You’re Still Not Getting It, But You’re Hardly Alone: The Realities of Local News

Over the past 10 years, and especially in recent months, we have tried to do our part to help you understand how the decimation in media jobs affects PR. By reading this, maybe you get it better than most. But given the flow of PR sewage to journalist inboxes we wrote about about just a week ago, too few get it.

Case in point, research from the respected Pew Institute shows “71% of Americans believed local news outlets were doing well financially.” That may be an all-time perception-reality gap, one that we see virtually every week, as we have to still explain to clients why there’s literally no reporter covering what they think is still important.

That stat and much more is revealed in a comprehensive look at local news finances in the Wall Street Journal. Given the same Pew study shows only 14% of news consumers actually pay for news and the Journal requires payment for online reading, chances are you didn’t read it. We pay for that and several other publications, so we can share some highlights for you. This is information from this piece that we suggest you keep in mind while evaluating the realities of how news coverage should be a part of your PR plans:

-A Harvard researcher believes that half of the local newspapers that survived the past 10 years will fold by 2021. That’s only two years away.

-Google and Facebook, with their precision-targeting, receive 77 cents of every local digital ad dollar. Your local news outlets are fighting for survival over the other 23 cents.

-Gannett, the largest owner and operator of local newspapers estimates only 1.4% of its readers pay a subscription. They rest read for free online, supported by whatever ad dollars can be gleaned from Google and Facebook leftovers.

-The Journal, along with the New York Times, the Washington Post and a few others, that have kept large newsrooms funded by digital subscribers, are the outliers.

-The newspaper survival tactic of serving as a “marketing partner” to its advertisers has largely been a flop. The Journal says profit margins have been “slim.” That’s no surprise to those of us who run actual marketing partner businesses.

-Philanthropy and nonprofit models are providing effective maintainers and even enrichers of local news in some markets. However, the dollars pouring into nonprofit media make up for just a small fraction of the revenue lost to commercial local media in recent years.

Contrary to the political bluster, this situation isn’t caused by “fake news” or perceived bias. It has been caused by economic and technological forces, intensified by poor business decision-making by short-term thinking public corporations. This has happened to other industries in history, but none with this sort of role in our society.

Putting aside the implications for the PR business for a moment, here’s an example of how it affects everyone. I’ve seen a grand total of one sign in my neighborhood about a school election this week. I’ve seen exactly one Facebook ad about it. I’ve read nothing about it in local media. The twice-weekly paper that used to serve the town I live in was closed by Gannett years ago. 48 hours before the election, I’m essentially uninformed. That’s probably good news for the school district pushing whatever funding in wants in this hidden special election.

Here’s a handy talking point when explaining to an executive when his or her “news” won’t be covered. Even some school funding elections don’t get coverage anymore.