollars of debt.
Yet, The News continues to make money – or was, prior to the pandemic – and puts out a respectable paper. That’s more than a lot of large metro dailies can say.
The picture for other local papers is gloomier. Two alternative weeklies – The Public and Artvoice – have closed in recent years. The secondary dailies are struggling: The Tonawanda News shuttered in 2015 and the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun & Journal limp by with skeleton staffs producing stories for smaller and smaller audiences. Ditto for small dailies in Olean, Dunkirk and Salamanca.
A version of this column was published in the June issue of Buffalo Spree. The magazine’s July issue hits the streets this week and includes Heaney’s column on Western New York’s particular problem with racism.
Television news operations are faring better, adding hours of programming and benefitting from lucrative transmission fees paid by cable and satellite TV providers. But the consensus is that local TV’s time will come, not just as as soon or savagely as it has for newspapers.
Long-term trends show that local television news is losing its audience, an uptick during the pandemic notwithstanding. Nationally, the drop was around 15 percent in 2018 alone, as more viewers, especially younger ones, are cutting the cord. More viewers may follow suit as they decide, in the teeth of the recession – or is it depression? – that their hefty cable bill no longer fits the family budget.
All of the aforementioned media are suffering financial setbacks in the short run due to a loss of advertising revenue. Here’s how Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former editor of The Buffalo News, put it:
“The coming of the coronavirus and its effect on the economy only serves to exacerbate the problems we’ve been seeing for years across the nation in the business model for local journalism.”
The reality is that our local media outlets collectively lack the revenue to employ the staff required to produce the full range of stories necessary to meet the needs of news consumers. It’s not just here in Buffalo, but across the nation. What suffers most are deep-dive investigations at one end of the spectrum and hyperlocal neighborhood news at the other. Sports and entertainment listings, not so much.
Television and what remains of local radio newsrooms – along with daily newspapers – do a good job covering the news of the day. But TV viewer attention spans and newsroom budgets don’t favor long investigative stories, and hyperlocal coverage doesn’t attract a broad enough audience to justify valuable air time.
The News has done some impressive investigative work the past couple of years, but as its staff gets smaller, there’s likely to be fewer reporters available to do this costly, labor-intensive work. More granular coverage of community issues – starting with coverage of town councils and school boards – has largely gone by the wayside.
Those that rightfully lament the decline of local news equate it with the struggles of daily newspapers. That’s true to the extent papers have historically produced most of the reporting in any given community. But the analysis overlooks the major role television has in delivering local news and the large, if shrinking, audience it has.
In Buffalo, WGRZ, WIVB and The News all have audiences of roughly equal size. Moreover, research shows news consumers in the Buffalo market prefer television over print as their primary source of news, 48 percent to 13 percent.
All this is to say that how local TV news operations evolve is going to have a big impact on the quantity and quality of local news. It’s not just about the daily newspaper.
And it’s just not about the established outlets, either. The media ecosystem is growing to fill the gaps left by the declining fortunes of legacy publishers and broadcasters.
More than 200 nonprofit news organizations have been established nationwide over the past decade, with some, including my Investigative Post, focused on producing in-depth investigations and analytical stories. We publish on all the major platforms – online, television, radio and print – and reach a wide audience.
At the other end of the spectrum, more than 100 for-profit digital news businesses have sprouted up around the nation that deliver hyper-local neighborhood news or dive into specific local issues.
“People are hungry for news where they live,” said Steve Beatty, former executive director of the trade group for news entrepreneurs, Local Independent Online News Publishers.
He said these for-profit digital operations are starting to take the place of weekly newspapers, which have started to fall by the wayside.
“It’s a return to the old town newspaper, but instead, it’s the old town website.”
We’ve got a couple of for-profit digital operations in the region, Buffalo Rising and The Batavian. They don’t function as newsrooms in the traditional sense, but they are getting information out to the public that’s not necessarily found elsewhere.
Nonprofits are gaining traction with funders, be they foundations, companies or individuals. But investigative journalism can be a tough sell: some potential funders love what we do, others hate it.
Sullivan, for one, thinks it’s time for foundations to ante up to support local journalism, saying “freeing up more of their endowments has real possibility.”
Ben Smith, media columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote that it’s time to make way for news nonprofits:
“It’s a moment of deep crisis for the local news business, which could have been blown over by a light breeze and is now facing a hurricane. But it’s also a moment of great promise for a new generation of largely nonprofit local publications.
He continued with a provocative proposal that I don’t necessarily agree with: “‘The time is now to make a painful but necessary shift: Abandon most for-profit local newspapers, whose business model no longer works, and move as fast as possible to a national network of nimble new online newsrooms. That way, we can rescue the only thing worth saving about America’s gutted, largely mismanaged local newspaper companies — the journalists.”
It’s uncertain how the future will unfold for local news outlets. But Sullivan said that in Buffalo, as with the rest of the nation, that future will be digital.
“It has to be,” she said. “Digital is where several generations now live, they live on their phones, and we need to recognize there’s no going back.”