Trends in the American local news sector seem enduring. Newspaper advertising will continue to decline. Owners will continue to cut costs, including in the newsroom. Digital startups will continue to proliferate. And for audiences, local information will increasingly be mediated by the smartphone screen, further eroding capture by radio, television, and print.
But even though we see topline patterns, things are likely to play out differently across the country.
Over the next year, we may see some large metro areas lose a daily paper in all but name only. But in others, depending on ownership and other factors, a paper may prove surprisingly resilient. Some communities may settle into a kind of stasis, with a range of operators collaborating to offer a vibrant, cooperative news ecosystem. For others, a public broadcaster or local TV station become the de facto news leader. In still other towns and cities, the digital startup becomes the main source of vetted accountability journalism.
Some larger communities may slip into news and media desert status, a plight that their smaller and often rural counterparts have already grown accustomed to. Others may cultivate a new form of civic intelligence that doesn’t even resemble the 20th century categories we’re so used to thinking about; we might even notice it’s happening.
So many factors shape these individual cases — market size, the number and nature of incumbents, access to capital, civic investment by community leaders, the efficacy of a community’s residents, and talent — always the X factor. The list could go on.
I read a book recently, Rising Tide by John Barry, about the Mississippi River. It’s a cautionary tale about the hubris of early attempts to engineer the river’s path. In his account, Barry describes the surface of the river — you can see its directionality, but just below, currents are moving in every possible direction. Indeed, those currents “buffeted, whipped, bullied, pulled.”
It would be unwise to extrapolate a river’s nature simply from observing its surface. While forecasts, studies, and national estimates are useful in thinking about the future of news, the reality is going to play out locally, and no two communities will be exactly alike.
Jesse Holcomb is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Calvin University.